Benjamin Braddock is having a quarter-life crisis. Having just returned home from his graduation out of an Ivy League school, he is horrified to find that his parents have thrown him a party and invited the entire neighborhood. The first few pages read as a whose who of Keeping up with the Joneses. The McQuires, the Calendars, and even the Terhunes descend onto the Braddock household.
So do the Robinsons.
But Mrs. Robinson isn’t interested in Benjamin’s graduation, his plans for the future, or his Frank Halpingham Education Award.
It took me more than a few pages to realise that Webb’s Mrs Robinson is the same Mrs. Robinson that has evolved into the pop culture reference for seductress. Far from exuding sensuality and living up to her status, Mrs. Robinson is rather the creepy older woman stripping naked in front of her neighbour’s younger son. This plot point provides a nice segway into Benjamin’s mental deterioration.
I did enjoy reading The Graduate. Webb’s transitions between scenes is seamless, and he can hop from one day to the next without missing a beat. Every word of description earns its place in The Graduate, and I wish the same could be said for the dialogue.
Webb’s pared down prose and dialogue heavy story is usually reserved for authors who want to say something. But what is Webb saying with The Graduate?
The dialogue is so dense: it takes up pages and pages at a time, yet it’s so snappy. This combination made me flip through the pages at break neck speed, but not much happened. Reading Webb’s dialogue is like reading an ellipses… and waiting for the payoff that never comes.
Webb’s characterisation of Mrs. Robinson is so paper-thin that a gust of wind could have blown her over. Thank goodness there is no mention of Benjamin or her opening the window in their hotel room for some fresh air. There is no mention of much at all when the pair have moved from their position at the bar and finished their martinis: in the hotel room its all business. Again, where is my seductress? ‘Would it be easier for you in the dark?’ doesn’t quite have that 50 shades feel to it.
Along comes another plot point. As business like and efficient their liaisons at The Taft Hotel are, the two do manage to splutter out a few lines of meaningful dialogue. Mrs. Robinson will not be moved on one point: Benjamin is forbidden from taking her daughter Elaine out.
It is difficult to put into words how meaningless Benjamin and Elaine’s relationship is, but I will try. At the insistence of both of their fathers Benjamin takes Elaine out for the night. To a strip club. The dancer waves her nipples tassels in Elaine’s face and, as she begins to cry, Benjamin has a revelation. He apologises, takes her for a hamburger, and sees her once more before deciding to move to a flat near her dorm room at Berkeley university, and harass her into marrying him.
The problem with the female characters in The Graduate is that Webb created them in relation to Benjamin: his mother, Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine are not fully formed individuals in their own right. Elaine’s motivations are dubious: the last half of the novel enlightens us with drab conversations between her and Benjamin in which she admits she might marry him, but then again she might not. This is all after discovering Benjamin has had sex with her mother.
Webb’s flimsy characterisation of Elaine became even more baffling when I discovered that The Graduate is autobiographical, with Webb’s future wife Fred being the prototype for Elaine. An argument can be made that these secondary characters rightly fall into the backdrop of The Graduate, and the reader is then forced to focus on Benjamin. It was interesting to read about the evolution of a stalker from the stalkers perspective, but is this enough of a reason to allow all other characters to fall into the trap of being reflections of the main male character?
And now we’re at the end of this review I have to leave you with a nugget of truth: I don’t know why I like The Graduate so much. There are so many strands of this story to untangle, and the ending asks more questions than it answers. The Graduate is the perfect novel to read quickly and not delve too deeply into. After all, the fall of the American Dream subplot is not as interesting as the mental deterioration slant.