Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Lasse Hallström (director), Peter Hedges (writer), What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) 

The film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), directed by Lasse Hallström and written by Peter Hedges, takes a critical look at the small-town America that is so often celebrated in American culture.  What is ‘eating’ (or bothering) the young man Gilbert Grape is that he is frustrated because he leads an unfulfilling life.  The small town where Gilbert Grape lives is a place of decay and dreariness, characterised by the almost empty grocery store where Gilbert Grape works.   In addition, the only respite from this decay and dreariness seems to be a crass, soulless commercialism, as exemplified by the new Foodland supermarket.  Ironically, the new supermarket is seen as representing progress even though it threatens the survival of the store where Gilbert Grape is employed. 

Gilbert Grape must also carry the burden of being in a loving but dysfunctional family.  From Gilbert’s perspective, his family inhibits him from leading a fulfilling life.  Gilbert Grape is trapped due to the duty he owes to two dependent family members, his mentally-impaired younger brother Arnie and his morbidly obese mother Bonnie, whose depression over her former marriage to a husband who committed suicide has made her an invalid and a burden on the lives of her children.  This is an inversion of the natural order, with Gilbert Grape caring for his mother and brother rather than his mother caring for them.

The film examines how tragic events, like the suicide of a father, can traumatise some family members and hold up the personal growth of other members.  Gilbert Grape’s venturing into the cellar where his father committed suicide represents his effort to confront the demons of the past.  In addition, when he finally invites his girlfriend Becky to meet his mother he is attempting to overcome his longstanding shame regarding his mother’s condition. 

The film also seeks to deal in an unromanticised fashion with the burdens placed on carers.  Gilbert Grape faces a series of trials and tribulations, rewards and disappointments, and sometimes his frustrations emerge despite his love for his family, as when he loses his tempter and hits his mentally-impaired brother Arnie, a lapse that was in breach of his principles and his desire to be protective. 

The film provides an existentialist perspective on fate, or chance, by presenting the notion that life is all we have but it can end at any moment.  This is evident in Arnie’s sudden killing of a grasshopper, in the sudden death of Gilbert’s mother, and in the surprise death of an insurance salesman.  In this way, the film makes the existentialist argument that one has to make the most of one’s life while one can.   

Gilbert Grape’s free-spirited girlfriend Becky is used by the filmmakers to express the existentialist attitudes that can be found in the hippy counter-culture.  Becky is presented as having the secret to the good life, a fulfilling life.  Her secret is in her optimism, evident in her positive demeanour, and in her ability to appreciate he simple things in life, like sunsets.  It is also found in her broad-mindedness and her ability to look at issues with fresh eyes.  Becky also sees through surface beauty, or appearance, to appreciate the true person underneath.  Importantly, she has the ability to show love.  In addition, she keeps moving, seeking enriching experiences.  As a New Age hippy type of character, she is spiritual in her behaviour and attitudes.  Becky reveals to Gilbert Grape that problems are a matter of perception: the roads go past but they also lead in or out.  Gilbert Grape has watched the traffic (life) go by but through Becky he can take to the road and find fulfilment. 

The film also makes a distinction between unfulfilling sex and fulfilling love.  This is played out through Gilbert’s experience of both: his unfulfilling affair with a married woman and his relationship with the Becky who provides Gilbert Grape with optimism, support and the will to find renewal. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape meaning, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape themes, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape analysis, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape notes