25 June, 2008

'The Graduate' - Charles Webb

Before Dustin Hoffman ogled Anne Bancroft, before Simon and Garfunkel wrote one of the sixties' catchiest choruses, and long before Abe Simpson pounded the glass and cried 'Mrs Bouvier!', The Graduate existed only as a slender, debut novel by Charles Webb.

When Benjamin Braddock returns to his commodious family home after finishing college with exceptional results, he finds himself entirely disaffected with his situation. His parents are suffocatingly proud of his achievements, but also excruciatingly out of touch with the thoughts Ben foments over days on the sunlounge and nights in front of the TV. Only two characters in this novel - Ben and Elaine Robinson - are of college age. All others are adults of his parents' age. His mother and father organise dinners and parties where Ben is exhibited in a fashion similar to what they expect him to do with his new sportscar (a graduation gift). Ben labours under a claustrophobic lack of options. For his parents and their friends there is no choice to be made: he will of course take up a teaching scholarship. For Ben, his choices are limited to acquiescence or rebellion. In his narrow cultural corridor of upstanding, upper-class West-coast American citizens of the 1960s, that rebellion needs to be overblown to be effective.

It begins with a concerted effort at doing nothing - sleeping til afternoon, sunbathing for hours, drinking lashings of beer and bourbon while watching random TV shows. Then, enter Mrs Robinson.

The affair between them makes up but a short part of the novel: the crux of the story is really not about their relationship but instead about the challenges of identity that Webb found in his post-college situation. Given that this is a mid-sixties novel, and the relationship is between a 21-year-old man and a much older, married woman, the lack of sordidness in the description of the affair is as good an indication as any of the crispness of Webb's style. Lack is in fact the defining motif of his writing. The majority of questions posed in dialogue, for example, lack a question mark: the speakers lack either enthusiasm or any genuine interest in the answer.

There is a very high proportion of dialogue throughout the novel, and little exposition. Within the conversations one speaker's turn rarely extends beyond a line. The novel maintains a rapidity that lends an urgency to what are often banal, unfulfilled exchanges. This sustained technique tells the reader a lot about Ben's outlook and attitude to the future. So much about his character is revealed through conversation, yet all of his interactions are filled with miscommunications and a lack of understanding. When Ben pursues Elaine, Mrs Robinson's daughter, to Berkeley, their unlikely affection for one another - never presented in any truly romantic setting - is plausible since every other interaction has been so falsified.

Ben is not a particularly likeable character; his redeeming features are few. However, his apathy and disaffection are presented against some particularly loathsome, self-interested adult characters. This doesn't necessarily absolve him of the effects of his behavious, but it does emphasise the assumptions made by many about what makes one successful or even worthy. Ben wants to take a better path; for him the 'road less travelled'. We aren't taken far enough along that road to know if he succeeds but wherever he ends up at least he is taking self-awareness, rather than purely self-interest, along with him.


  1. I haven't read it myself, but I like the film. A recent article on A.V. Club compared the book to the film and concluded that this was one of those rare instances where the film is better than the book... which do you prefer?

  2. Hey Claire. Thanks for the link to A.V. Club - their article was a particularly interesting read. It's many years since I've seen the film, so I'd be hazy at best on a direct comparison (though that article was helpful in jogging some memories).

    I know Charles Webb didn't get any royalties from the film, an outcome he's been quoted as being comfortable with since he felt the film shifted the spotlight from what he was trying to say in the novel.

    In the A.V. article I particularly liked what they highlighted about the difference the visuals - facial cues etc - made to the effect of the very stunted dialogue, and the ability to retain the audience's interest. That's a fundamental part of the gulf of distinction between the two media, and I can see why someone would have a more 'enjoyable' experience of the story via the visual medium.

    I quite like the staccato style of the book - it really added to the message I took from it, so I don't think I'd rate the movie as highly above the original book.