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Why is Ben Unfree in The Graduate?


While the audience would expect that in the film "The Graduate," the protagonist is free at the end of the film, his facial expression before the movie ends seems to suggest the opposite.

Consider the last scene of the movie, in which Ben–the protagonist–does the impossible to track down the location of the church where his loved one is getting married. Once he miraculously finds the church, he drastically interrupts the wedding by pounding on the glass that separates him from his loved one. In a desperate cry of freedom, he calls out her name, gets her attention, fights her dad, the crowd, and locks them inside the church.

An image from the last scene of the movie "The Graduate," by Mike Nichols, 1967. Image source: Sense of Cinema Ben and his loved one escape on a bus that luckily passes by and drives them away into what seems to be their eternal freedom. Fade to black. The End. This outcome symbolizes Ben defeats the opposition and breaks free, but even with accomplishing success through this major ordeal, the question remains, why does Ben seem unfree per his happy facial expression changes to a look of ‘what now’? Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the “Two Concepts of Liberty,” and his definition of negative and positive freedom will help us understand how and why Ben remains unfree.

Specifically, I argue that, according to Berlin’s concepts of positive and negative freedom, Ben is unfree at the end of the film because he has no long-term goal, and without it, he can’t develop positive freedom. What is at stake is, without understanding Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive freedom, and that a long-term goal is an essential component to obtain the latter, Ben will never be free, but will be at the mercy and under the influence of others.

"Two Concepts of Liberty" by Isaiah Berlin

Berlin introduces in his book these two concepts of freedom as negative and positive freedom, in which negative freedom is an external opposition and positive freedom is internal opposition.

He defines the notion of negative freedom as, “the area within which the subject-a person or group of persons-is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons” (34). This means that anyone has, or is entitled, to a space or range of freedom to make decisions, choices, or to act as they wish, up to the point that another person prevents, interferes, or deprives them of such freedom.

my image Book Cover for "Two Concepts of Liberty," by Isalah Berlin. Image via Goodreads.

Conversely, Berlin writes about the notion of positive freedom as the, “what, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?” (34). By this, he means that we must question and distinguish where the interference comes from, including the fact that the interference may come from within ourselves due to our self-limitations.

Both notions are internal and external forces that oppose and challenge one another. And, what is at stake here, is that you may believe you are free, but you are not, as absolute freedom does not exist. You are either confronted by an external force caused by another person who opposes your freedom, or you are confronted and controlled by an internal limitation that prevents you from achieving your goals.

To explain negative and positive freedom in everyday language, I shall refer to these two senses as contradictory forces, and simplify the term of negative freedom as an external force or opposition that is preventing you from achieving your goal.

For example, you try to arrive on time, but the traffic is holding you back, forcing you to arrive late, in which the traffic represents an external opposition caused by another person. The term of positive freedom, I shall simplify it as an internal force or opposition, which is an inability that generally comes from within yourself and prevents you from achieving your goal. For example, you try to dunk the basketball, but you are not able because you are only five feet tall and can’t reach the basket.

Furthermore, both internal and external forces are always present, constantly opposing, and challenging one another. I will use scenes in the film to show how Berlin’s theories apply to Ben, the protagonist, when he doesn’t have a long-term goal and when he has one, as well as his relationship and dynamic with the other character, Mrs. Robinson, whose role develops throughout the film to becomes the antagonist.

The first scene of the film illustrates Ben as a successful young man, but at the same time it reveals he doesn’t have a long-term goal, and not having a long-term goal means he lacks positive freedom.

The expectation set by the visual reference in the film is that Ben is an important man, a factor conveyed by his arrival at the airport wearing a tip-top suit, as well as the high-class reception at his large fancy house with a pool. This visual language conveys, to the implied audience, Ben characterized as a confident and mature man, full of ideals and hungry for new goals because he worked hard for four years of college, received the benefits of education, was challenged, reformed, and returned home as an award-winning scholar.

my image A photo of Isaiah Berlin. Image source:

However, this is only occurring at the surface, as deep down, he has no long-term goal after graduation, and consequently lacks positive freedom.

