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.”
“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.]