Author: Charles Webb
Original Publication: 1963
#428 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
When brilliant 20-year old Benjamin Braddock returns home after graduating college, his parents throw him a graduation party and invite all of their friends. Everyone is thrilled about his numerous academic and athletic achievements, and badgers him to tell them what his plans for the future are. Benjamin, however, is disenchanted with nearly everything about his life, and is made extremely uncomfortable by their attention. When Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s longtime business partner, asks Benjamin for a ride home, he grudgingly obliges. She forces him to come inside and attempts to seduce him, but Benjamin is horrified and refuses.
Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you. Aren’t you?
Benjamin returns home even more discouraged and announces his intention to go on a road trip, in order to cast off the societal expectations which come with his family’s wealth and spend his life “amongst the common people.” He only lasts for about three weeks on the road, then returns and calls Mrs. Robinson and begins an affair with her. Meanwhile, the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, is due to return from college at Berkeley and both of their fathers are encouraging Ben to call her and ask her out. Mrs. Robinson is furious and forbids it, threatening to reveal their affair if Benjamin goes near Elaine. Unfortunately, his father forces his hand and says that unless Ben asks Elaine out, he’s going to invite all three Robinsons over for a dinner party. Ben decides that taking Elaine out might be far less awkward than a family dinner, so he picks her up and is intentionally mean to her and takes her to a strip club. When Elaine cries and demands to be taken home, Ben apologizes and awkwardly kisses her, and they go out for dinner. He discovers that she is someone he can really talk to and falls in love with her.
When Mrs. Robinson threatens to expose him, he decides that he must tell Elaine before her mother does. He does, but before he can fully explain, Elaine furiously throws him out of the house and returns to college. After moping for several months, Benjamin decides that he is going to marry Elaine and drives to Berkeley to talk to her. He discovers that Mrs. Robinson has told Elaine that Ben raped her while she was drunk. Ben manages to set her straight, but Elaine reveals that while she is fond of him, she has already tentatively accepted another proposal from a boy she is dating. When Mrs. Robinson finds out that Ben is in Berkeley, she tells her husband and Ben’s parents about the affair, and both fathers come to Berkeley in order to berate Ben. The Robinsons whisk Elaine away and force her into a quickie marriage with the other boy. The Robinsons are in the midst of a divorce, the fathers are dissolving their business partnership, and both families are in shambles. The last scene shows Ben interrupting the wedding, and he and Elaine running away together.
I was particularly struck in the novel by how evil Mrs. Robinson is! This was a quick read (I finished it in a sitting), and I really enjoyed it. Benjamin reminded me of what Holden Caulfield probably became four years after The Catcher in the Rye. Ben is brilliant and wickedly funny and cynical, and I liked his character. For example, when he returns from his road trip and his father is interrogating him about what he was up to, he reveals that he spent the night with a prostitute in a cow field. His father says “So, you were doing a lot of drinking.” Ben shoots back “Well, it’s awfully unlikely that I would spend the night with a stinking whore in a field full of frozen manure if I were stone cold sober, isn’t it?” The famous “Plastics” conversation from the movie never takes place in the book.
Fun Fact: I heard an anecdote once with regard to the movie, where the current Dean of the University of Oregon was asked for his permission to film the portions of the movie at the college. He read the script and decided to decline permission, thinking that a young man being seduced by an older woman was not the sort of story that the school should be associated with. When the movie was released, the Dean saw it and liked it, and surmised that he must be a rather lousy judge of screenplays. When his permission was asked for another movie to be filmed at the University of Oregon, he approved it without reading it. That movie was Animal House.
Bother if: This was a solidly good story and a fun, quick read. Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are great characters, and it’s a classic. If you’ve seen the movie, I had trouble picturing the characters as anyone other than Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. It’s less about a young man having an affair with an older woman than it is about a young man trying to figure himself out. I imagine that most people can identify with Benjamin’s feelings about society and his place (or lack of place) in it as they venture into the world for the first time from school. Not having the slightest idea what one wants to do with their life is a pretty standard sentiment, I think.
Don’t Bother if: It’s a period piece and reflects the upper-middle-class society of the early 1960’s. I was reminded of Mad Men (the television show) by most of the adults. The writing style is stilted in the same way that J.D. Salinger’s is (marked by intentionally slangy or choppy dialogue and narration), but I rather enjoy that style. There is a lot of casual drinking, smoking, and swearing (“Goddammit, Elaine!”) The sex, while implied, is never graphically detailed. ‘And then he climbed on top of her and began the affair.’ There is also, of course, Benjamin’s involvement with a married woman twice his age. I thought it was a worthwhile read, but if you have particular objections to any of the above, you may want to skip this one.