For instance, his parents organized a welcome-home-Ben-party to celebrate his success, determination, drive, and wit, but they realize Ben has none of that and instead of enjoying the reception, Ben is secluded in his room, then, his dad comes in and tells him, “the guests are all downstairs, Ben, waiting to see you,” but sensing that there is something wrong, his dad channels the conversation to Ben’s future and asks him, “What about it your future?” Ben insecurely answers, “I don’t know. I want it to be…different,” followed by a long silence and no other explanation.

But “different” is a wish, a mere thought, but it is not a concrete long-term goal, and without one, he is unfree. At this point in the film, Ben lacks positive freedom; therefore, he needs to crystalize his thoughts into a clear goal to enable his capacity and internal force.

Ben doesn't have a clear goal

What’s at stake is the fact that without a clear goal, Ben will drift towards external forces and be influenced by others; thus, Ben’s lack of positive freedom leads to his being the object of others’ negative freedoms.

Hence, at the party, Ben is being pulled in many different directions at the mercy of the ideas and thoughts of the guests and overwhelmed with their unsolicited advice, his only resource is to rush to his room to be alone and free from others. Ben’s withdrawal is captured by Berlin’s theories when he writes, “I wish to be somebody, not nobody; a doer-deciding, not being decided for, self-directed… of conceiving goals and policies of my own and realizing them” (44).

my image Ben in his bedroom with an aquarium in the background. Image source:

Berlin’s theory explains Ben’s behavior at the party and reinforces that if Ben wants to be a master of his own faith or destiny, he must conceive his next long-term goal. Otherwise, he will continue to lack positive freedom and continue to be at the mercy of external forces. Ben believes he has a goal when he tells his dad that he wants his future to be “different,” yet Ben is wrong because “different” is not a goal, but a wish, a thought, desire, or hope. It is everything and anything but a long-term goal.

Conversely, his antagonist in the film, Mrs. Robinson, is the biggest example of someone who has fully realized positive freedom because she knows what she wants, has a long-term goal, and takes steps to achieve her goal.

She is the wife of Mr. Robinson and Ben’s father’s business partner. At first look, the expectation is that Mrs. Robinson is a sophisticated, educated person with a luxurious lifestyle who lives by the book, but complications arise when she reveals to the audience that her goal is to find pleasure outside her marriage.

my image Mrs. Robinson overhearing Ben's conversation. Image source:

She senses Ben’s lack of positive freedom and vulnerability, moves towards her goal, and asks him to drive her home. At her house, she fully undresses and shows herself naked to Ben with an expectation to sleep with him, she says, “Benjamin, I want you to know that I’m available to you,” and focusing on her goal, she makes herself available to Ben. This is especially important because she has a clear goal of what she wants and takes what Berlin calls rational steps to satisfy her goal. In other words, she has something in mind and perseveres to make it happen.

For instance, she stands naked in front of Ben but complications arise when Ben is too nervous to sleep with her and wants to leave the bedroom, so Mrs. Robinson, to succeed, takes another rational step towards her goal and tells Ben, “If you won’t sleep with me this time, I want you to know that you can call me any time you want and we’ll make some kind of an arrangement.” She makes it very clear that she is just a call away.

Mrs. Robinson’s goals and aspirations are not in question, as in her mind, she takes rational steps to satisfy them. It doesn’t matter if you agree with her goal or not, what matters is that she has a goal that represents a stairway to freedom, and she takes rational steps to reach her goal to be free through a fully realized positive freedom.

my image The Graduate. Image source: Hollywoodsuite

Afterward, Ben’s positive freedom is set in motion when he meets and falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, yet this is ironic and unexpected because initially meeting her was itself an imposition by Ben’s parents. But to everyone’s surprise, Ben wants to marry Elaine after their first date, and a marriage, is a clear long-term goal, which in turn enables Ben’s capacity to achieve positive freedom.

This event gives purpose to Ben and lays out his staircase to freedom, in which he must discover and follow rational steps to reach his goal and be free. This is an important moment because, with a long-term goal, Ben’s determination, drive, and wit are back, and the force of positive freedom empowers him. Berlin writes, “The defence of liberty consists in the 'negative' goal of warding off interference” (40). That is, Ben’s long-term goal not only empowers Ben’s positive freedom, but it also deflects the negative freedom of others.

