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What Does the Water Imagery in “The Graduate” Express About the 1960s Youth Mindset and Destiny?

Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) presents a young man, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who returns home as a successful college graduate to his parents’ suburban world of affluence (“Affluent,” by the way, is a word meaning “flowing in abundance.”) Benjamin tells his father that he is worried about his future; he wants it to be “different.” This feeling and Braddock’s story resonated with the youth in the late 60’s, who wanted to change America, and the world, for the better. They wanted to do more than return to their suburban homes, earn money, and become their parents. Instead, the joined the fight for civil rights, they staged protests against the Vietnam War, and they participated in riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago to express the idea that the country was a democracy in name only. But after that, they had to ask, what was next? What came after the university degree?

Although this film does not reference any of these specific political events, it taps into the state of mind of the late 60’s university graduate. And one of the ways that director Nichols expresses that nature of that mindset is through the use of water imagery. The shots at Benjamin’s graduation party are filled with people (literally) right in his face, telling him what he should do with his life. When he escapes to his room, we see a shot of Benjamin looking through an aquarium, which makes his world appear claustrophobically enclosed like a fish in a small water tank.

There is a plastic frogman in the aquarium in his room, foreshadowing the scene in which his father makes Benjamin wear underwater gear (a present) and get into the family pool. In that scene, all we hear is Benjamin’s breathing as he moves through the water inside the scuba equipment. Like Benjamin, we feel cut off from the surrounding people. He is submerged, underwater, trapped – just like the fish in the tank. Interestingly, in a scene in Benjamin’s room during the party, when Mrs. Robinson (Ann Bancroft) – his future seducer – asks Benjamin to drive her home, she throws the car keys into the aquarium, as if offering him a potential way out of his mental prison.

Benjamin spends a great deal of time in the family pool that summer. He literally and figuratively drifts, with no direction in his life, except to show up at the meaningless liaisons with Mrs. Robinson. He finally finds a reason to take some action in his life when he fights to win the love of Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). But after the climactic scene in which Benjamin disrupts Elaine’s wedding and overcomes the violent protests of their parents to take her away and elope with her, the film ends on a puzzling moment. We see Elaine and Benjamin riding at the back of a bus, first elated by what they’ve done, but then, after sitting a few moments, unsure. Their faces seem to ask, “What next?”

Youths of the 60s like Benjamin had big dreams for impacting the world according to their ideals, but the reality of life after college wasn’t always so clear-cut, and the paths in front of people as they grow older become less black-and-white. Benjamin’s failure to take control of his life with confident, prolonged maturity suggests an inability to embody in actions the person he would like to be in thought.

The film poses the question: it possible to direct our own destiny, or are we just carried along by the currents of life?