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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Intimacy and Role Confusion: Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson

Emerging adulthood is a unique time in one’s life. It is a time of significant social and emotional development in the lifespan. The prefrontal cortex (the last part of the brain to fully develop) begins to close, and as a result young adults are more flexible and dialectic (sometimes called postformal thought) than their adolescent counterparts. However, what stands out the most when it comes to young adult development is their desires, what they seem to put their lives towards: intimacy.

Erik Erikson noted that people of all ages develop their personality around the resolution of certain conflicts, between two sides of a particular desire. The young adult stage was theorized by Erikson as Intimacy versus Isolation. Essentially, the young adult is torn between wanting to be intimate with a partner and fearing isolation, a life without love. They develop their personality towards these ends.

In 1967, Dustin Hoffman starred in the Academy Award winning film The Graduate. The films opens with Benjamin Braddock returning home from the east coast after graduating college. In one of the opening scenes, he is shown in his room, while his parent’s friends are throwing his graduation party. He is completely overwhelmed by everything. Though he denies he is worried, he says to his father that, “it’s about my future… I expected it to be different”. He is clearly shown to be worried and unsure about where he is going in life. In one scene, he is lazily drifting around his parent’s pool, and his father asks why he is just drifting rather than going into graduate school, he responds, “it’s very comfortable to just drift here.”

These two scenes are perfect visualizations of adolescent social development Erikson observed. He noted that adolescents desire to know who they and what they desire, in the conflict of Identity versus Role Confusion. Ben is shown to be confused with what he wants in life. His worries about the future are what led him “drift” around. He was a scholarship winning student, track star, and newspaper editor in college but was still confused about what he truly wanted. Continuing on in the film, this role confusion in Ben developed into a desire for intimacy. It led him to one of the greatest femme fatale characters to appear in Hollywood cinema.

Mrs. Robinson, on the day of Ben’s graduation party, noticed he was overwhelmed. She tricked him into driving her home and into having a drink while her husband was away. He rejected her advances the first night, but after a few weeks he is just as overwhelmed as ever, and begins to desire intimacy with Mrs. Robinson being the willing candidate. Erikson noted this type of behavior young adults exhibit. He said that young adults put themselves, “in situations that call for self-abandon: in the solidarity of close affiliations … and sexual unions”.  This self abandon is apparent in Ben as the two are undressing for their affair. Before anything happens, he tells Mrs. Robinson that he can’t do it. He mentions, “could you imagine what [my parents] would say if they saw us here right now?” He is shown to still be confused by his identity, though when challenged by Mrs. Robinson as feeling inadequate, he is quick to follow through with the affair.

It is this affair which gives him identity and a reason to get up. He is clearly not proud of it, but it is what he looks forward too as he was too overwhelmed to go to graduate school. Moving on from role confusion, he now desires his affair with Mrs. Robinson. It is a great portrayal of the adolescent moving into young adulthood. Ben is confused about what he wants and overwhelmed about his future; and it is this fear that leads him to his desire for Mrs. Robinson. He soon “self-abandons’, he forgets what his parents taught him and the scholarships he won as a student and only looks forward to his nights with Mrs. Robinson.

Soon however, he changes. One night, he asks, “do you think we could say a few words to each other this time?” He is clearly maturing in the way Erikson noted. He is beginning to no longer want only sex, but to be more intimate. This moves on into his date with Elaine Robinson. While he avoids her at first, he tells her that she is “the first thing in so long that I’ve liked”. His desires for intimacy are becoming fulfilled, he is succeeding in his social crisis. His desires for Elaine are in a completely different way than Mrs. Robinson. While Mr. and Mrs. Robinson do what they can to keep them apart, Ben “self-abandons” again and leaves for Berkeley. This decision shows the social change young adults go through in their personality development, as he leaves home, his isolation, to gain his intimacy back with Elaine. This stage in Ben’s development shows what he desires, and what he is willing to sacrifice.

It is no secret that young adults desire intimacy, and The Graduate remains a classic narrative of a young adult’s personality crisis to “abandon” for that intimacy. The question that is raised by what Erikson and Dustin Hoffman show is, how far are young adults willing to self-abandon? What morals or needs will they sacrifice to reach this abandon? Ben, a decorated student fully qualified for graduate school, and Elaine for that matter, gave it all up for their psychic desire for intimacy. Further questions should look into this subject, could this desire for intimacy be what is causing so many young adults to drop out of college or not go in the first place? Do they find a compatible mate and call their needs met? Could it be a cause of sexual mistakes? Looking at the numbers of students dropping out of college is very discouraging, and the higher level of education we go up (e.g. bachelor’s to master’s degrees) the more student drop out. Despite the film’s age, The Graduate serves as a very accurate portrayal of young adulthood struggles, and can help in answering these problem.


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