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Counterculture & The Graduate and its Soundtrack by “Simon & Garfunkel”

By Helynna Lin, VI Form


Counterculture & The Graduate and Its Soundtrack by “Simon & Garfunkel”

I. Introduction

The term Counterculture refers to a set of movements, ideal, and practices that emerged in the American culture between the 1960s and the 1970s. The counterculture was largely a response to the Cold War’s effects on the American society, and there were four core beliefs. First, advocates for counterculture rejected capitalism, for they believed that western corporates used Cold War politics to expand their markets worldwide and gain a larger profit. Second, in response to the rise of uniformity, counterculture rejected conformism and encouraged individuals to break the shackles of society’s expectations. Third, the rise of individualism caused an emergence of sexual liberation and experimentation as a movement against the traditional family model. Finally, the counterculture was mainly supported by the teenage generation, who came up with the slogan “don’t trust people over 30”.[1] [2]

Mike Nichol’s The Graduate (1967) is a bildungsroman that illustrates the transition from teenage years to adulthood of the protagonist, Benjamin Braddock. The movie’s soundtrack features many songs by “Simon & Garfunkel”, a folk-rock duo formed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.

Simon was the composer of most of the duo’s works. In 1964, they recorded their first acoustic rock album, Wednesday Morning: 3 AM, which included a single titled The Sound of Silence. The album initially failed to gain an impressive success in the market. However, after their music producer dubbed The Sound of Silence with an electrical band and released it once again, the song became a great hit, eventually making the whole album popular and reaching a million copies’ sale.[3] In 1966, the duo released two other albums, Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, both of which included songs that were later used as the soundtrack of The Graduate.[4]

What makes counterculture distinct in all American social movements is that for the first time in history, age, rather than religion, class or race, becomes the dividing line between the politically and culturally opposing sides. As a Bildungsroman in this special period of time, The Graduate models the combat between two generations through the portrayal of its groundbreaking love triangle: Ben, a recent high-school graduate; Mrs Robinson, a middle-aged woman; and Elaine Robinson, Mrs Robinson’s teenage daughter. Because Ben eventually elopes with Elaine at the end of the movie, it is easy to conclude that Nichol grants victory to the youngsters, thus praising values of counterculture. However, an analysis of the movie’s soundtrack exposes Nichol’s own perspective on counterculture. Nichol regards counterculture as a reflection of teenage rebellion that all generations experience. He encourages mutual understanding between generations and undermines counterculture’s significance as a social movement.

In this essay, I will explore on the connection between the movie’s plot and three Simon & Garfunkel’s songs in the soundtrack: “The Sound of Silence”, “Mrs Robinson”, and “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”. I will first analyze the way in which the songs’ lyrics compliment and annotate the portrayal of characters, and then discuss how such intertextuality reflects the director’s opinion on counterculture.

II. “The Sound of Silence” and Benjamin Braddock’s Inner Turmoil

The song “The Sound of Silence” is used in two scenes that portray Ben’s spiritual emptiness. It first appears in the beginning scene, in which Ben stands on a moving conveyor belt with a white wall in the background, eyes blank and body motionless. While the unified, linear white bricks’ pattern is a symbol of uniformity, Ben’s body language indicates his indifferent and aimless mentality. Later, the audience learns that he had just ended a high school career filled with scholarships and leadership positions – achievements celebrated by values of conformism. Thus, the meaning of this scene becomes clear. Literally, Ben is carried forward by the conveyor belt; figuratively, he is driven by the society’s images of success. Upon his first appearance, Ben is established as an icon of counterculture – a teenager who has begun to reject mainstream values.
In this scene, “The Sound of Silence” highlights Ben’s frustration and foreshadows his upcoming transition. Simon’s lyrics vividly portray a man who ardently calls for communication in a world that mutes voices: “Hear my words that I might teach you / Take my arms that I might reach you / But my words, like silent raindrops fell / And echoed in the wells of silence.”[5] These lines are artistic expressions of counterculture’s anti-conformist ideals. It is easy for the audience to relate Ben to the song’s narrative, identifying him as a prophetic rebel who shall establish individual value in the midst of a uniform, wordless mass. Moreover, the lyrics anticipate Ben’s encounter with the influence of capitalism: “And the people bowed and prayed / To the neon God they made.”[6] “Neon” is a symbol of the artificial, consumerist products of industries and corporates, thus alluding to the rise of capitalism at the time. “Neon” forms a symmetry with the passionate “plastics!” call from one of Mr. Braddock’s colleagues to Ben: both are icons of the materialistic pursuit that counterculture supporters loathe. By using “The Sound of Silence” in this scene, the director wishes to offer insight into Ben’s inner turmoil and connect it to counterculture values.

