The Ending of The Graduate
The most discussed aspect of The Graduate is its ending, which is notable for being ambiguous and slightly ominous. When Ben and Elaine get on the bus heading away from the church, their facial expressions seem to betray the confidence they had when escaping from the people at Elaine’s wedding. This strange moment right before the credits roll often gets more attention than the moments that precede it. Interestingly, the scene when Ben crashes Elaine’s wedding seems to offer a slightly more optimistic view of the couple’s future than their moment on the bus does.
One hopeful moment occurs when Ben yells Elaine’s name from the balcony behind a glass barrier. The glass barrier represents the communication barrier that runs through the alienated lives of all of the characters in The Graduate. Throughout the movie, characters frequently mishear other characters and ask, “What?” (In fact, this frequently used word is the last spoken line of dialogue in Charles Webb’s original novel). Several times, characters misunderstand Ben and Ben himself does not know what he wants to ask of other people. Indeed, the inclusion of “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel in the film highlight this theme of miscommunication. Singer Art Garfunkel has said that the song is about “the inability of people to communicate with each other” (Eliot 40). With that ongoing theme of hopeless inability in mind, it helps the audience feel optimistic at the end of the movie when Ben is able to make himself heard, in spite of the barriers (both figurative and literal) that have been placed in front of him. Characters around Elaine are only seen mouthing dialogue to her, and the only character she can hear audibly is Ben. This connection implies a deep level of similarity between the two characters, and implies that they will be in sync during their future together.
What is the meaning of the final exchange between Elaine and Mrs. Robinson? When Mrs. Robinson tells Elaine, “It’s too late,” it seems to refer to the fact that Elaine cannot leave her arranged marriage since the ceremony is already over (The Graduate). The fact that Elaine cries, “Not for me” in response implies that Elaine sees Mrs. Robinson’s phrase as referring to her entire future (The Graduate). Elaine (as well as Ben) has felt pressure to follow the same high-class, alienated lifestyle as her parents. Mrs. Robinson is clearly interested in forcing her daughter into the same unwanted married life that she herself was forced into. The fact that Elaine breaks ties with her family and goes against her parent’s wishes by leaving with Ben implies that she still has the agency to carve out the future of her choosing.
So, does the ending shot of the film, when the happy expressions on the couple’s faces change to expressions of terror, mean that their future is already predetermined to turn out like the futures of their families? People who state that the film ends pessimistically ignore the fact that it is a natural reaction to feel nervous or terrified upon cutting all ties with one’s family. It can be easy to forget in this moment that the dysfunctional family lifestyle of the Robinsons was enough to force Ben and Elaine to rebel. If they were able to perform the initial act of rebellion by running away from the wedding, they may still be able to make the conscious effort of having different lives than those of their parents. In The Graduate, the only thing that gives Ben’s life meaning is the presence of Elaine. Since Elaine holds so much importance to Ben, it is likely that their relationship will not be a loveless marriage like the one of the Robinsons, marked by alienation and spitefulness. It may not be possible to call the ending moments of the film optimistic, since their future is still mysterious and the likelihood for mistakes is ever present, but the ending is more optimistic than it seems at first.
Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2010. Print.
Nichols, Mike. The Graduate. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1967. Film.
Simon and Garfunkel. “The Sound of Silence.” Sounds of Silence, Columbia, 1966. CD.
Webb, Charles. The Graduate. New York: Signet Classics, 1963. Print.