For many, symbolism is a titanic concept. A complex tool in the arsenal of the well-equipped filmmaker, symbolism can bury a film in the abstract, leaving some bewildered and confused. Symbolism is simply the use of an object to represent something else, most often some kind of idea or concept. Symbolism can vary from unorthodox and avant-garde techniques meant to challenge a viewer’s interpretation of basic observations used as a parallel to the occurring action as a way of amplifying the intended message. The purpose of symbolism is the same either way: to reinforce the already occurring themes through juxtaposing visuals and actions. The implementation of symbolism can give seemingly simple stories depth and nuance that transform their material into masterworks. Once such masterwork, director Mike Nichols’ sophomore film, The Graduate (1967), is full of a variety of symbolism that does exactly that.
The Graduate tells the story of Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate returning home without an idea of what he’s doing next. He begins an affair with the much older Mrs. Robinson, a friend of his parents. Ben eventually becomes infatuated with her daughter, Elaine. Mrs. Robinson forbids Ben from seeing Elaine, but he chooses to pursue her anyway. This leads to a climactic race to the church where Elaine is getting married. Ben whisks her away and they jump on a bus to who-knows-where. The film ends ambiguously, leaving the audience to wonder what will become of them and if they made the right choice. The Graduate’s main themes revolve around Ben’s uncertainty, which is contrasted by the expectations of the adults around him. Nichols was particular with his choice of symbolism. He uses a variety of visuals to reinforce the ideas that the narrative is already laying out. Four motifs, in particular, stand out and they continually surface in key moments to emphasize what the characters are feeling and going through.
Despite Ben’s recent graduation from college, he is very reluctant to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Still just 21, he continually neglects to make a decision on what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Instead, he chooses to go through the motions without moving forward. We can see this right away as Ben steps off the plane onto the moving sidewalk. He moves across the screen aimlessly with the opening titles, uncertain of where he is going. Ben is not ready for the next stage of his life, and continually rejects suggestions from his parents or their friends. One man famously tells Ben his future in one word: “Plastics.”
This is exactly how Ben sees his life if he follows in line with parents’ wishes: fake and artificial. He’s nothing more than a trophy of their accomplishment. Without any other options, Ben rejects adulthood entirely. He abstains from smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, both pleasures reserved exclusively for adults. Mrs. Robinson is the first to offer Ben a drink, which he refuses. She forces the drink into his hands anyway, just as she forced Ben to drive her home and forced him to walk her inside.
Despite how forceful she is with him, she doesn’t force Ben to sleep with her during this initial encounter. She tells him she is available to make an arrangement at any time, giving Ben the chance to say no. Every other person in Ben’s life has been trying to force him to do what they think is best. His parents pressured him to come to a party he doesn’t want to attend and ignore his worries about the future; the family friend, Mr. Maguire, tells Ben to pursue a career he has no interest in; and even Mr. Robinson tells Ben to “sow some wild oats” and call Elaine for a date without any regard to Ben’s feelings. Mrs. Robinson is the only person to give Ben a choice in his life, an opportunity to do something “different,” as he puts it.
When Mrs. Robinson arrives at the hotel bar to meet Ben and begin their affair. we see him with an ashtray full of cigarettes as he nurses a drink. Having been given the opportunity to, Ben has made the choice to plunge into the adulthood he refused before. The final step will occur in the room upstairs.
Mike Nichols had a very clear image of how he wanted to present Mrs. Robinson when he set out to make the film. In his audio commentary, he speaks of how he and costume designer, Patricia Zipprodt, decided that “Mrs. Robinson would always be a jungle animal” to visually communicate her predatory nature. We first see these symbols in Mrs. Robinson’s home after she has coerced Ben to walk her inside. The patio just outside the bar fills the frame with exotic foliage and communicates an image of the dense jungle Ben has walked into. Some of the containers at the bar bear a distinct zebra print design. Most important of all, though, is Mrs. Robinson’s attire.
