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If the straightest places are where the weirdest things happen, then the American suburbs in the postwar period have good reason to fascinate artists. From Cheever, Updike, Roth and Yates, to David Lynch and Sam Mendes's American Beauty, the American ideal has also embodied the American nightmare. As John Cheever put it: "Why, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?"
There are few characters in postwar fiction as disappointed as Benjamin. A brilliant and successful student with "everything", as they say, ahead of him, one day in the early 1960s he returns home from college to find that nothing has meaning for him; he no longer wants what he is supposed to want. Who, in those changing times, should he become when his only desire is to flounder in his father's swimming pool on a rubber ring? But Benjamin is not entirely good for nothing. It is his good luck that someone does sense his dissatisfaction, and does want him. This is the wife of his father's business partner, the fabulous Mrs Robinson, who has been observing him closely.
The son of a doctor, Charles Webb was born in San Francisco in 1939 and was brought up in affluent Pasadena. At the age of 24 he wrote and published The Graduate, which received mostly indifferent reviews. It was picked by up Mike Nichols in 1967 and made into a film which took £100m at the box office, though Webb had sold the rights for £20,000. Since then he has published seven more novels, some featuring characters from The Graduate.
There were many young, disillusioned heroes being studied in the early 60s, Meursault in Camus's The Outsider, McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Like them, Benjamin is not a revolutionary; he doesn't want to make a new, more free or equitable society. That was to come: in the mid-60s the American scene would brighten wonderfully before it darkened again. No, Benjamin merely wants to inform those around him that he hates the world they have made; it bores him, is stupid, and he cannot find a place in it. Like Melville's Bartleby, he would just "prefer not to".
This semi-teenage rite of passage baffles Benjamin as much as it baffles his parents. We see and hear the incomprehension in his very language, which is dull and inexpressive, as if he doesn't really inhabit the words he uses; like everything else around him, language appears to not quite belong to him and there isn't much he can make of it. Most of his speech consists of questions, few of which are answered, or even answerable.
But the triumph of the book, as of the film, is Mrs Robinson. If one essential quality of a good writer is the ability to make memorable characters who appear to transcend the work they appear in, then Mrs Robinson is one of the great monstrous creations of our time. Well-off, middle-aged, alcoholic, bitter, disillusioned, perverse and yet to be rescued by feminism, her situation is far worse than Benjamin's.
Nonetheless, she is the book's only potent character, a smooth, confident seductress, using Benjamin for sex while he is her more or less passive object. That, presumably, is how she likes them. Mrs Robinson, we know, will never consider her lover to be her equal. For her Benjamin is only of use if he is "just a kid", and she always addresses him – with enraging superiority – in the firm terms of a mother to a child. "That's enough," she often says to him, suppressing his curiosity with her constant scolding.
The couple may be able to make love, but as Benjamin points out, they cannot speak to one another. Their attempts at conversation are comically awkward and stilted, as if they are virgins at dialogue. Yet there is some progress even here, as he continues to question her. Having inducted him into the secrets of sex, she does eventually let him into a more complex and painful secret, the truth about marriage as habit, safety and passionless comfort. She neither hates nor loves her husband, and that seems to be all there is to it. Once more numbness is preferable to unhappiness, frustration or worse, the madness of fury. This sentimental education by an older, experienced woman is, in the end, a pedagogy of disillusionment and failure.
When Benjamin decides he wants to break away from Mrs Robinson to begin the relationship with her daughter Elaine which the two families want so much – it is almost an arranged marriage – things turn nasty. The mother may not have much use for Benjamin herself, but she cannot let her daughter have him. Cleverly, she never lets him know why, thus banishing Benjamin into a whirlpool of self-doubt and bewilderment. Mrs Robinson would be happy to destroy Benjamin, and soon becomes a vengeful maternal succubus, the cold, strict prohibitive mother who punishes for no reason apart from her own pleasure. Later she accuses Benjamin of raping her when it was, in a sense, the other way round. If the young American male goes on the road, it may be the mother he is escaping.
Benjamin's father finally intervenes, as he has to, and his solution is to threaten to pass Benjamin on to someone else: a psychiatrist. In the absence of other authorities, it is the white-coated contemporary expert, the psychiatrist, who is appealed to. Already invested with considerable power, the mind doctor might be "the one who knows". Certainly the father doesn't know what to do; the mother doesn't; Mrs Robinson doesn't, and the boy admits that he is lost.
A visit to the psychiatrist is the fate of that other young dissident, Holden Caulfeld in The Catcher in the Rye, who tells his story to a therapist; likewise poor Portnoy with Dr Spielvogel, who famously says at the end of the book: "Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?" Presumably the doctor will be able to straighten these boys out, rendering them normal by removing unnecessary eccentricities and individuality, an ideal of psychiatry which terrified Freud and is exemplified by A Clockwork Orange.
In the end Benjamin does act, doing both a conventional and rebellious thing by running away with Elaine, the one person forbidden him by Mrs Robinson. He has decided to become a teacher, thus fulfilling his family's wishes, though he takes the long way round, making into a choice that which was originally the will of others.
Charles Webb's The Graduate has long been eclipsed by the film (and its soundtrack), but in its deadpan quiet stylishness it is easily its equal, being that most rare and valuable thing, a serious comic novel which both exemplifies its time and continues to speak to us.
I watched the Graduate when I was 17 and was obsessed with it. Everything. The 1960s aesthetics, the pure beauty of the soundtrack, the thrill of transgressive youth and older woman. And for me, identifying with Benjamin, I was thrilled with the journey of the character and the ending. Then I rewatched it at the age of 35, into my middle age, and suddenly, I was identifying with Mrs Robinson. There was a moment in montage sequence of her staring into space after they have made love. She was no longer a villain to me, she was seeking life as time surprised her, as I was beginning to understand the passing of time and youth. We are all victims of time like that.
How sad that I never realized The Graduate was a book - I suppose the film is so huge it eclipsed the novel in modern consciousness.