The first appearance of “The Sound of Silence” sets up the audience’s anticipation towards Ben’s character development. The second time that Nichol uses the song, however, he creates irony. The music begins right after Ben and Mrs Robinson have had sex together for the first time and follows a montage of Ben’s summer days: having more sex with Mrs Robinson and lying around the swimming pool. Ben’s resorting to sex with Mrs Robinson, in fact, once again alludes to counterculture values. Mrs Robinson’s sly seduction proves the famous “don’t Trust People over 30” slogan, and Ben’s engagement in an extremely unconventional sexual relationship embraces ideas of sexual liberation. At this point, Ben has embodied the expectations of counterculture, and his actions are evaluated by the repetition of “The Sound of Silence”. Responding to its appearance in the beginning scene, the song implies that Ben’s behavior is his resolution to the inner emptiness. However, the profound, heartfelt concerns of the song’s lyrics are a sharp contrast to Ben’s shallowness and indifference, casting doubt on counterculture’s capacity to resolve the problems that it suggests.

III. “Mrs. Robinson” and Mrs. Robinson’s Struggle with Gender Expectations

Simon originally composed a song titled “Mrs. Roosevelt”, but Nichol asked him to alter the name to “Mrs. Robinson” so that it can be part of The Graduate’s soundtrack. While the song appears in the scene where Ben pursues Elaine, it is more reasonable to juxtapose it with a scene that is focused on Mrs. Robinson, namely the scene that features her confession of her past. After Ben’s prodding, Mrs. Robinson admits that she was once a student who studied art. After an accidental pregnancy, however, she is forced to submit to her gender roles and become a wife. Immediately, the image of a younger Mrs. Robinson fits into that of an advocate for counterculture: art is undoubtedly one of the most anti-conformist, anti-capitalist majors. It becomes possible that her demand for sex is her way of expressing her desires and liberating herself from social norms.

By using “Mrs. Robinson”, Nichol strengthens Mrs. Robinson’s image of a suppressed woman now seeking for individualistic expressions. The song implies that she has frequented mental health counseling, as indicated by the lines narrated in the voice of a psychiatrist, “We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files / We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.”[7] Further, the song reveals that Mr Robinson has an affair. However, Mrs. Robinson is forced to “Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes.”[8] With such a background, her envy towards her youthful daughter, as well as her later attempts to separate Ben and Elaine, can be justified as a natural reaction to her sadness over the loss of youth. The song represents the plight of women in the 1950s and the 1960s, depicting Mrs. Robinson as a victim of gender expectations and inviting empathy from the audience.

While Mrs. Robinson is previously one of the “people over 30”, her moment of confession places her in between the two battling generations. In this character, youngsters can see a possible future, in which they eventually submit to traditional values; elders can see their past, in which they may have been just as rebellious as their sons and daughters. Using the plot and the music together to portray Mrs. Robinson, Nichol urges both generations to consider the rationale of using age as a dividing line in the counterculture movement.

IV. “Scarborough Fair / Canticle” and Ben’s pursuit of Elaine

“Scarborough Fair / Canticle” appears on the background when Ben pursues Elaine in the University of California, Berkeley. Here, Nichols once again tries to make Ben’s motives more profound by using the soundtrack. “Scarborough Fair” is originally and English folk song that features a lover demanding his companion to prove her love by completing for him a series of impossible tasks, including “make me a cambric shirt,” “find me an acre of land,” and so forth. Paul Simon adds to the music new melody lines that respond to the original phrases. Simon’s lyrics are shown below in the parenthesis:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine

Tell her to make me a cambric shirt (deep forest green)
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme
Without no seams nor needle work (blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine (sleeps unaware of the clarion call)

Tell her to find me an acre of land (a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand (A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
She’ll be a true love of mine

Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather (War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley sage rosemary and thyme (General order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather (And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine

Are you going to Scarborough Fair
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine[9]

