The Graduate Book by Charles Webb

Review by Rose

The graduate, written in 1963 and dramatised as the iconic movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross, is still considered one of the definitive comedies of that era. Charles Webb’s skill as an author is constructing absurd incidents and creating dramatic surreal dialogues that are incredibly funny. Benjamin is a stressed lonely student, struggling to cope at a pivotal point in his life; he continually follows the less common path. In this depiction of a psychological crisis of a young mind, whatever we expect a typical graduate to say and do, Benjamin wildly clambers in the opposite direction, arms flailing, his mind shot with a fever of nervousness, unsure about the changes occurring in his head. He is a car careening out of control in the languorous American Suburbs. The anxious jittery energy and indecisiveness of his personality drive the story. He cannot do what others want him to do: why should he? This seems to be the overarching question of the novel. He battles internally with the constant expectancy of middle-class society, the pressures of the people surrounding him, even the way that others slip into their roles so easily, while he flounders daily. He cannot tolerate the idea of following in his parent’s footsteps.

Now and then the spark of genius comes to a writer at an early age and it may never be seen again. No other book from the promising talent of Charles Webb never reached the heights of his first. The young man whose story created one of the funniest comedies in sixties cinema, just like his character Benjamin, did the opposite of what everyone in society anticipated. Charles Webb would puzzle, intrigue, and leave other human beings dumbfounded, as they tried to figure out what had led him to the frequent destitute life that he lived, working in a variety of unskilled jobs, often struggling financially, turning away from his families inheritance and never writing profitably in the future. Webb was a very unusual young man and was quickly labelled in later life ‘an eccentric with mental health problems.’ A label that is given to anyone that comes from a middle-class life in a western developed country and cannot fit in the normal route that most people follow, that society judge’s success on, career, status, car, and house. Just as Ben shocks every middle-class educated individual in the novel, ultimately so did Charles Webb. One must be cautious making connections between the fictional life of a character and the author that wrote the book. The Graduate is a work of fiction. Yet, when you read about Webb and you read passages of the book, I believe in this instance you see fragments of the young Webb in Benjamin. However, these are only fragments.

Ben is a confused graduate who seems wholly out of place in his parent’s middle-class home with a swimming pool. His parents frequently invite their friends and neighbours to come and see Ben, as if he is their entertainer. ‘Come look at our son, the brilliant student’. They expect great things from their son, but Ben cannot fit in with their well-made plans. He is not interested in becoming a teacher or leading the typical academic life. There is a fuse of discomfort brewing inside Benjamin, and when this fuse is lit, it takes him spiralling into worlds that are far away from the path that was placed neatly in front of him by other individuals. He is lonely and spends hours watching films, drinking, and walking. He is confused and depressed and finds the people around him difficult to handle, only wanting to shut the door on others. When his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson, offers him a sexual relationship, he grasps the invitation, spending his nights in an elegant hotel room having sex, to fill the aching space inside him, but though he tries to communicate with Mrs Robinson, she has no interest in making a real connection with him. He is wracked by feelings of guilt and shame during this time. He tears away from his family and faces the dangers and the consequences of a wild obsession with Mrs Robinson’s daughter Elaine, who he clings to, despite not having time to know her as a person.

Some said that Charles Webb, the author, led one of the oddest lives of any author that wrote such a successful classic. He is described even by friends from his younger days as a difficult person, though still recalled with fondness, despite chronic communication problems due to Webb’s choices in life.

The character Mrs Robinson has entered modern culture through film and song and is often used in media representations and discourse of the ‘older woman’ in a relationship with a much ‘younger man.’ Mrs Robinson is a strong character in the ‘Graduate’ but has very few redeeming qualities. She is unable or willing to converse with Benjamin on any subject, nor visit a museum, cinema or indeed do anything normal couples would do that would strengthen an emotional connection. The only thing she appears to be interested in is having sex as much as possible. She is described by other characters in the novel as deceitful, cold, and unable to interact socially. She is also wealthy, aggressive, and manipulative when she wants sex, which is all the time.

In books and films, older women are frequently portrayed negatively when in a relationship with a younger man. The media frequently perpetuate this idea by calling these females ‘grannies’ and ‘cougars’, often ridiculing the older female and stigmatising such relationships, though oddly accepting relationships between older males and younger women. What has the long-standing image of Mrs Robinson from the film done for the vision of such relationships in society? What would the modern Mrs Robinson look like? These are all interesting questions I would like to explore another day.

However, this book is primarily a comedy and Charles Webb used this excuse for the cardboard cut-out personality of Mrs Robinson when a friend, said she was based on Charles’s own formidable mother-in-law, who did almost everything possible to prevent Charles from marrying his sweetheart.

