Retro-reading for pleasure: The Graduate

Screen Shot 2020-01-27 at 12.54.13 PMThe Graduate by Charles Webb

What’s it like to retro-read a popular book fifty years after it appears? Spoiler: the book isn’t always what you think or hoped it will be.

The Graduate is a short novel about a deeply unpleasant, unhappy, and entitled man, Benjamin Braddock, whose idea of rebellion and a “zany revolt” is to refuse to speak to anyone most of the time and insult everyone he meets the rest of the time, declare his independence from working for The Man by sponging off his parents, and treat everyone who tries to help him with contempt.

He’s meant to be a sympathetic character, of course–a disillusioned young man resisting the corrupt affluence of his parents’ society–but Benjamin comes across now as a specimen of entitled white masculinity like Brent Norwalk in The Good Place–who Eleanor says “was born on third and thought he invented baseball.” He goes through life literally throwing money at everyone, taxi drivers included, to get his own way. It’s his father’s money, but in his deep narcissistic self-absorption, he doesn’t see that.

Each encounter has Benjamin obnoxiously pushing too far, either in his sullenness or in his questioning, until the person he’s interrogating gets fed up and leaves; at that point, he begins a dogged pursuit and always ends up charming the person back into a relationship through sheer persistence. The deeper idea may have been to press them to confess something authentic, something real, beneath their shallow facades, but it’s still  not clear why an actual human being would find such behavior charming. Yet in The Graduate, this technique is surefire. The novel may well be “brilliant. . . sardonic . . . ludicrously funny,” as the New York Times claimed, but it has definitely not aged well.

The natural comparison here is to the 1967 film, although much of the dialogue from the film was taken from the book and reduced by about 2/3.  Any scrap of humor–“Plastics,” for example, or the Norman Fell scenes in the Berkeley rooming house –was the work of Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, the screenwriters.

The plot unfolds in the same way that it does in the film, with Benjamin’s affair with Mrs. Robinson and the pursuit of Elaine taking center stage. In the film, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft raise the situation into both humor and pathos through the power of their acting. The weariness that Bancroft shows when she tells Benjamin that her major was art really is the deeper point of the movie, which hints at dreams lost and disillusionment with a life of meaningless affluence. In centering solely on Benjamin’s stubborn protest against said meaningless affluence, however, the book misses the pathos of Mrs. Robinson entirely.   Benjamin’s obtuse misunderstanding of what she’s going through and the pain he’s causing her comes through in the film, but in the book it’s merely part of his habit of interrogating past the point of comfort anyone who talks to him.

The pursuit of Elaine is the biggest mystery in both novel and movie. Benjamin spends the second half of one date, the first half of which he abuses her shamefully at the strip club by humiliating her, persuading her that he’s worthwhile, and Elaine agrees. It’s not clear why. After not seeing her again for weeks, he decides on the basis of this two-hour acquaintance to marry her, sells his car, and moves to Berkeley to stalk her. (All of the suspense of the last chapters of the book–the race against time back to the church, car running out of gas, finding out from the frat boys where Elaine is getting married, etc. is invented for the movie.) At one point the novel’s Benjamin grandstands by insisting that a woman student tap a water glass for silence in front of 200 other women in the dining hall to get their attention so that he can announce his desire to speak to anyone who knows Elaine. There is one large difference between Elaine of the movie and Elaine of the book, though: to the book’s credit, Elaine has actual lines and thoughts and sensible ideas. She persists in asking Benjamin what he’s going to do, tells him that he’s too young to get married and ought to travel, and expresses her misgivings about their relationship at greater length.

And what will he do? Retreat into class privilege, of course. He  stubbornly remains silent when explaining would help, as when the landlord asks why Elaine was screaming. “It’s a private matter,” he repeats many times, retreating into WASP privilege as though it’s an answer to everything and all will be well. And his plan for the immediate future?

“I can work for a degree and be a teaching assistant at the same time.”
“How do you know you could get in here.”
“I could get in this place in ten minutes.”
“I don’t think you could.”
“Well I know I could.”
“How do I know?” he said. Because I’ve been admitted to Harvard and Yale graduate school. . . .”I have had teaching offers from Eastern colleges. EASTERN colleges. And you don’t think this place would grab me up in five minutes?” (132)

A presumably podunk place like Berkeley (!) would be glad to have him, in other words, because Ivy and Eastern are keys to open any door. Unless this is meant to be satire, and nothing in the book indicates that it is, this is the most overt but not the only statement of class privilege; Benjamin has already mentioned that he’s an “Ivy trophy” for his parents. Sure, he’s passed up a prestigious teaching fellowship by refusing to show up on campus, but he’s sure that he can argue his way back into it. The refusal to accept that rules apply to him is the A-1 marker of class privilege then and now. What enables his rebellion is class privilege and the ability to come back home to the comforts of his room and the financial support of his parents.

