Mrs. Robinson – The Great American Poem

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1968

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1968

I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises

The Boxer  – 1968

Every one has heard Mrs. Robinson by Simon & Garfunkel. They released it as a single in 1968 having released a slightly different version in the film The Graduate. If you are a fan of Simon & Garfunkel, you are a fan of musical poetry delving into topics regarding the nature of our society and of ourselves. They were a thinking man’s band.

Those are the overarching tones and themes of their most famous songs. It does not take a poetry degree for the listener to recognize this when playing songs like the Sound of Silence and The Boxer. If asked to describe their music succinctly, I would say something along the lines of the lyric atop this post. Great lyric. Always remember it.

Their best work in accordance with this theme is undoubtedly Mrs. Robinson. In my humble opinion, Mrs. Robinson is their best poem. A tragedy and American classic.

Here are the lyrics:

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes.
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.
It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair.
Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids.

Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
Going to the candidates’ debate.
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jolting Joe has left and gone away,
Hey, hey, hey
Hey, hey, hey

Chorus, stanza, chorus, stanza, chorus, stanza, conclusion. Other than a koo-koo-ka-choo, the three choruses are identical.

When solving a puzzle we need a starting point. The most important question is ‘who is Mrs. Robinson?’. The song is not about a lady being reminded of church, debates, and baseball. It is not about Jesus or religion. They are only tools within the song’s constructs. And it is not about The Graduate. 

Allow me to state what Mrs. Robinson represents before explaining. It is easier this way. Simply put, Mrs. Robinson is the American people, us, or in a more vague sense the story of us. The story of how America abandoned long-standing principles and replaced them with something less and superficial. And a song of personal accountability. The best clues are provided in the conclusion but we will start with the beginning.

The message of the chorus is faith. Not religious faith but personal faith. Life has a way of testing us and making us think black is white or up is down. But Mrs. Robinson knows how to remain steadfast in the face of temptation because she has a conscience to remind her:

And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray,

The chorus is rooting for Mrs. Robinson to persevere and telling her how. Broadly, the chorus is rooting for America to remain as a moral beacon of light atop the hill. Using Jesus and Christianity as the method of conveying the good message, the chorus reminds Mrs. Robinson not to give up her principles or doubt what she knows in her heart to be right. To remain faithful to herself. Jesus loves you more than you will know. And to always remember heaven holds a place for those who pray. It reminds the salvation Mrs. Robinson seeks comes only at the end and is not given to those who abandon their faith along the way.

Further, the song’s original chorus in The Graduate was:

Stand up tall, Mrs. Robinson.
 God in heaven smiles on those who pray,

Simon & Garfunkel use the chorus to encourage Mrs. Robinson to be steadfast in her principles. It is her conscience and with it she knows the right path.

But along comes the temptation.

The three stanzas are where Mrs. Robinson loses her way. They describe how Mrs. Robinson has been duped into choosing to abandon her principles. She is being courted by the snake oil salesman…the politicians and those who support them.  For the purpose of interpreting the stanzas, view them as a salesman. After all, politicians are salesmen selling a message.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

Mrs. Robinson is speaking to the salesman for the first time. This is not your average salesman. He is skilled in Orwellian double speak. The fist two lines:

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself.

To earn her trust, the salesman pretends he wants to know about Mrs. Robinson’s personal situation. By saying he wants to help Mrs. Robinson learn to help herself, he infers he cares deeply about her future welfare and he is selling his message for her benefit and not his. Of course only the exact opposite is true. The salesman seeks only personal gain at Mrs. Robinson’s expense and could not care less of her future welfare.

The salesman continues….

Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home.

He wants Mrs. Robinson to believe she is among friends and like-minded people who understand her circumstances and whom genuinely care about her. He invites her to have a look around until she realizes she would be as comfortable with them as she is with her family. And that he has nothing to hide. Of course, the salesman knows and so should Mrs. Robinson that he does not keep on the sales floor the evidence of his true intentions.

