Uncertainty and The Graduate

Two days ago, I graduated with a first class degree. I have a graduate job locked down. I am moving into a flat with my boyfriend in a little over a week. I have the beginnings of a pathway laid out in front of me. However, like any recent graduate, I feel a nagging sense of uncertainty. Until now, my life had been a series of ladders; do well in GCSEs in order to go to sixth form. Do well in A-Levels in order to go to university. Do well in university in order to…

That’s where the ladder ends. And now I have my entire life in front of me, and I can do anything I want. But what do I want? The Graduate is a film which explores this sense of unease with a deft hand. And it is a film which, until now, I had never seen. Which, for a supposed film lover, I know, is a travesty. But we all have gaps in our knowledge (until last weekend, I hadn’t seen Dirty Dancing, either).

The Graduate explores the post-college life of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), as he returns home to his parents and grapples with the idea of having nothing, and everything, to do. It explores how he finds some semblance of meaning within his brief affair with Mrs Robinson, which gives him something, anything, to look forward to. His self-loathing afterwards is almost tangible. Braddock medicates his anxiety through this illicit affair, although in 2017 Mrs Robinson’s behaviour comes off as almost predatory.

Benjamin is different to the modern day graduate in many ways- he is innocent, a virgin, for one thing, and completely inexperienced. He is a blank page, and acts as though he has not yet become a man. Benjamin lives in a suspended state of adolescence, at the age of 21. On his return from college, he is treated with the revere of a hero returning from war. His parents, and their peers, congratulate him time and time again for his achievements (mirrored in 2017 by the adoring Facebook comments left by my mum’s friends on my graduation photo). This serves only to compound his sense of loss- the loss of student life. The loss of his sense of achievement, the loss of his extra-curriculars, and the loss of a world he had spent four years building around him.

There is also that almost too-real feeling of an ill fit between your aspirations and your reality. Benjamin is a man whose achievements in life, alongside his aspirations, have been built up to insurmountable heights during his academic career. Now, upon his graduation, he wants to be “different” from his parents. Yet he is pulled aside and told that “plastics” are the way to go. We all spend our years in education dreaming of how we might spend our lives afterwards, and for many those aspirations remain a pipe-dream. The Graduate is not afraid to confront that reality head-on. We will not become astronaughts, peace envoys or poets. For many of us, the future lies in plastics or something similarly disappointing.

Perhaps the bravest move The Graduate makes is to leave the question of Benjamin’s future wide open. Although he receives a part of his happy ending, we never learn what he actually finds to do with his life. Although he finds love and companionship, his path still escapes him. What The Graduate does well is to convey every graduate’s sense of uncertainty, despair and loss, coupled with the unending opportunity they are faced with, but can’t quite bring themselves to reach out and grab. I am a graduate with some semblance of a path ahead of me, yet The Graduate managed to leave me feeling more bewildered than ever.