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The essay analyzes the emotional detachment of Gilbert Grape in the book What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.Gilbert’s subconscious response to his dysfunctional family is broken down and the question of why he reacted in this way is addressed. The essay discusses why Gilbert acts and thinks the way he does in the book after his father’s death. The author takes a psychological stance on Gilbert Grape’s character and examines various parts of his life, from his cynical thoughts to his seemingly detached way in which he interacts with others.
In difficult circumstances, it is a natural reaction to seek an escape. However, when the situation spirals out of control and escape is futile, Gilbert Grape, the protagonist of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, shows the emotional detachment that results.
Gilbert Grape, a 24-year-old boy, is in a precarious situation. His father is dead, his mother is so obese she can barely walk, and his brother is autistic. Gilbert, along with his older sister Amy, are the caretakers of the family and he struggles with the burdensome role of being the “man of the house.” Gilbert Grape is a man of few words, preferring to stand on the sideline. His family life is dismal, and in response, he detaches himself psychologically, becoming almost zombie-like in nature. Through his contemptuous thoughts, Gilbert shows disdain for his family while seeming to sleepwalk through life, frequently speaking just enough to maintain relations. His lack of attention in many relationships outside his family shows his disregard for the inhabitants of Endora, as well as the town itself. As he fails to be emotionally honest with himself or anyone else, his disconnection extends even to himself. With Gilbert Grape’s extreme aloofness, he portrays the cognitive effects of having to live in a broken household.
While Gilbert may care deeply for his retarded brother, Arnie, it becomes obvious that Gilbert distances himself from his loved ones in an effort to endure his tragic situation without breaking down. He does love Arnie, but his narration often refers to his brother as “retarded,” and Gilbert’s attitude towards much of Arnie’s behavior is one of annoyance. Although he loves Arnie, his narration regularly describes his own brother as “retarded,” with a negative connotation, and Gilbert’s attitude makes it appear like Arnie is an inconvenience. As for the rest of the family, his attitude is far less friendly. He loathes his mother’s obesity, making endless jokes on the subject and going so far as to describe her as a walrus to Tucker. In reaction to Tucker’s scolding, he asserts, “I want to say that to keep Momma from falling through is what’s cruel. Let her die if that’s what she wants. At least my father could make up his mind (his father committed suicide)” (Hedges 117). His hostility is a way for him to become even more disconnected from his family, pretending that he doesn’t care.
In Gilbert’s opinion, his siblings are nothing more than a nuisance. The two oldest children packed up and left the family for good, and whether out of envy or disdain, Gilbert rarely talks to them. He also despises Ellen, his youngest sister, for her selfish focus on external beauty and shallow personality. When Gilbert finds Ellen handling Arnie roughly, his distaste grows, almost to the point of visible contempt. He expresses his dislike while driving her home, thinking, “I check to see if her door is locked. It isn’t, and a big part of me wants to reach over, open the door, and shove her out into the street” (Hedges 42). His feelings of revulsion, although provoked by anger, demonstrate his deliberate separation from his family.
In his removed state, Gilbert tries as much as possible to avoid participating in family activities. He even goes so far as to resist eating dinner with his family, barely picking at his food and excusing himself at the earliest opportunity. For example, on a family trip to Burger Barn, he refuses to eat, opting instead to drink water. For Gilbert, refusing to eat with his family is a physical means by which to further disconnect himself from his family. Although it could be said that his lack of appetite is due to the stressful family situation, he enthusiastically devours meals when not in the presence of his family. For example, he gorges himself when he dines with Becky’s grandmother and Mrs. Carver.
Not only did Gilbert separate himself from his family, but he also strove to distance himself from Endora as a whole. He is so preoccupied with avoiding and distancing himself from family issues that he cares little about conversing with other town residents. While waiting in Mr. Carver’s office, Gilbert is forced to talk to the assistant and during their short, blunt conversation he observes, “I left this conversation hours ago, but somehow my mouth is still moving, words are still forming, and none have seemed to offend” (Hedges 23). Even with friends, all Gilbert does is brood and keep to himself. Tucker’s extroverted personality is the only thing keeping their friendship alive, with most of their conversations resembling monologues by Tucker with occasional one-word remarks from Gilbert. He even feigns interest in very distant relationships such as when he waves to Chip Miles. Later in the book Gilbert pushes down the urge to give a rude comment on Chip’s silver tooth.
The only intimate relationship that Gilbert had in Endora was of a sexual nature, undoubtedly used as a distraction from the rest of his miserable life. He shows how little he cared about this relationship with Mrs. Carver by referring to her as “Mrs. Carter” and not Betty. Further, on their anniversary picnic, Gilbert confesses, “I can’t take much talk like this so I lean over and kiss her on the cheek. I couldn’t make it to the lips” (Hedges 133). This backs up the claim that the relationship was solely for sexual pleasure and distraction, having none of the usual intimacy that’s in romantic involvements.
Gilbert’s uncaring attitude extends within himself. In trying to disconnect himself from his family situation he lost contact with his own feelings. He confirms this when he says, “I don’t cry. I just never do. And no one expects me to” (Hedges 29). This internal disconnect unknowingly makes him harsher because he doesn’t realize how damaging his words are. For instance, he unashamedly says, “There is no nice way to break it to you. My mother is a porker” (Hedges 11). Moreover, he shows just how detached he is from his emotions when he calmly comments on how his father’s bowels were emptied after he died. Tucker is astonished at how cold his friend is, but Gilbert’s belief is, “I say that if you live with something long enough, it becomes normal” (Hedges 38). Gilbert has distanced himself so far from his family problems that they don’t feel like his anymore. He convinced his brain that his family meant very little to him.
Gilbert created his own therapy by rejecting that he had any connection to his dysfunctional family and went as far as to reject the town of Endora. The reaction to his unfortunate circumstances could be a survival mechanism that spares him the anguish that he would’ve otherwise experienced as a full part of his shattered family. Gilbert’s derision for his hometown is emphasized in the book; he introduces Endora by saying, “…this place is like dancing to no music” (Hedges 5). He relies on his mockery and criticism to get him through life, avoiding the overpowering emotions of depression and despair. The aloof manner in which Gilbert deals with his circumstances is his way of acting normal; instead of physically leaving his family, he distances himself emotionally.
- Hedges, Peter. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Washington Square Press, 1991.
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