Besides the dismissal of Berkeley, another gap between the sensibilities of 1968 and those of today is that Elaine literally has no future in mind as far as anyone in the film is concerned–except marriage. Elaine-of-the-book wants to finish her degree, but Elaine-of-the-movie is surprisingly compliant about being yanked in two directions, which the film defines not as school versus marriage but Carl Smith versus Benjamin Braddock. The question is not “what will she do?” but “whom will she marry?” which makes her a 19th-century heroine in all but name. Although it does give her more of a voice, the book really isn’t interested in her wishes or her mind except as an obstacle for Benjamin to conquer, as he conquers every other obstacle in the book, through sullenness, silence or excessive, intrusive questioning, and swinging his privilege around.

The famous ending is the same in both versions, with an awkward “what’s next?” Elaine and Ben on the bus, although in the book he throws money at the bus driver and orders him to “get this bus moving” (160). Their future is uncertain, as is the status of their relationship now that they’ve got each other. One thing is certain: they’ll land on his, or her, parents’ feet.
[Note: For this quick retro-read , I haven’t read any of the recent responses to The Graduate but look forward to doing so.]

Jack London and Eugene O’Neill: Separated at Birth?

In reading Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb’s Possessed by Women: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, I’ve been struck by the parallels between Eugene O’Neill and Jack London.


Eugene O’Neill (Wikimedia)

The Gelbs’ biography, as Barbara Gelb explains in the introduction, is the culmination of several books on Eugene O’Neill and decades of interviews, including some with Carlotta Monterey, O’Neill’s last wife and, as so often happens, the guardian and caretaker of his person and, after death, of his literary legacy (see also: Mary Hemingway, Charmian London, Valerie Eliot). This biography is based heavily not only on O’Neill’s work, about which the book is perceptive and fair in its evaluations, but also on his “Work Diary” (, although O’Neill’s ample commentary on his work, as cited in the bio, isn’t present in the pages shown on the Beinecke site.

Where to begin with the parallels?


Jack London

Both were born to parents who had known poverty, and each man knew that he was the unwanted son of a mother who was distracted and, while not physically neglectful, seemingly paid little attention to her son’s needs. London’s mother Flora was a spiritualist and worked various schemes that didn’t pan out in order to help support their family. In a case that made the newspapers, her lover, whom she regarded as her husband (William Cheney) had advised her to get an abortion, after which she dramatically attempted to shoot herself in front of him.

Ella, O’Neill’s mother, was, as the posthumously produced Long Day’s Journey into Night makes clear, addicted to morphine for many of his formative years. Although she later “took the cure” and became sober, Ella, in O’Neill’s recollection, had vowed never to have another child after the death of her second son, Edmund, at age two (note that Edmund was the name Eugene gave to himself in LDGIT). In a fragment, he  “tells of the devastating death of her infant son, Edmund, and her guilty vow never to have another child, which led her—a pious Catholic woman—to submit to a “series of brought-on abortions.” And he asks, ‘Did this mark beginning of [her] break with religion, which was to leave her eventually entirely without solace?'”(325). As did London, who supported his mother all his life, O’Neill eventually came to terms with Ella and was devastated when she died.


Jack London and second wife Charmian, aboard the Snark

Each went to sea at a young age, after quitting formal education (London from poverty, O’Neill from discontent) and developed an addiction to alcohol that would last for the rest of his life, with periods of sobriety.  Each went through a period of dissolution–London in his early days in Oakland, O’Neill at the bar Jimmy the Priest’s, which he later immortalized in The Iceman Cometh–and, to oversimplify this somewhat, decided that writing would be his salvation.

For London, according to his autobiographical novel Martin Eden and his memoir John Barleycorn, this occurred because he realized that brain-work rather than the brute physical labor he had experienced when working in a steam laundry, shoveling coal, and so on would enable him to live like a human being.  The Bergs’ By Women Possessed doesn’t deal with this part of O’Neill’s life as much, because it’s already been treated in a host of other biographies, including their earlier ones.