Throughout the novel many conversations with Ben revolve around what he wants to do, the fact that he has no answer and constantly replies that 'he does not know' makes many characters in the novel doubt his sanity, or at least feel, he is having a severe breakdown. His parents constantly ask him what he wants to do and he has no real answer, when he moves to be closer to his obession, Elaine, at the University campus and she finds that he has been stalking her, she asks him what his plans are but yet again, Ben simply says 'I do not know' creating more and more puzzlement and exasperating everyone close to him.

Social class expectations and what society expects are main themes in this novel, as well as the way people are viewed if they do not fit into their own social class or what society expects from them. Some of the first words from people we meet in life are 'what do you do?' Where do you live?' Answers to these questions can immediately pigeonhole you as a person that has worth according to societies view of worth, or if you are someone that has no real status. Society can be brutal with anyone that does not tick the right boxes in life, if you say 'Unemployed' this can cause you to be judged harshly by others if you come from a particular social class. Human beings have limited ability to take in all the information around them in society, due to this they tend to make quick assertions of the people around them based on a few questions. When Ben was a student he fitted into society, he was someone studying to become a worthy member of society and give to the community, to please his parents, he was accepted by other students. He had a role that was worthy. As soon as he is no longer a student, has no job, he is 'unemployed' thus the perception of those around him in society changes. He is seen as someone of less worth, someone regarded as a person that could be suffering mental health problems. This in itself scares his parents and makes them regard him differently, as if he is a stranger that they have suddenly found themselves with, not their son.

When Elaine screams in his room and the policeman arrives, he asks Ben what his occupation is, he tells the officer that he is not a student and has no occupation, this seems to throw the authority figure off guard and he is immediately viewed negatively by the officer. In the exact time Ben is not sure what he wants to do in life, after finishing his degree, and not using his prize, free teacher training to become an academic, he becomes a young man that no longer fits into the mechanisms of society. Quickly it appears that society begins to turn against him in different ways from the landlord to the policeman to his parents and other people. He is unemployed, a wanderer with no aim and no goal, something that none of the characters handle very well, after all, none of the other characters in the book have ever been in Ben's situation. In fact, the only person that has any resemblance to Ben is Mrs Robinson who admits early on in the novel that she is an alcoholic, which means that she does not fit into the neat middle class society surrounding her, she is flawed in the viewpoint of others. The rest of the main characters all had exact goals, they did not flounder in the extreme way that Ben has, so he has no one that can relate to his unique situation, though of course people in his situation exist, however, not in his life.

Loneliness is also another strong theme in 'The graduate', it's loneliness that pushes Ben into a relationship with Mrs Robinson. He spends his days drifing and disconnected, alone unable to connect with his parents or anyone that comes to the house at any level. When he meets Elaine, Mrs Robinson's daughter, for only a short time, she becomes his 'saviour' someone that can save him, just by existing. He becomes attached to her sweetness and innocence, to her simple way of looking at life. He desperately needs someone to love and someone to love him, despite the fact that his parents and others think he is failing in everything in life. Before Elaine becomes his obession Ben is desperately alone, he is a very lonely person. The pain of loneliness and having no one to really talk to in his life and his feelings is central to many parts of the story. The fact that loneliness can lead you into places that are not always good is also what happens in the Graduate.

At one point Ben tells his father he wants to be around 'Real people' he cannot take the stifling amostphere of his own social class and the smothering people in it. He cannot stand the way that his family and his parents friends have all had straight cut lives and never questioned anything. Of course, he travels away, but this only lasts three weeks. On returning home he is interrogated by his father about what happened, Ben tells him he slept with whores who stole from him and put out a fire as well as taking on other menial jobs. But even this very brief escape does not provide Ben with any answers about his life and what he wants to do. It's this failure, or what he feels is a failure as it only lasted three weeks, that sets off his affair with Mrs Robinson.

The novel is a roller coaster ride into the weird and entertaining life of a confused, lonely disparate young man. The action begins quickly, the prose is fast, Benjamin is a loose cannon and you wish him well. You feel for him. You feel him being stifled. Charles Webb has a sense of humour that illuminates the pages. At some points in life, individuals find themselves in bizarre situations and sometimes they lose control. Webb has an in-depth understanding of those moments and used this knowledge to create a masterpiece of comedy.

Webb made little money for the film, despite it making millions. He spent his life passionately railing against societies obsession with consumerism and personal ownership. Though many considered him an idiosyncratic figure would did not attain the brilliance expected of him after writing ‘The Graduate’, I say Webb was merely an unusual man at odds with the culture and society he found himself in, unable to follow societies social rules and beliefs. He gave us one of the most memorable comedies of the sixties and a story that has stayed in the mind for decades. I would never say that Charles Webb failed in his writing career: he had the gift of genius and comedy at a very young age and he gave us Benjamin, a young man that is striking in his disillusions and is utterly unforgettable.