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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Mrs. Robinson": not (just) a film song

Simon & Garfunkel's hit from The Graduate is a reflection of their thoughts on mid-60s America.

I decided on today's selection without regard to the movie in which it was featured. However, once I began to think about how to approach this post, I couldn't get my mind off the film.

The Graduate, which I watched for the first time in a couple years near the end of my winter break, surprised me in how... unsettling it felt. It's full of comedic moments, but the greater plot arc and the ambiguous conclusion weighed heavily in my mind. Then, there's the personal impact of the main character being a 21-year-old named Benjamin with a clear lack of both life experience and vision for his future. Yeah, that hits a little too close to home — and speaking of home, multiple major plot points occur here in Berkeley around the context of the university.

With the above film context in mind, you may think that the Simon & Garfunkel song "Mrs. Robinson," molded to fit The Graduate, would elicit a similar uncomfortable reaction. However, I've never really had the same response to the piece as I have to the film, something I find quite interesting given the song's inclusion in the movie, as well as the way its lyrics partially overlap with the plot. Perhaps it's an indication of me having known Simon & Garfunkel's song before The Graduate... or perhaps it's indicative of something more general about how I come to know and position music based around its media use.

"Mrs. Robinson" is a song that gains part of its poignancy from its simple instrumentation. Paul Simon's acoustic guitar provides the substantial majority of the backing, while Art Garfunkel adds some percussion work, and a couple session players adds auxiliary percussion and bass. Simon plays a few catchy lines, especially the upward figure right after the chorus, but the main focus is very clearly on the duo's vocals. Per usual, Simon takes the lower voice, Garfunkel the upper — I often find myself switching between both when I sing along (no surprise given my penchant for harmony), but purely listening now I definitely hear Simon's as the lead line.

So what do those vocals suggest? Well, the song's first true lyrics (after some scat singing the first time through the verse form) are a salute to Mrs. Robinson, commenting, "Jesus loves you more than you would know." It's a passage that feels out of place given a) Mrs. Robinson's character in the movie, and b) the folk rock duo's Jewish background. Focusing on the former of those points, I think the statement is more of a plea to whatever higher authority she acknowledges to embrace her despite her faults, something that may be necessary for her to find solace given the film's conclusion.

...Of course, that assumes that "Mrs. Robinson" is about Mrs. Robinson. The second verse, featuring the lines "It's a little secret, just the Robinsons' affair / Most of all, you've got to hide it from the kids," would certainly suggest a correspondence between the song and Anne Bancroft's character; however, it's been revealed that the song was initially titled "Mrs. Roosevelt" and was a tribute by Simon to Eleanor Roosevelt, the influential First Lady whose impact is still felt on the national and international stage today. It just happened to be that the lyrics about FDR and Eleanor's alleged affairs more than fit the film's context, an astonishing case of coincidence.

Maybe I've been able to understand the lack of a strong connection between the song and the movie since I first watched The Graduate a few years back, given the lyrical disconnect in the chorus. I've always had the feeling that it's more about a loss of American innocence, and a time when things were more clear-cut and there were real heroes to which people could look up. The Roosevelts, despite how their personal lives may have been unfolding, kept up their public appearance that projected themselves as the heroes the United States needed during the Great Depression and World War II. Following the war, the American unity it brought disappeared, informing the final verse on a vitriolic debate. "Any way you look at it, you lose," the duo sing — yeah, sounds about right in that context as well as that of the 2020s, given the way debates in the last couple election cycles unfolded. Adding fuel to that fire, the RNC has signaled this year that they would cut ties with the Commission on Presidential debates... but that's a discussion for another sphere.

What I'm more apt to discuss, though, is the final chorus, beginning "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Simon says including the Yankee Clipper's name was a matter of syllables lining up, but I get something deeper out of it. Of course, at that time DiMaggio hadn't fully "left and gone away" — he was still a visible figure in advertisements and facets around baseball — but his status as an American icon had somewhat diminished with the passing of time and the dawn of a new generation. Nonetheless, he remained a well-regarded man for his accomplishments on the field and his comportment off it, even given the tumult of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe, a facet of his life that lines up awfully well with some of the song's other lyrics. Simon commented after DiMaggio's death in 1999 that "his grace and his dignity" and "the power of his silence" were defining traits we have been hard pressed to find in subsequent American icons.

"Mrs. Robinson" turns out to be an insightful take on what American culture had become by 1967. Soundtracking a movie that reckons with more than its fair share of internal scandal, Simon & Garfunkel provided an honest sonic backdrop that asks some of the same implicit questions of its listeners that The Graduate dies of its viewers.


Sam Bacon
Sam Bacon
Mar 18

Something to consider regarding the reference to DiMaggio is that Paul Simon has always maintained that he was more of a fan of Mickey Mantle than of “Joltin’ Joe”, which is why his explanation about syllables makes sense. It’s also why Mantle was featured in Simon’s music video for the song “Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard.”

As someone who used to work in Psych this song has always reminded me of a patient checking into a psych hospital, albeit a Catholic run one.


Jul 06, 2023

The track's catchy melody, coupled with its poignant lyrics, resonated with listeners and contributed to its enduring appeal. It went on to win a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1969 and remains one of Simon & Garfunkel's most recognizable and beloved songs. Despite its strong association with "The Graduate," "Mrs. Robinson" stands as a testament to Simon & Garfunkel's songwriting prowess and their ability to capture the spirit of a generation through their music. Its timeless themes and infectious melody continue to captivate audiences, both within and outside the context of the film. And to increase its popularity, buy 10k youtube subscribers here:

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