Essay, Pages 5 (1054 words)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a 1991 novel from writer Peter Hedges. It tells the story of a young man trapped in a dying small town, confined by obligations to his dysfunctional family. Hedges, born in Iowa like his protagonist, is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was his first published novel, but he had previously written several plays, including “Oregon” and “The Age of Pie.” In 2002, Hedges received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his adaptation of About a Boy.
The novel is written from Gilbert’s point-of-view in the present tense. He is introduced as a frustrated young man of 24, afraid he will never escape his hometown of Endora, Iowa. His family was thrown into turmoil over a decade before, when Gilbert’s father killed himself in the family home, hanging himself from a rafter in the basement. Afterwards, Gilbert’s mother sank into a debilitating depression. That depression also drove her to overeat.
Now she is so obese that she cannot leave her chair.
Gilbert’s younger brother, Arnie, is 17 and severely mentally handicapped; he seems to have the mental age of a young child and requires constant supervision and care. He wasn’t expected to live past the age of 10, but he has, though doctors say he “could go at any time.” Gilbert’s mother is not religious, but frequently prays that Arnie will reach his 18th birthday, which is now approaching.
Two of Gilbert’s older siblings have left Endora; it is left to Gilbert and his older sister Amy to care for Arnie, their sister Ellen, and their mother.
They do their best to pay the bills (which are large, because of their mother’s constant eating), cook, clean, and keep the family together. Ellen, who has grown up with a neglectful mother, no father, and most of the attention given to her special-needs brother, frequently acts out. She is barely a teen, but acts overtly sexual in a way that is disturbing.
Gilbert is consumed by feelings of anger and deferred ambitions. He has worked as a stock boy at the local grocery store since leaving high school, and he can’t imagine a better future for himself, even though he longs to leave Endora and find independence. His obligations are too great. He’s also stuck in an unrewarding affair with Mrs. Carver, an older married woman. He asks her once why she chose him to have an affair with, and she tells him it’s because she knew he was never going to leave the town; he of all the boys his age would stick around. Her comment stings him.
Things begin to change when a new girl arrives in town. She is a 15-year-old named Becky. Gilbert takes to her immediately; the two seem to share a connection. Becky is wise beyond her years and has a love for life that surprises Gilbert.
Arnie frequently tries to escape Gilbert’s supervision to climb the town water tower, never understanding how dangerous it is. Gilbert is close to Arnie and serves as his protector, though he is often frustrated by the boy. He considers it his responsibility to make sure no one ever hurts Arnie.
Mrs. Carver’s husband dies suddenly, drowning in a kiddie pool after a heart attack, and she leaves town in the aftermath. A supermarket, FoodLand, opens in town and threatens to drive Lawson’s, where Gilbert works, out of business. Out of loyalty to Mr. Lawson, one of the few stable adult figures in his life, Gilbert refuses to set foot in FoodLand. He also won’t eat at the Burger Barn he has an aversion to chains and to corporate America.
Gilbert realizes the floor is sinking around his mother’s chair, and has to go into the basement to repair the beams supporting the floor above. Arnie is afraid of the basement, since it is the site of their father’s suicide. Gilbert’s relationship with his mother is strained; he strongly resembles his father, which is painful for her.
One day, Arnie slips away from Gilbert to climb the water tower again. This is one time too many, and he is arrested. Outraged, Gilbert’s mother leaves her chair for the first time in years to walk down to the police station and demand the release of her son. Various townspeople point, stare, whisper, and laugh at the site of her, but she is oblivious. The police release Arnie to her.
Arnie’s birthday is near, and the family plans a party for him. Gilbert’s two older siblings, Larry and Janice, arrive to help celebrate. Janice is a flight attendant who travels the world. Gilbert is jealous that she has escaped, and has seen places he cannot imagine. Larry was the one to find their father’s body, and left town to get away from that trauma. He only visits once a year, on Arnie’s birthday.
Arnie causes Amy to drop the cake she made for him, and they have to purchase a new one from FoodLand despite Gilbert’s principles. When Arnie begins to eat the cake early, dirtying his face and hands, Gilbert finally loses control. He slaps Arnie repeatedly until the boy cries. Then Gilbert realizes what he has done he has hurt the one person he always promised to protect.
Gilbert runs away from the party, but eventually returns to celebrate. That night, he and his mother have a heart-to-heart. She calls him her “knight in shimmering armor,” and admits she knows what a burden she has been. That night, she climbs the stairs for the first time in many years to sleep in the upstairs bedroom. The next morning, she is dead.
When the Grape children find her, they feel catharsis as well as grief. They have lost their mother, but a burden has also been lifted. There is no way to easily remove their mother from the room, so Gilbert suggests they burn the house to the ground so she can have dignity in death. The Grape children watch as their family home, and the traumatic memories it holds, burns to the ground.
In 1993, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape was adapted into a critically-acclaimed feature film starring Johnny Depp as Gilbert and Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie in what would become his breakout role. Hedges adapted the screenplay himself and remained true to his book.