Movie Reviews

The Graduate Ending, Explained

Mike Nichols’s The Graduate has one of the most memorable endings in movie history, but it’s also ambiguous and open to interpretation, with questions that need to be answered and meanings that need to be explained. Adapted from Charles Webb’s novel of the same name, The Graduate revolves around aimless recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), who begins an affair with an older married woman, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), before falling in love with her daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). The Graduate became iconic for flipping a typical Hollywood romance on its head. It received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and Nichols won Best Director.

Parodied in everything from The Simpsons to Wayne’s World 2, the iconic final shot of The Graduate has become an endearing staple of popular culture. After providing audiences with the expected closure of the two leads running off to start a life together, the camera sticks around to hammer home the uncertainty of Ben and Elaine’s future – and anyone’s future. By throwing moviemaking conventions out the window and reflecting the harsh realities of life, the bittersweet ending of The Graduate made it one of the forerunners of the New Hollywood movement along with Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde.

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When Elaine’s furious father (Murray Hamilton) forbids Ben from seeing her and forces her to drop out of school to marry her classmate Carl Smith (Brian Avery), Ben breaks into their home to reclaim his love. Song namesake Mrs. Robinson, resentful of Ben for revealing the affair that destroyed her marriage, tells him he can’t break off Elaine’s marriage. Ben, determined to do just that, drives to Carl’s frat house and learns the wedding is happening in Santa Barbara that day. His car breaks down on the way to the church, so he runs the rest of the way and arrives just in time for the end of the ceremony.

Ben pounds on a pane of glass overlooking the church’s sanctuary and shouts to Elaine. Her parents and the groom are infuriated by Ben’s presence, but Elaine calls back to him and flees the church with him. Ben wards off the movie’s wedding guests by swinging around a big cross, slides that cross into the door handles to trap them inside, and races to a nearby bus with the love of his life. As the bus departs and Ben and Elaine take a seat at the back, their enthusiastic smiles gradually turn to a look of fear, unsure about the future that lies ahead of them.

After Ben breaks off the affair to pursue a romance with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson is determined to keep the two apart. When she threatens to tell Elaine about the affair, Ben preempts her by revealing the truth himself. Mrs. Robinson is dead against the romance, but she never makes it clear why she’s so desperate to keep Ben away from Elaine; there are a few different ways to interpret it. It’s possible that Mrs. Robinson doesn’t think that Ben is good enough for Elaine because he’s the kind of guy who would sleep with a married woman — even if that married woman is her.

Another possible explanation for Mrs. Robinson’s aversion to Ben’s romance with Elaine is that she’s jealous and doesn’t want Ben to be with anybody but her. Alternatively, she might resent Ben because he’s the reason why her marriage is falling apart, while he got off with no consequences, so she doesn’t want him to be happy. The most emotionally complicated explanation is that Mrs. Robinson resents Elaine, not Ben, in The Graduate’s love triangle. After she got pregnant with Elaine, Mrs. Robinson was forced to marry a man she didn’t really love. In her eyes, Elaine would ruin her life again if she took away her lover.

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Following the climactic sequence in which Ben and Elaine flee the church and board a passing bus, The Graduate’s final shot stays locked on the troubled looks on Ben and Elaine’s faces as the bus leaves. The wedding scene sets up a typical Hollywood ending: the hero declares his love for the leading lady in an extravagant display of affection, and they run off like Cinderella and Prince Charming. Then, the camera lingers past the Hollywood happy ending as they both look off into the distance and consider the ramifications of their decision, suggesting that the ending might not be so happy after all.

The bittersweet tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” kicks in on the soundtrack as Ben and Elaine ponder their future together. While Ben ends up with his true love and Elaine escapes her arranged marriage to Carl, The Graduate’s final scene is not necessarily a “happily ever after” ending. Most Hollywood endings imply that the central couple will share a perfect, everlasting union beyond the end credits, but that’s rarely the case in romantic relationships. The poignant closing shot of The Graduate tells the audience that Ben and Elaine don’t know what the future will bring.

In 2007, almost 40 years after The Graduate hit theaters, Charles Webb published a sequel novel entitled Home School. Set 10 years after its predecessor, the book provided closure on The Graduate’s ambiguous ending, explaining what happened to Ben and Elaine in the years after they got on that bus and left their old lives behind, but it was poorly received by critics. Ben and Elaine, now married and living in Westchester, butt heads with the school board in their quest to homeschool their sons. According to the New York Daily News, the plot of Home School was inspired by Webb’s own struggle to homeschool his own children.

This sequel offers a much more on-the-nose exploration of the original story’s theme of disillusionment with the education system. In both its literary and cinematic form, The Graduate and its French New Wave-inspired adaptation were a lot subtler in their satire of aimless youth and the pointlessness of most aspects of education. Home School reduced Mrs. Robinson, one of the original story’s most complex characters, to a one-note archetype as Ben and Elaine recruited her to seduce and blackmail their sons’ principal. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, David L. Ulin wrote, “After reading Home School, I wish we’d never seen Benjamin and Elaine get off that bus.”

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