The salesman has passed the first test. He tricked Mrs. Robinson into not seeing his true nature. She is intrigued with his message even if it may be too good to be true.

The chorus repeats reminding Mrs. Robinson of the real truth.

Ms. Robinson is hesitant. Accepting the salesman’s message is counter to the principles she has known all her life.   However, the salesman does not waiver. He presses on:

Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes.
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.
It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair.
Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids.

If a salesman is doing his job, it is your resolve that breaks.

Since the salesman is in this business, he has seen Mrs. Robinson’s apprehension many times and knows what to do with those pesky principles. He tells Mrs. Robinson not to worry about her principles because they will only get in her way. She is told to tuck them away in a hiding place where someone would keep away from the world all the things of which they are ashamed.

The salesman is cunning. If Mrs. Robinson is the type of person who doesn’t have a hiding place because she does not have anything to hide, he suggests a place for her.

Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes.
It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair.

The salesman knows in order to convince someone to go against their principles and do something they know is wrong but have convinced themselves might not be wrong, you also have to show them how. By telling her where to hide her principles, the salesman is kindly saying that if Mrs. Robinson does not know how to corrupt herself, he will teach her. By calling it “just the Robinson affair” he minimizes her concerns and moral quandary. The salesman reassures Mrs. Robinson and tells her not to worry…no one will ever know or care.

But the last tactic is the salesman’s most effective. Having convinced Mrs. Robinson her principles are something to be ashamed of and hidden, the salesman ensures his future wealth at the expense of her children.

Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids.

Unlike any other line, this is a directive. A pure command. The salesman has put in considerable effort to draw in Mrs. Robinson. This was not a small task. The salesman does not want to contend with those same principles in the next generation.

The salesman is wise. He knows children often rebel against the hypocrisies of the establishment while using as ammunition principles they learn from their parents. He knows the rebellions of the young are most often self-righteous and brave because the cold world has not yet convinced them to abandon what they know is right. The young also believe they are invincible. And whether their perceived invincibility is derived from naivety or valor, the salesman knows they will use it to rebel against his established order. Do not forget when Simon & Garfunkel wrote this song, they too were part of a youth movement rebelling against the established order.

This is what the salesman most fears so this must be his strongest statement. He uses superlative phrasing like “most of all” to stress importance. He states “you’ve got to” so Mrs. Robinson understands this is not a suggestion. If the salesman can convince Mrs. Robinson to hide her principles, he has done his job to perfection. The children will not learn what is right and just. Only his message. And most importantly, if the children never learn what is righteous there can never be a righteous rebellion. The salesman would win forever. This should alarm Mrs. Robinson.

Futile, the chorus repeats with a desperate koo-koo-ka-choo. The exasperated chorus has nothing further it can say to get Mrs. Robinson’s attention and heed the words of her own conscience.

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon.
Going to the candidates’ debate.
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose.

The salesman wins completely. On the sacred day reserved for faith, Mrs. Robinson chooses to buy a salesman’s message. Rather than do what she has always known to be right, she takes part in the salesman’s charade only realizing the truth when it is too late…the salesman lied.

The message of the chorus and stanzas are opposite. The chorus is a message of perseverance of principles to achieve something real and the stanzas urge the abandonment of principles for something illusory. Imagine them as a tiny angel and devil standing on Mrs. Robinson’s shoulders urging her down different paths at the crucial moment. They show that no matter whether the choice between right and wrong is easy or not, it is irrevocable.

It is natural to blame the salesmen for what happened to Mrs. Robinson. But wrong. Fortunately, the real culprit is exposed in the conclusion. When I first thought about this song growing up, I did not first think to wonder whom Mrs. Robinson might represent. I first wondered why is Joe DiMaggio in this song?