In every scene, Mrs. Robinson wears some kind of animal print. When she first begins undressing in front of Ben, her underwear is leopard print — a notably aggressive and nocturnal predator — befitting of her first attempt to seduce Ben. In her next meeting with Ben at the hotel bar (which is also adorned in jungle foliage), she is dressed casually in a cheetah print coat over a simple black top. When they rendezvous at the hotel room for the affair, she enters with her coat off, and we notice the giraffe print on her skirt.
The change of design from an intimidating predator to an herbivorous giraffe is notable as this occurs in conjunction with Ben becoming noticeably less intimidated by Mrs. Robinson. Additionally, dressing Mrs. Robinson solely in animal print is effective because of its popularity in women’s fashion during the 1960s. It represented class and wealth, and for the character of Mrs. Robinson, extends to constantly remind the audience that underneath all the makeup and fancy jewelry, she is still a vicious animal watching her prey.
The use of shadows as a motif is easily one of the most common forms of symbolism used in the film. Typically used to highlight the darkness of a character or their morally ambiguous nature, shadows first began appearing as common motifs in the German Expressionism films of the 1920s and 30s. Notable examples would be the monstrous vampire Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s gothic masterpiece Nosferatu (1922) or the malicious child murderer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Mike Nichols has taken this classic motif and set it as a thematic chorus in The Graduate, popping up time and again to remind us of the hidden truths and feelings within the characters.
We first see this effect communicated to us in Ben’s bedroom, which remains dark except for the dim light of the fish tank — that is, until Mrs. Robinson first opens the door, having supposedly mistaken it for the bathroom. Light floods into the room, as if to say that Mrs. Robinson will “shed light” on Ben’s dim outlook on life. She does this again when she coerces Ben to follow her into her home because she, “doesn’t feel safe until [she] gets the lights on.” Ben enters the house and follows Mrs. Robinson’s directions to the sun porch. The room remains dark, only sparsely illuminated by the bright porch lights that cast harsh shadows around the room. Ben manages to stay in the light until he realizes Mrs. Robinson’s true intentions, at which point he steps back fully into the shadows, fearing the situation he has found himself in.
This leads to the beginning of the plot’s central conflict: Ben’s sordid affair with Mrs. Robinson. Ben immediately understands how disastrous the consequences would be if this encounter were to come to light, beginning with the very next sequence when Mr. Robinson comes home from a late night of golf. Ben stays within the shadows throughout the conversation, desperately trying to hide what just happened upstairs. Ben has to carry this secret throughout the film and will attempt to keep it shrouded in darkness whenever he fears he may be exposed. When Ben first opens the door to the hotel room before Mrs. Robinson arrives, he turns the lights on while he contemplates what he is about to do. He quickly turns the lights back off and makes his way around the room to each window and shuts the blinds. By shutting out all of the light from the room, he is not only taking precaution to make sure he isn’t caught in the act, but also shutting out all the light symbolically, as well.
Ben isn’t the only person trying to keep something hidden in the shadows, though. When Ben has grown tired of his shallow relationship with Mrs. Robinson, he tries to engage her in conversation before their next rendezvous. He turns the lamp on, and she refuses to cooperate, quickly turning the lights back off. Obviously more aloof and distant than she normally is, Mrs. Robinson is clearly trying to hide something. Ben gets out of bed and begins opening the blinds to let light into the room as he tries to get Mrs. Robinson to open up. She turns the lamp back on as she begins to relent, first asking Ben if he wants to talk about himself in an attempt to shift the conversation away from her. Ben doesn’t allow her to and tells her to think of something else. Mrs. Robinson hides in the darkness again and suggests the subject of art, which she immediately claims to know nothing about. The scene continues to play in complete darkness as Ben continually pushes to get some kind of dialogue between them, eventually arriving on the subject of her estranged marriage. Trying her best to avoid answering Ben’s questions, she finally exposes herself in the light, after he stumbles upon the truth of the dubious foundation of her marriage.
The scene plays out fully illuminated as the truths spill out. Because of an unfortunate conception in a Ford, Mrs. Robinson reveals that she had to put her life on hold to marry Mr. Robinson, giving up her passion for art and leaving college to raise her daughter. We begin to see the seeds of Mrs. Robinson’s hidden contempt for Elaine as she turns off the lights again while Ben continues to talk about her. Shortly after, we see Ben begrudgingly admit his own hidden truth. He shamefully hides in the shadows as he apologizes to Mrs. Robinson, and admits that this affair is the one thing he has going for him. Even though he says he’s not proud of it, he knows it’s the only thing he can look forward to doing, and until now has refused to accept the pleasure he takes from it.
