20th Century Films

The Active vs. Passive Protagonist: The Graduate (1967)

Active protagonists take action to solve their problems, while passive protagonists dither and delay.

Active protagonists take action to solve their problems, while passive protagonists dither and delay. In the Mike Nichols film The Graduate (1967), Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has two main problems: He is socially isolated and has no plan for his future. Although Ben becomes an active protagonist in solving one problem, he remains passive in not solving the other.

The title of the film refers to Ben, a college graduate who has no idea what to do with his degree. In 1960s America, Ben is representative of many young adults, disillusioned with society’s expectations of them, yet not knowing what the alternative is.

The opening scene is symbolic of Ben’s life. Standing on a moving walkway and staring blankly, he is not moving of his own power or volition. His life is at a standstill.

Ben is an idle man. Idleness doesn’t simply mean unemployed. (A student or stay-at-home parent are not idle.) It means “not occupied or employed.” An idle person isn’t doing anything productive with their life.

Ben is depressed about his future, wanting it to be “different.” When he arrives home from the airport, he retreats to his bedroom and doesn’t want to talk to anyone. Ben is depressed because he doesn’t know what to do.

As a college graduate, Ben is expected by society to get a job. Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) suggests a career in “plastics”, yet Ben shows little interest. Although plastics is symbolic of a meaningless career, the world cannot function unless people do the jobs that are considered ordinary and mundane. Ben doesn’t want an ordinary job, but he doesn’t know what his dream job is.

Ben’s lack of vision for his life is symbolized in the birthday party scene. After receiving a scuba diving suit from his parents, he puts it on, and his field of vision is narrow, causing him emotional distress. This is analogous to the distress he feels about his future. He sinks to the bottom of the pool, lost and confused, buried underwater like a dead man.

Ben is idle for two main reasons: he has no plan, and his parents are enabling him. Mr. Braddock (William Daniels) is frustrated by his son’s idleness — lecturing him about “getting off his ass” — yet he gives him no ultimatum. It seems unlikely that Ben has ever had a job. His parents paid for his education, gave him a car as a graduation present, and supply him with spending money, so he can go out and have fun. Ben wouldn’t be idle if his parents weren’t providing for all his needs.

Ben’s idleness is also connected to his social isolation. Socially awkward, he has no girlfriend or friends to talk to about his future which would help him find solutions. If he had peer influences — friends who were working or applying for jobs — he might follow their example and get a job.

It is human nature to want to do something each day, even if you don’t want to work. Ben has nothing to do, and this opens the door to sexual temptation: an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) who also has nothing to do.

You don’t have to be idle to have an affair; nevertheless, it is a long-held maxim: the devil makes work for idle hands. Ben, a man with too much time on his hands, is seduced by Mrs. Robinson who says, “you can call me up any time you want.”

There is an implicit connection between idleness and temptation in the film. Both the temptress and the tempted are idle. What’s more, they are both socially isolated, which can also lead to temptation. Mrs. Robinson has no friends and is married to a man she does not love. With nothing to do and no one to love, she tempts Ben to be her boy toy.

Ben becomes an active protagonist when he phones Mrs. Robinson to have sex. The affair is an attempt to overcome his social isolation; however, it is not a solution. The loveless relationship is only about sex, leaving him emotionally empty inside.

The affair does solve Ben’s “problem” of being a virgin though. More importantly, the affair helps him overcome his social awkwardness. When he meets Mrs. Robinson at the hotel, he is nervous and afraid. But as the affair continues through the summer, he gains confidence through his sexual experience.  

Changed by the affair, Ben goes on a date with Elaine (Katherine Ross). The first thing she asks him is what is he going to do — the third person to confront him about his future. Although Ben doesn’t know the answer, he knows what he wants with Elaine: he kisses her, asks her out again, and ends his affair with Mrs. Robinson. However, later, when Elaine learns he had an affair with her mother, she breaks up with him. Ben has now reaped what he has sown with his idle life, losing the woman who gave his life meaning and purpose.

Getting dumped by Elaine is a major turning point for Ben. As an active protagonist, he follows her to UC Berkeley, and asks her to marry him, but he is again confronted with his unsolved problem: Elaine tells him not to leave Berkeley until he has a plan.

Elaine won’t marry Ben as long as he remains idle. Although she loves him, she won’t say yes to marrying him, telling him, “I just don’t think it would work.” The marriage won’t work because Ben can’t provide for Elaine.

To marry Ben, Elaine will need financial support. As a student at Berkeley, she is dependent on her parents. If she married Ben, they would no longer support her financially.   

Elaine knows her parents will never approve of her marrying Ben, and there will be consequences if she did. Mrs. Robinson, who falsely accused Ben of rape, might report him to the police. When Ben asks Elaine to marry him, Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton), does not know about the affair. The secret is a time bomb waiting to explode. Later, when Mrs. Robinson tells her husband the truth, he is outraged.

To stop Elaine from seeing Ben, Mr. Robinson forces her to marry Carl (Brian Avery). Because Ben can’t provide for Elaine, she submits to her father and agrees to marry a man she does not love. However, if Ben had a job, Mr. Robinson would have no power over his daughter. Ben could replace Mr. Robinson as her financial provider.

In the climax of the film, Ben stops Elaine from marrying Carl. He disrupts the wedding ceremony, fighting for Elaine’s freedom, using a cross — a symbol of love — as a weapon. Like a knight in shining armor, Ben rescues Elaine, preventing her from making the same mistake her mother made. As an active protagonist, he wins the heart of the woman he loves.

In the final scene, Elaine and Ben get on a bus, and are laughing and filled with joy. However, they both look unsettled as the reality of their situation starts to sink in. Elaine must be wondering, “What kind of future will I have with Ben?” Similarly, Ben must be thinking, “What will I do now?” The look on their faces sends a message to the audience: We do not know if they will get married.

Ben faces an uncertain future with Elaine because he took no action to solve the problem of what to do with this life. He ends the film as a passive protagonist.

The final image, which parallels the opening scene, is symbolic of the existential crisis many young adults face. Ben is sitting at the back of a bus, staring blankly, on the road to nowhere. If he wants to marry Elaine, he will have to do what he doesn’t want to do: get a job.

4 comments

  1. Ben and Elaine have known each other all their lives. She is the proverbial “girl next door.”

    Yes, she loves him because the plot demands it, but it is plausible that she would have always liked him, given they have a history.

    Ben is very active in pursuing Elaine, but passive in not “getting his shit together” and figuring out a plan for his life. That’s one reason why she decides to marry Carl instead of him.

    Like

  2. Ben was passive. Also, we are given absolutely no reason for Elaine to even like Ben, much less love him or want to marry him. At best, she must see him as a way to escape. But where are they going?

    When this film came out it was considered a touchstone for our generation. But I have to wonder now if the writers weren’t criticizing or even insulting us. I liked the film because I was in the 11th grade and still a virgin and the idea of having sex with either Elaine or Mrs. Robinson was very appealing. So was having a little red sports car.

    By the way, I was more active than Ben at that time. I worked 33 hours a week after school in a grocery store and was dating a girl. I wanted all kinds of things, thought about all kinds of careers, but I was clueless about how to go about getting everything. I just went to school, and went to work. I was jealous that Ben had so much for doing so little.

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