The most glaring and obvious reading of this film focuses around the character of Mrs. Robinson. An obvious Oedipal Complex emerges as Ben and Mrs. Robinson begin an affair. As an older woman, who Ben never calls by her first name, Mrs. Robinson becomes a replacement mother for Ben. Ben’s jealousy for his father emerges as Ben begins to understand his father is not worried about his own future, though Ben himself is extremely unsure about what the future holds for his life. In fact, Ben’s father has built a distinctly upper class and well kept home for Ben and his mother.
Ben subconsciously senses that his father holds all the power within the family dynamic as the sole breadwinner for the household. Understanding this unstated father-son rivalry, it is predictable through a Freudian interpretation that Ben would ultimately have sex with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner. By doing, Ben can displace his Oedipal desires of wooing his mother to distract from his father’s power and wealth without actually committing incest, and therefore displace his father from a position of power.
The focus on mother imagery does not stop there. Ben is often depicted in water in the form of his swimming pool, or staring into the water of his fish tank. Tyson tells us that the imagery of “dreams that involve water, especially immersion in water, might also be about our relationships with our mothers” (Tyson 21). This explains why filmmakers chose to emerge Ben, in his phallic looking scuba suit, into his swimming pool. This symbolizes Ben’s emersion into the depths of his Oedipal Complex.
At one point his parents push his head back under the water, thus illustrating that they are the ones who subconsciously pushing Ben into a state of dependence upon them. Though this backfires as he displaces the need for a mother or parental figure into his relationship with Mrs. Robinson. In this same scene one could conclude that this setting emphasizes Ben’s submersion into a conflict of the id, ego, and superego. Under the water, where there is no language or sound, like the Laconian Imaginary, Ben has to battle with his id, the pleasures he receives from sex with Mrs.
Robinson, and his ego, deciding upon the rationality of his decisions. Once he emerges from the water and enters into the Symbolic, he is then again subject to the superego where he must decide if what he is doing with Mrs. Robinson is right or wrong (Tyson 25). Ultimately, Ben continually chooses to avoid the situation and confrontation entirely and emerge himself and his thoughts in his pool or fish tank in order to repress any further emotional agitation (Tyson 15). The Freudian concept of fetishes is also highlighted throughout the film to serve as a constant reminder and protection to Ben.
In the infamous scene between Ben and Mrs. Robinson in the Robinson’s living room, Mrs. Robinson has conveniently placed her legs up on the bar stool next to her. Her legs are spread just enough to seem inviting but not enough to reveal the fact that she has been “castrated” to Ben. There is even a series of dialogue that occurs as Mrs. Robinson sexily removes her stockings. What is most important about this scene, though, is that the line “Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me? ” is delivered by Ben as the camera focuses on him through a frame made by Mrs.
Robinson’s leg, arched and positioned on a stool. By choosing to frame the most famous line from the movie this way filmmakers can ensure that Ben is still seen by viewers as innocent, protected from shame, and therefore likable, as he has not been subjected to the fact that Mrs. Robinson does not have a penis. Freud also suggests that the fetish is important because “it also saves the fetishist from becoming a homosexual, by endowing women with the characteristic which makes them tolerable sexual objects” (Freud 843).
Benjamin can retain his absolute heterosexuality in the eyes of the viewer even though he is explicitly stating he does not want to have sex with this woman. His attention and focus on her legs informs the reader that he is still interested in her as a sexual being. Soon, though, this view of Ben as innocent is then shattered, as Mrs. Robinson appears to Ben in the next scene as completely nude. After seeing the naked female body, Benjamin is fully aware that Mrs. Robinson has been castrated. He interjects, “Oh God,” “Let me out,” and “Jesus Christ,” in fear of what his has seen.
The playful focus on Mrs. Robinson’s legs is gone and what remains serves as the glaring realization that Ben could be “castrated” by losing favor or power in his community if anyone found out that he had seen Mrs. Robinson naked. Benjamin eventually uses the premise of castration and phallus as power in an attempt manipulate Mrs. Robinson after their affair has been going on for some time. After deciding he has had enough meaningless sex, Ben asks Mrs. Robinson about her family including her daughter Elaine. Mrs.
Robinson insinuates that Ben is not good enough for her daughter and then refuses to answer why he is not deemed good enough for Elaine. Ben then rips the sheet away from Mrs. Robinson’s naked body to reveal that he is still the only one in the room with a phallus and therefore should hold the power, as a way to force her to answer his question. Quickly, Mrs. Robinson covers her body to reclaim power within the situation. The scene escalates to Mrs. Robinson putting on her stockings again, playing Ben’s focus to her legs once more. Ben easily succumbs to her wiles giving back the power of an imaginary phallus to the older woman.
This scene exemplifies Freud’s theory of castration anxiety, as the power in the room is switched back and forth between the person, male or female, who seems to be in possession of the phallus. Another possible, though more complicated, reading of the film emerges in a Lacanian analysis. Unlike Freud, who would argue that having a phallus is of the utmost importance, Lacan complicates the idea of power by questioning if it’s more important to have the Phallus or to be the Phallus. Mrs. Robinson perfectly highlights how important it is for women to be the Phallus. Mrs.
Robinson wants to be desired by Ben, which is why she becomes so angry at the fact Ben takes her daughter on a date. Mrs. Robinson sees her own daughter’s youth and beauty as a threat to Ben’s attraction and affection. This younger woman is a roadblock to Mrs. Robinson being “the desire of the other” as Ben now wants someone young and single who poses an option of marriage that Mrs. Robinson does and can not (Palmer 1). In contrast, Ben does not desire to be the Phallus. Instead, he’s chasing pavements, in a sense, as his true desire, or ultimate Phallus, is being able to predict his own future.
Though at one time he desired to be with Mrs. Robinson, his sense of desire changes as he realizes Mrs. Robinson cannot give him what he wants the way that Elaine can. Only Elaine, with her youth and ability to marry can be the only one who truly cannot give him what he wants, insight into his future which includes the possibility of a wife and children. Under this Lacanian analysis, it is almost impossible to distinguish whether it is more important to have the Phallus or to be the Phallus as both characters are left as equally unhappy. Mrs.
Robinson is left feeling undesired as Benjamin literally fights tooth and nail to be with Elaine, and Benjamin is left still unknowing what the future holds for him. The film ends with Ben and Elaine running away from Elaine’s wedding to hop on a bus, take one last glance at what they left behind, and sit facing their future, starting blankly. A conventional reading of this film might conclude that the film has a “happy ending” since Benjamin ultimately ended up with the girl he had been chasing throughout the movie and therefore should be happy with achieving his goal. Freud and Lacan would both vehemently disagree with this reading.
Freud would infer that since Ben continued to repress his feelings and act out his Oedipal Complex he has an obvious perversion that could only be solved or aided with deep and prolonged psychotherapy. Likewise, Lacan would conclude that Benjamin’s continuous pursuit of the Phallus is ultimately futile. Since Ben can never fully predict or understand his future, even when a life with Elaine is imminent, he will never be fulfilled or validated, as he will still have desires he can never realize. Only now, he has the added obligation of carrying Elaine along with him on his never-ending hunt for fulfillment.
Works Cited The Graduate. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. Embassy Pictures, 1967. DVD. Leitch, Vincent B. "Fetishism. " The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2010. 841-45. Print. Palmer, Donald D. "The Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. " Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners. New York, NY: Writers and Readers, 1997. N. pag. Print. Tyson, Lois. "Psychoanalytic Criticism. " Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. New York: Routledge, 2006. 11-52. Print.