Later on, we see two more characters cloaked in shadows as they face their own shame. When Elaine visits Ben in the morning he is to leave Berkley, the room is covered in darkness as she asks him to kiss her. She has been denying her feelings for him, desperately trying to hate him since learning of his affair with her mother, and is now forced to confront these feelings before he leaves. Mr. Robinson is similarly situated in the darkness when he finally confronts Ben about his actions. He vehemently berates Ben as he tells him about the irreparable harm this has caused on his and Mrs. Robinson’s marriage, and how it has led to an inevitable and disgraceful divorce. He chokes up a bit before insulting Ben one last time on his way out the door.
The most famous, and prominent, use of symbolism throughout The Graduate would most definitely be the presence of water to show Ben’s sensation of drowning as he struggles to figure out what to do with his life. The first shot of Ben back in his parents’ home has him framed entirely by the fish tank in his room, making him appear underwater like the scuba diver in the tank to his right. His facial expression is distant, and he asks his father to leave him alone as he contemplates his future, yearning for it to be “different.” Ben will often return to his fish tank to think whenever he feels like he’s drowning, first doing so when he runs back upstairs just before Mrs. Robinson follows him in. Staring and thinking will never get Ben anywhere, though; he will remain perpetually drowning in this sea of depression unless he finds a way to fish himself from its depth, much like we see him fish his keys out from the tank itself.
However, the lost ship that is Ben is too big for such a small fish tank to contain. The luxurious pool of the wealthy Braddock family represents the majority of Ben’s inability to tread water. The pool looms in the background throughout the film, often encompassing a majority of the screen, and Ben often looks into it seeing his sullen expression. The pool is featured most prominently during Ben’s 21st birthday party. Surrounded only by his parents and their friends, Ben is pressured to make an appearance in a ridiculous scuba suit his parents have bought him. Though he is clearly uncomfortable, his parents still insist and force him into the pool as their friends cheer him on. The scene calls back to the earlier party where Ben’s parents force him to join despite his refusal. The people at that party are also friends of his parents who continue to pressure Ben into the life his parents have been forcing on him. Even as Ben tries to pull himself out of the water, his parents physically force him back in, keeping his head below the surface. He remains at the bottom of the pool, motionless as we hear a conversation from the next scene: his initial phone call to Mrs. Robinson.
The next time Ben returns to the pool is after his first affair with Mrs. Robinson, and instead of sinking to the bottom, he floats above the water on a plastic raft. With a beer in his hand and sporting a pair of sunglasses, Ben appears to be somewhat at peace for the first time in the film. His affair with Mrs. Robinson has given him something to cling to a new direction to head in. Ben is able to stay above water for some time. He is still floating in the scene just after he gets Mrs. Robinson to open up and is forbidden from seeing Elaine. Ben is no longer by himself in the pool this time, however. His parents paddle alongside him, with only their heads above water. Like Ben before them, they are at a loss for what to do. They’ve continually pressed Ben to make a change and encouraged him to take Elaine out on a date. Ben refuses, making any excuse not to see her. Feeling they’ve exhausted all other options, Ben’s parents tell him they’ll have no other choice but to invite all the Robinsons over if Ben doesn’t take Elaine out. This propels Ben off his floater and back into the water, figuratively drowning like he was before.
All the necessary material to punctuate the core message of The Graduate can be found within the dialogue, but film is just as much a visual medium as it is narrative. The synergy of the film depends on the ability to pair story and visual together, and symbolism is the tool that serves to relate the story to an audience. A film doesn’t require symbolism to be considered great, but it allows an audience to engage on a deeper level and adds to their interpretation of the film, thus strengthening their experience and connection to the material. Mike Nichol’s intentional use of symbolism demonstrates his complete understanding of the characters. The Graduate is only one example that illustrates how effective symbolism can turn a great film into a bona fide classic.