Simon’s lyrics have two effects on the movie’s representation of Ben. First, depicting images of a soldier’s life and criticizing the cruelty of war, these lines connect the traditional folk song to anti-war initiatives of counterculture. However, the song’s heavy context does not match with the characters’ actions and motives. Ben is simply pursuing a romantic crush in the most reckless ways possible: renting an apartment in her college, following her onto the bus, etc.. He shows no sign of supporting the anti-war movements. Not only so, Berkeley appears on the screen to be a serene college campus, even though it was actually the centre of the Free Speech Movement of counterculture.
Second, the song’s original lyrics describe a loss of love, rather than a quest for it. “She once was a true love of mine,” the man states. “Then she’ll be a true love of mine,” the man promises. According to his narrative, his love is already in past tense, and only by breaking the boundaries of reality can the woman return to him. The statement is a reminiscent one; the promise, bitter. Again, the song seems unfitting with Ben’s situation at hand.
By using “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, Nichol depicts Ben’s pursuit of Elaine as a remembrance for the pure romance that is untouched by sex. Such a perspective can find its audience in the elder generation at the time, who opposes the youngsters’ concepts of sexual liberation and glorifies its conservatism in sex as pure adolescent romance. They would love the nostalgia in the song. However, this perspective can also find its audience in supporters of the counterculture movement, who praise quest for individualism and spirituality. They would love the song’s sincerity. Nichol suggests that what helps Ben reach a final resolution is not ideas of the counterculture movement, but a desire for true, pure love, something that can be used by both sides. Meanwhile, the absence of actual counterculture activities strengthens Ben’s detachment from this social event. Just like how the music floats in the background, ideologies of counterculture stay in the air and never affect Ben’s actions.

V. Conclusion

In The Graduate, a comparison between the plot and the corresponding soundtrack leads to Nichol’s attempt to undermine counterculture as a social movement and bring the two generations together. First, he doubts the ability of the counterculture movement to promote real social progress. Then, he challenges its foundation on the generation gap and implies that it is essentially a phase that the elder generation has also experienced. Finally, he impairs its significance in the spiritual development of individuals, suggesting that intrinsic, spiritual romance – as abstract as it sounds – is the resolution. Nichol ultimately seeks to find a common ground between the two generations. Thus, Ben is bewildered rather than assertive, Mrs. Robinson used to be a radical youngster, and Elaine is the very epitome of purity. Nichol wants the Bens to understand the Mrs. Robinsons, the Mrs. Robinsons to resonate with the Bens, and both the Bens and the Mrs. Robinsons to resort to the Elaines. Because of Nichol’s efforts to appeal to all generations and highlight a universal value, The Graduate remains popular in the year after the counterculture movement died down.




Glass, Matthew. “Counterculture.” Encyclopedia of American Religious History, Third Edition.

Facts On File, 2009. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/194509?q=counterculture.

Schwartz, Richard A. “Counterculture during the Cold War.” Encyclopedia of Cold War Culture.

Facts On File, 1997. Accessed January 19, 2018.


Garfunkel, Art and Simon, Paul. “Scarborough Fair / Canticle.” Universal Music Publishing

Group. Accessed January 19, 2018.


Simon, Paul. “The Sound of Silence.” Universal Music Publishing Group. Accessed January 19,



Simon, Paul. “Mrs. Robinson.” Universal Music Publishing Group. Accessed January 19, 2018.


[1] Matthew Glass, s.v.  “Counterculture,” in Encyclopedia of American Religious History, Third Edition, 2009. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/194509?q=counterculture.

[2] Richard Schwartz, s.v. “Counterculture during the Cold War,” in Encyclopedia of Cold War Culture, 1997. Accessed 19 Jan. 2018.


[3] http://online.infobase.com/HRC/Search/Details/207806?q=Simon%20and%20Garfunkel

[4] https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/6327146/rip-mike-nichols-the-graduate-soundtrack

[5] Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence,” Universal Music Publishing Group, https://play.google.com/music/preview/Txkxnbyzin3zzyp7565mphyo66y?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics

[6] Ibid.

[7] Paul Simon, “Mrs Robinson,” Universal Music Publishing Group, https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tzijvpj7oacwqrolrr6ffi7g2ia?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Arthur Garfunkel and Simon, Paul, “Scarborough Fair / Canticle,” Universal Music Publishing Group, https://play.google.com/music/preview/T5aadz4mjodgmnghb7xhkjlbbd4?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics.

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