Finishing college ostensibly marks the last major transition into big, scary adulthood, which understandably shocks the systems of many (if not most) graduates. Regardless of whether or not they manage to scratch up a job once the partying dies down, many find themselves adrift in a brave new world that has such people in it all the same. The emotional, mental, and possibly even physical disconnect makes for some pretty compelling fiction, seeing as how the entire genre is largely driven by conflict. Many different creatives explore this territory — to varying success — and offer up some interesting, eclectic perspectives on how it feels to grapple against what may or may not come next.
- Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate:
Both the classic movie starring Dustin Hoffman as titular figure Benjamin Braddock and the inspiring novel by Charles Webb follow the wanderings of a recent college graduate (duh). Caught between the possibility of work and graduate school, he opts instead for a third option — swimming and igniting an affair with his dad’s partner’s formidable-but-pitiable wife Mrs. Robinson. But a painstakingly calculated blend of her daughter and manipulations from both sets of fathers push him closer and closer toward a definitive decision. In the end, he finds exactly what he’s looking for without molding himself to someone else’s expectations. We won’t spoil it for you, however, because we’re nice folks. Graduates in the real world may not pass their sultry summer nights with Anne Bancroft, but many know all too well the sense of where to go now that classes have wrapped up forever, not to mention the considerable parental pressures to get up and get out.
- Leilana Pierce from Reality Bites:
This film student heads to Houston, TX after getting that degree slapped into her hands with the hopes of shooting a documentary about the disaffected lives of her fellow Gen X-ers. Pretty much everyone around Leilana Pierce, played by Winona Ryder, drifts in and out of jobs and beds with nihilistic, sullen abandon. When a yuppie television executive shows some interest in her work, she starts questioning whether or not the lifeless life really offers much of anything. Because graduation requires a transition between youthful rebellion and adult conformity, plenty of former college kids understand all too well the confusion and isolation inherent to drifting through the divide. Staying means familiarity, but moving on means purpose and some modicum of stability, which one can actually enjoy without “selling out.”
- Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces:
After completing his master’s in medieval studies, Ignatius Reilly flounders in his poor, harried mother’s house for years before finally snapping to his senses and running away to a hopefully more appropriate niche. Until his arch-nemesis/love interest (it makes sense in context) finally frees him from severe existential depression, John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer-worthy antihero quite literally wallows in self-aggrandizement and sexual dysfunction. Hilarious, hilarious self-aggrandizement and sexual dysfunction. He can’t hold down the wonderfully absurd jobs in which he finds himself, preferring instead to drift from expensive hobby to expensive hobby and write extensively about his Boethius-inspired philosophy. Laziness, parental abuse, and frequent declarations about your own intellectual superiority aren’t exactly healthy strategies for passing the years after graduation, but Reilly still offers up a humorously exaggerated glimpse into the realities of some (not all!) students who think themselves way too above entry-level jobs.
- Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar:
While not every college kid will necessarily fully understand the grim life of mental illness (although they all should), the overwhelmed intern around whom Sylvia Plath’s only novel revolves definitely piques more than a few points. Although she has yet to fully earn her degree, the final stages of earning it involve intense, thankless work and interpersonal drama in an unfamiliar environment. Esther Greenwood’s foggy stress resonates with anyone close to the finish line who feels as if hisor her mind and body are on the brink of breaking. And, of course, those who emotionally succumb. Everyone’s tolerance threshold varies, and only the most heartless readers look at her story and think the protagonist an inherently weak person.
- Ryden Malby from Post Grad:
Vicky Jenson’s first live-action directorial venture starring Alexis Bledel may have completely and utterly failed to attract the love of audiences and critics (besides Roger Ebert), but it still offers up a nugget of understanding for the current crop of college kids. Protagonist Ryden Malby graduates from college and winds up moving back in with Mom and Dad because the recession means no jobs. Specifically, no jobs in her chosen field of publishing (it’s always publishing!). Although everything veers off into a yawn-worthy rom-com continuum, viewers who stick around for the whole thing will sadly nod their heads in agreement with Malby’s mounting frustrations. All their lives, they’ve heard about how college means scoring a job, but once graduation rolls around, everyone else’s economic mistakes preclude them from launching the careers they busted their butts to attain.
- Laney from Liner Notes:
Graduation so often dredges up a pining to reflect on the journeys of the past in order to learn more about how to navigate the future. This all-too-human phenomenon forms the crux of Emily Franklin’s debut novel, which sees a recent graduate student using a cross-country road trip from California to Boston as an opportunity to reminisce on pretty much everything one would expect her to reminisce about. Laney may enjoy a little less pressure and anxiety than her peers on this list, but she definitely embodies the reflective “Once in a Lifetime” lyrics that walk hand-in-hand with starting a shiny new venture. Even on a superficial level, real-life grads might see a little of themselves in the melange of excitement and fear of the unknown.
- Patrick Bateman from American Psycho:
Assuming Patrick Bateman’s unhinged sociopathy actually represents mental imagery rather than his literal actions, recently jettisoned college kids have more in common with him than they’d probably admit. Though Wall Street wealthy and successful in all the ways Americans are expected to want, the phoniness and hypocrisy surrounding the exalted lifestyle ultimately leave him personally empty and sans any real outlets for funneling the frustration — except for completely dismantling the system that made it all possible. Graduates in similar situations who land ostensible “dream jobs” and discover they actually kind of hate them (and the people who make it happen) know all too well how draining the good life gets. But they probably shouldn’t find alternative uses for the Habitrail. Deep self-assessment and moving on from the Bret Easton Ellis-y world of the rich and soulless work a whole lot better. And are legal. And ethical.
- Dave Eggers from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius:
Technically, Dave Eggers — both the real author and the fictionalized version in his Pulitzer-nominated nonfiction novel — never finished his studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He dropped out in order to care for younger brother Toph following the wrenching cancer deaths of both parents within a month of one another. The sudden, tragic reality shift and subsequent move to California left Eggers as adrift and aimless almost as if he had, though. Anyone, regardless of their higher education status, with dependents both planned and unexpected know all too well the anxieties inherent to doing right by another. Even though Eggers eventually achieved his literary goals, doing so required a detour composed of heavy sacrifice and hand-wringing.
- Paul Kemp from The Rum Diary:
Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel pulled directly from his experiences as a 22-year-old journalist down in Puerto Rico. While graduates lucky enough to launch their careers after school probably won’t find themselves with the same booze-soaked, homicidal drama as the famous gonzo reporter, it’s entirely likely they might wind up way above their heads in scary new realities. Sometimes, ideal careers prove the exact opposite, which Thompson experienced firsthand when his dream position at The San Juan Star fell through and he had to earn a living writing about bowling.
- The entire main cast of St. Elmo’s Fire:
One of the more divisive Brat Pack movies follows a small spattering of Hollywood hot Georgetown grads grappling against love, sex, drugs, and careers now that they’ve finally managed to survive into adulthood. It’s all quite navel-gazing, really, but then, that’s also a pretty common reaction to finishing college. From the burning-out party girl (Demi Moore) to the possible future Patrick Bateman (Judd Nelson) to the sweet, shy virgin (Mare Winningham), chances are others swimming in a similar sea of transition-induced existential turmoil might see reflections of their own experiences in at least one character.