To answer the question we first have to know who Joe DiMaggio is to the writer. Simon & Garfunkel are part of the baby boomer generation, which went through childhood in the 50’s and came of age during the Vietnam War and the social movements of the 60’s. While the 60’s provided the disillusionment which inspired their music, the 50’s were a golden decade for many Americans. Still the heroes of World War II, the American psyche was confident about the nation’s future and standing as a moral compass in the world and it was through this prism that Americans admired their national heroes.

New York Yankee Joe DiMaggio was a hero to every 50’s kid and the representation of success and class through good times and bad. Justified or not, he represented everything right and great with America. A brave hero….a fair and honest leader….and a winner.

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you..

So when this song asks where has he gone, it asks where have America’s moral leaders gone. The heroes who made us believe in America when we were children. The heroes we relied upon. This is why the question is asked. But importantly, who is asking?

According to the song’s pattern, the conclusion sits in place of the chorus and therefore the question is being asked by the chorus or rather Mrs. Robinson’s conscience. The chorus knew from the beginning the salesman is a liar and rues it could not do enough to protect Mrs. Robinson. The chorus regrets if only a great American hero were here it might have been different. In the end, not only has the conscience failed to protect Mrs. Robinson but so have her heroes.

At the beginning, I explained this song is a tragedy. Indeed it is somewhat Shakespearean. The song flows with a pleasant beat and we want to happily sing along. On its surface, it sells a good time the same way the salesman sells his message…the same way superficial politicians promise prosperity to voters. Having baited the listener this far the song only reveals the worst truths at the very end. Unlike its happy beat, it is not a happy song.

The last lines: (ignoring the hey hey hey’s)

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson.
Jolting Joe has left and gone away

The heroes did not protect Mrs. Robinson because they do not exist. Mrs. Robinson has lost all hope. Her heroes or rather her belief in them exist only in past memories. We have no heroes. This is the first truth.

It is no coincidence the reply to the chorus’ question is Mrs. Robinson’s only statement. A statement which the surprised chorus repeats and which ends her story. Every line is directed to or about Ms. Robinson, whether it is the chorus reminding her to remain true to her principles or the tale of the salesman fooling her into trusting him. Simon & Garfunkel are telling the listener Mrs. Robinson knows what happened well enough she would interrupt her own conscience to dispel any hope.

In the final lines Mrs. Robinson reveals her role. Never forget Mrs. Robinson knew the truth from the beginning. Before the salesman appeared the chorus sang the good message. Even as the salesman made his pitch the chorus reminded her of the truths by which she had always lived. Mrs. Robinson never needed the salesman to tell her what was right or a hero to protect her. She did not need to learn to help herself. She already knew the right path…staying true to her principles was the righteous path to salvation.

Simon & Garfunkel are saying America abandoned its principles and lost its way because of the choices we made as a people. Not because of the lies of politicians or the failures of our heroes. It was always up to us to protect ourselves and we have only ourselves to blame. It is our fault. Or rather the final truth to the individual listener is: it is my fault.

This is the message described in a poem of less than 170 words, excluding the chorus repetitions yet counting one koo-koo-ka-choo. It would be hard to beat their word count. But if you always remember, you could do it with one sentence. Like much of the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Mrs. Robinson is just a sad tale of how ‘have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises’.

END

AFTERTHOUGHT:  Let me confess I have never seen The Graduate. It has had no influence on my interpretation. Since this song first appeared in the film and Mrs. Robinson is a main character of the movie, I know most interpretations are in accordance with the themes in the movie. Perhaps Simon & Garfunkel only meant to convey those themes and nothing more. Perhaps it is better I have not seen the movie before interpreting Mrs. Robinson. I don’t know. Whereas beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the meaning of poetry is in the mind of the reader.

If you have enjoyed this interpretation, I suggest you listen to the song Hook by Blues Traveler. Whereas Mrs. Robinson is the tragic anthem of America, Hook is the arrogant anthem of its salesman and a darn good song.

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