The Power of Positive Freedom

Along with the power of positive freedom, Ben doesn’t have to try to avoid the negative freedom that comes with fending off the external desires of others as he satisfies his internalized desire; this time, with positive freedom manifest, he can challenge external forces through negative freedom.

For example, Ben tells his parents, “I’m going to marry Elaine Robinson.” But after the excitement of the announcement, his parents question the details and realize that what Ben says doesn’t make sense, so his dad tells him, “Ben this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.” But Ben confidently replies, “it’s completely baked…It’s a decision I made.” Meaning that Ben made up his mind, and with this, the capacity to achieve positive freedom against the intervention of others and their negative freedom in warding off those interventions.

From this point onwards and until the end of the film, Ben will face the external forces from a variety of people, starting with Elaine, who is not sure to marry him, and then Mrs. and Mr. Robinson who oppose his marriage. But this time, their negative freedom doesn’t matter because Ben develops his own negative freedom, and the capacity to resist the external forces of others.

As a result, and in search of their freedom, the characters’ internal and external forces, and the freedoms and lack of them, constantly challenge, and collide with one another. For example, despite Mrs. Robinson’s external force, Ben resists and strives for freedom.

To illustrate this concept, I refer to the heavy rain scene, in which Ben takes rational steps towards his long-term goal and parks his vehicle at Elaine’s home to pick her up. The expectation is that he and Elaine are going out on their second date, but Ben is unpleasantly surprised when Mrs. Robinson abruptly gets in his car and asks him to drive away. This scene is an acute example of external and internal opposition in which both forces are confronting, colliding, and challenging one another happening in compressed physical space and length of time.

For the first time in the film, Mrs. Robinson threatens Ben by telling him, “I can make things quite unpleasant…I am prepared to tell her Elaine everything.” Mrs. Robinson does everything in her power and prevents Ben from attaining his goal.

However, Ben counteracts and takes rational steps towards his freedom and long-term goal, which is to be with Elaine, but Mrs. Robinson continues to oppose, sets boundaries, and prohibits Ben from seeing Elaine ever again. Ben runs out of his car, reaches Elaine first, and tells her the truth about the affair with Mrs. Robinson. This scene illustrates Ben has changed. Now, he has the direction of his long-term goal and the power of positive freedom. Consequently, he takes decisive steps towards his long-term goal and proves his positive freedom leads to his ability to keep negative freedom around him.

my image Ben abruptly stops Elaine's wedding. Image source:

Finally, while the audience would expect that at the end of the film Ben is elated because of his gleeful facial expression, what we see is that he feels unfree as his face turns into a ‘what now’ look. If having positive freedom is what sets you free, then he should be excited, delighted, and overjoyed. But he isn’t.

The last scene represents that he engaged in vigorous combat and strenuous effort to get Elaine back, it also implies the perfect escape to freedom, in which he earned the final reward and victoriously drank the elixir of life. However, seconds after, as the ecstasy fades away, he still feels unfree.

The reason he feels unfree is because a long-term goal is an essential component of positive freedom, and Ben, in this last scene, achieves his long-term goal to be with Elaine. After this triumphant moment, he has no other goal, nothing to pursue, nor a staircase to freedom. And while the film gracefully suggests he is free and gets away inside the bus under the California sunset, with the “The Sound of Silence” song playing in the background, yet Ben can only be free once he finds his next long-term goal.

my image The famous look of 'what now?' Image source:

In conclusion, Berlin’s concepts of negative and positive freedom are found throughout the film as opposing forces that constantly challenge one another. While I have demonstrated the positive and negative freedom when Ben has and doesn’t have a long-term goal, these two opposing forces are found in every character in the film.

What is at stake, is that individuals may believe Berlin’s concepts of freedom and its opposing forces may exist only in the film, but these two freedoms and forces also exist in their lives. The concepts of negative and positive freedom, challenge and collide with one another, and within the people around them; thus, individuals either influence and curtail someone else’s freedom, or are under the influence of someone else.

So, individuals must ask themselves; do they have a long-term goal that enables a stairway to their freedom? If so, once they reach it, what is next? As they must have a long-term goal to achieve their capacity for positive freedom, which in turn, it is the freedom they need to execute their own goals.