Themes of Death in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'

Updated on October 9, 2018
Disastrous Grape profile image

Disastrous Grape is from a dimension of sentient exploding fruit, and is author of the novels The Thieves of Nottica and Spherical Knives.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? is a drama film that was pretty well-received in 1993. It's not a remarkable film story-wise, but the acting and the characters were what made it so interesting to watch. Due largely to that, I think I might have seen the film fifty times.

One thing I noticed on my most recent rewatch was the reoccurring themes of death and new beginnings.

Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is frustrated and bitter because he's trapped in a small town, in a boring life, and passively-aggressively blames his morbidly obese mother.

Gilbert is in desperate need of a new beginning.

Death in the tarot is a symbol of endings. It isn't an "evil" card but rather a herald to change. When it shows up in a reading, it means that something is coming to an end and something new is beginning.

Death -- literally and figuratively -- is an overwhelming theme in the film, because it's only through the death of things that Gilbert can be set free.

Gilbert is miserable about his job at a small grocery store, but the grocery store is closing down anyway. It seems like the universe is giving him a way out, but he never takes it. Though he is clearly unhappy at his current job, and there are many opportunities presented for him to move on . . . he doesn't take them.

Instead, Gilbert seems to stay on at Lamson's out of guilt, when he could easily secure a job at the new local supermarket.

He also continues living with his family out of guilt, sacrificing his own happiness in order to support others. He says later in the film that he wants to be a good person, but I think he already is to some degree -- or rather, he's trying to be. Most people would look out for number one and -- like Gilbert's older brother -- would pack off and leave.

That said, is it really so awful to want to live your own life and to want to enjoy it? Is Gilbert a bad person for wanting that?

Gilbert never really has to explore that question, as he continues working at the failing store to the very end of the film. His martyr complex is underscored by such choices continuously throughout the story.

Gilbert likely thinks he's a bad person because not only does he do cruel things to his obese and depressed mother (holding up children to gawk at her through the window,for instance), he is also in an affair with a married woman.

Betty Carver (Mary Steenburgen) is a lonely housewife who frequently orders groceries from Gilbert's store as a ruse to continue her affair with him. It's heavily implied that Betty's husband is aware of what's going on in the way he keeps hounding Gilbert to buy life insurance (the implication being that he's going to kill Gilbert, so he better secure his family).

It becomes obvious that Gilbert is merely settling and wants a real relationship when he leaves Betty for Becky (Juliette Lewis), a new girl who comes to town. His relationship with Betty comes to an official end when her husband dies.

This death marked the end of a chapter for both Betty and Gilbert. Gilbert has a new girlfriend and Betty gets to leave town and be a wealthy widow the rest of her life, while ironically living off the insurance of her insurance salesman husband.

It's implied in the film by Gilbert's friends that Betty killed her husband, but I don't believe she actually did. Not directly.

The day Betty's husband died was the same day Gilbert left her. Betty is very upset and can be seen sitting on the floor of her house, crying and broken. Her husband comes home to find her in this inconsolable state and knows it's because of Gilbert.

For Ken Carver (Kevin Tighe), seeing your wife break in half over another man had to be painful. He knew all along about the affair and knew Betty was having a meltdown because it was ending. This was heavily implied one scene before, in which the Carvers are shown exchanging awkward glances with Gilbert and Becky in the local diner.

Ken couldn't handle the fact that his wife was in love with another man. The last we see him alive, he is taking out his anger on his children while screaming at them about the pool. Eventually, his heartbreak gives him a heart attack.

Meanwhile, Betty is so distraught about Gilbert that she doesn't even notice her husband is drowning in the kiddy pool outside.

So Betty did have a hand in killing her husband, just not intentionally.

Later, Betty stops by Lamson's intent on being mean to Gilbert. She is petty and wants to twist the knife in, reminding Gilbert that he's stuck in that little town. Just as she is about to land the last punch, Becky walks in, and Betty changes her tone, wishing to appear sweet and nice in front of Becky. She then gets in her car and drives away, leaving Endora forever.

And thus, a death breaks the first chain off Gilbert's arms.

Gilbert's mother, Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), is very overweight because she became depressed when her husband committed suicide. Some people use food to suppress their emotions, to comfort themselves, and this can lead to obesity in some cases.

Given the situation, you'd think there'd be more sympathy and compassion toward Bonnie from Gilbert but there isn't. Not until the end of the film when Gilbert realizes that he needs to stop blaming his mother for his circumstances. It's not as if Bonnie wanted to be that way -- something she even says toward the end of the film.

And yes, it is very easy to gain a lot of weight in a short amount of time from binge eating. Also, why did no one step in to stop Bonnie? Her children couldn't stop her? Take the food away? Hide her car keys so she couldn't get more? Instead, it appears they enabled her. To their credit, none of them (the two daughters) blame Bonnie except for Gilbert.

It isn't until his mother is about to die that Gilbert lets go of his bitterness and anger. Of course, he doesn't know what a strain was put on his mother's heart when she went up the stairs, so he didn't know she was dying. The point is that he waited so long to stop being an ass toward a depressed woman.

It leaves you wondering . . . how accountable should we hold people for being assholes? Did Gilbert choose to be an asshole or was it merely circumstance that drove him toward meanness and bitterness?

I maintain that there is no excuse for being an asshole.

Not circumstance. Not society.

Keep in mind that being an asshole and being a criminal are two different things. Stealing a piece of bread because society landed you on the streets is understandable, even excusable. But everyone has the choice to be kind to others, to stay positive, to not get caught in feelings of self-pity and despair.

Happiness and kindness are choices.

Gilbert -- a young adult -- chose to be bitter and angry toward his family, rather than be grateful for what good was in his life. There are people in this country right now who would kill to have a family, a steady job, and friends to hang out with -- and all in a city with no crime.

On top of that, Gilbert will never face racism, homophobia, sexism, or any institutional-level discrimination of any kind. He is sitting on a pile of riches and can't see it, instead lashing out violently at his mentally disabled brother, to the point of punching and beating him.

In that light, he does look like an awful person.

Thankfully, there's a happy ending.

Gilbert learns to stop being a jackass and to be grateful for everything he has. The second he begins to live in gratitude, life becomes easier for him, and by the end of the film, we are left to recognize that everything pretty much worked in Gilbert's favor.

  • Gilbert hated his job at the store. So the store starts going out of business.
  • Gilbert wanted a real relationship. So his mistress is forced to leave town while a new girl moves in.
  • Gilbert wanted out of Endora and away from his mother. So his mother dies and his girlfriend comes to pick up him. The end.

Is Gilbert a wizard?

© 2018 Ash Gray

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