He Garfunkeled Your Mother: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Graduate
The 1967 film, The Graduate, staring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft contains a plethora of human idiosyncrasies that would be of the utmost interest to the psychoanalytic minds of both Freud and Lacan. For this reading, I will focus on the theories of both Freud and Lacan in accordance with textual evidence to prove that Benjamin Braddock never achieves happiness in the end of the film, but has only just prolonged his quest to fight a miserable human existence.
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...
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.
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