The Emancipation of Elaine Robinson
Decide for yourself after seeing the show, but I believe The Graduate is really the coming-of-age story of Elaine Robinson.
Mrs. Robinson describes her daughter as “naive, unworldly, and absurdly sincere.” A fair summation, really, of the way Elaine exists in the minds of her parents. She’s a good girl. She’s studious, obeys the rules, values the guidance of her father, and lives up to the 1950s standards he’s set for her. Her mother’s questionable, bourbon-fueled parenting pushes Elaine further into her father’s grasp(?) rather than upward toward something better. Perhaps that better ‘something’ is the degree in art that Mrs. Robinson had to abandon. Perhaps it is personal autonomy and a life without the limitations that trapped her as a young woman. Perhaps it is simply anything but what’s expected.
Elaine is “absurdly sincere”. She’s well mannered, but she says what she’s thinking (eventually) and moves through the world wide open to everyone and everything that comes her way. “Unworldly” doesn’t seem to fit, though. She keeps up with the news, she reads thought-provoking works like The Fountainhead, goes on the civil rights march, and even takes the time to go see The Mona Lisa. We all know people like this – people with a thousand crazy stories just because they pay attention and embrace every opportunity to experience something new. She seems “naive” because she sees the good in the world, not because she is ignorant of the bad.
And she would probably continue to move through the world in that manner… but then Benjamin happens.
Even after their disastrous first date, even after his affair with her mother comes to light, even after he stalks her, even after he punched her fiancé in the face, she elopes with him. Why? Why? Why?
Because she chooses to.
Don’t sell Elaine short. This is revolutionary thinking: she CHOOSES him.
In an early scene, Elaine and her mother exchange this bit of dialogue:
Elaine: I’m going to have a forever love
Mrs. R: Look as hard as you like, sweetheart
Elaine: You don’t look. That’s not the point. You choose.
Mrs. R: so young
Elaine: the love’s in you and you just choose.
Mrs. Robinson’s jaded-ness leads her to dismiss this line of thinking as naïveté instead of seeing it as a glimmer of hope that her daughter may turn out like she’d hoped after all.
Benjamin is likely one of the first men in Elaine’s life to sincerely listen to what she says. Him actually paying attention to her and knowing that she wants more than a conventional life, I think, is what ultimately draws her into his arms. He sees her, not her parents’ version of her.
While having a man be the driving force of Elaine’s liberation may not be the most feminist of fables, Benjamin even asking her the question ‘is this what you want?’ is a huge step forward. And her answer of ‘I don’t know what I want, but I do know this isn’t it’ is the revelation she never knew she needed.
Elaine’s story in The Graduate may not be perfect, but – I believe- it’s the jumping-off point for great things to come.
Arianne Jacques, Resident Actor
Elaine Robinson, The Graduate
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