In their private lives, London and O’Neill shared similarities as well. Each thought he could write better if he lived apart from people, on land of his own.  London found this in his Beauty Ranch in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma; O’Neill tried to find it in a number of places, from a place on the dunes in Cape Cod to Bermuda to (with Carlotta) a chateau in France, Sea Island, Georgia, and northern California. Both were more gregarious and needed people more than they thought, however. Each married  more than once and went through an acrimonious divorce proceeding once their marriages (London’s to Bess Maddern, with two children; and O’Neill’s to Agnes Boulton, with two children) had broken down and they decided to marry their lovers (Charmian Kittredge and Carlotta Monterey).


Carlotta Monterey and O’Neill

Carlotta had stated that she would never learn to never darn socks because she planned to marry a rich man, and did, but that was not enough. She wanted a sense of purpose, and she found it in O’Neill. Although she’d been married three times by the time she met O’Neill at 27 (?), Carlotta had a secret trust fund not from a husband but from James Speyer, a man 40 years older than herself whose mistress she had been. This supported her throughout her life with O’Neill, who apparently believed Speyer took only a fond, familial interest in her. But like Charmian, an accomplished pianist who had supported herself as a secretary, Carlotta had an acting career that she gave up to devote herself to her husband’s career.


Jack London with Becky and Joan.

Neither O’Neill nor London had much use for their children when they were growing up, unfortunately. O’Neill took some pride in his oldest son by his first marriage, Eugene, Jr., at first, but later was disappointed and showed it.  He and Agnes, who already had a daughter, had agreed that they would have no children, yet they had two, Shane and Oona. He was apparently a distant father to Shane, his son with Agnes; his daughter, Oona, he saw once for tea in the space of seven years, although she eventually came to visit him, and he never spoke to her again after she married Charlie Chaplin.  London, although he loved his daughters as children, could judge them harshly as they grew older and his ill health increased his irritability. In the famous “ruined colt” letter of February 24, 1914, frustrated by Joan’s loyalty to her mother, London’s ex-wife Bess, London wrote:

When I grow tired or disinterested in anything, I experience a disgust which settles for me that thing forever. I turn the page down there and then. When a colt on the ranch, early in its training, shows that it is a kicker or a bucker or a bolter or a balker, I try patiently and for a long time [to cure it, but] suddenly there comes to me a disgust, and I say Let the colt go. . . . Years ago I warned your mother that if I were denied the opportunity of forming you, sooner or later I would grow disinterested in you. I would develop a disgust, and that I would turn down the page. . . . I have turned the page down, and I shall be no longer interested in the three of you. (Letters 1298-99)

Joan was 13 at the time.

Although I’m overgeneralizing to say it in this way, these last wives proved to be similar. Both were dressy, self-dramatizing (which London and O’Neill loved), sexually adventurous, and determined to encircle their man with a combination of romantic and maternal love, bravery in the face of chaos, intense housekeeping and organizational skills, and the ability to put up with neglect, major mood swings, and actual abuse (on O’Neill’s part) at times, although there was also the time when London hit Charmian in New York and not with boxing gloves.

Each woman kept a diary, with an eye toward future generations, and their tone of voice in their writing even sounds similar–recording the declarations of love that they received from London and O’Neill as well as some coy suggestions of sexual activities, records of visits, and moods, sometimes theirs and sometimes O’Neill’s and London’s. Each also served as her husband’s typist, despite Carlotta’s continuing eye problems. London gave Charmian his manuscripts as insurance, and he inscribed them to her; O’Neill did the same with Carlotta.

The most striking parallel between O’Neill and London in literary terms  is probably their outlook–presenting life as it is, as O’Neill and London both said. Their naturalistic perspective was marked by a perpetual return to their own lives for the subject matter of their art, as though to work through torments inflicted in the distant past through the poor family dynamics they had experienced.  Each wrote about race, sometimes perceptively and progressively for the time but often in ways reflective of the worst “scientific” attitudes of the time, which were bad enough then and horrifying now. Each wrestled with questions of faith, including O’Neill’s lapsed Catholicism. Oh, and not for nothing, each was a literary celebrity of the time, and handsome, too (which didn’t hurt). London was known for his socialism and popular fiction, especially The Call of the Wild, and O’Neill for being America’s most original dramatist, the winner of two (or three?) Pulitzer prizes and the Nobel prize.

I won’t weigh in here on their works other than to say that I’ve read a lot of both. London doesn’t get enough credit for his innovations, and some of O’Neill’s might seem dated now (Strange Interlude), but they were daring at the time.

[What I’m hoping to do in the new year is to post more of these pieces, which aren’t polished work, obviously, but rough drafts with maybe some thoughts to pursue at a future date.]