SUBJECTS — Health, Literature;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Disabilities; Parenting; Families in Crisis;


AGE: 13; MPAA Rating — Rated PG-13 for elements of mature subject matter;

Drama; 1993; 118 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

*This Guide is in preparation but it is complete enough to be useful to teachers.

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TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.


Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes;

Film Study Worksheet for Adaptations of Novels; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Gilbert is stuck in Endora caring for his obese mother, his mentally handicapped soon-to-be-18-years-old brother, and his two sisters. He works in the local grocery store which is beginning to lose customers as townspeople drive to a large new supermarket store out on the highway. Gilbert longs for a life of his own. One day a camper with engine trouble exits the line of tourists passing through Endora. Enter Becky, a young woman with a fresh attitude toward life who is on the road with her grandmother.

The film is based on the novel by Peter Hedges, who also wrote the screenplay. As such, the film is more than just an adaptation but is an independent work of fiction on its own.


Selected Awards: None.

Featured Actors: Johnny Depp as Gilbert Grape, Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie Grape, Juliette Lewis as Becky, Darlene Cates as Momma, Mary Steenburgen as Betty Carver and Crispin Glover as Mortician.

Director: Lasse Hallstrom


Students often struggle with the conflict between responsibility to family and responsibility to self, a subject admirably addressed in this film. The story is multi-layered and uses many elements of fiction including symbol, motif, and expository phase.

Through discussion and writing assignments, students will sharpen their knowledge of several literary devices as they exercise important ELA skills and gain awareness of how the themes of the story may apply to them personally.


Gilbert engages in a relationship with a lonely married woman in town.


Watch the movie with your child and ask discussion question #4.


1. What is eating Gilbert Grape? Answer for the time, up until his mother dies.

Suggested Response:

There are many ways to express the answer each of which can be turned into a discussion of a theme from the film. Strong responses include the following. Students will undoubtedly come up with more.

    • Gilbert’s mother has abdicated her role as caregiver and placed the responsibility for Arnie and many parental roles on Gilbert.
    • The limitations of small-town life.
    • The fact that to be self-fulfilled, Gilbert needs to leave home and start living his own life.
    • The fact that Gilbert, in Arnie’s words, is “shrinking”.
    • The fact that “we aren’t going anywhere”.
    • Many people are using Gilbert for their own purposes: his mother is using him so that she can abdicate her responsibilities as a parent; Mrs. Carver uses him for sex and for relief from her monotonous lonely life; Mr. Carver wants to sell him life-insurance; even Gilbert’s boss asks for reassurance that customers will come back to the grocery store.


2. There is a theme in this film that has very little to do with Gilbert, what is it?

Suggested Response:

This theme relates to the changes to Gilbert’s community. The Food Land store is putting the small grocery in which Gilbert works out of business by offering products that the small grocery cannot offer, such as live lobsters in a tank or cakes made to order. But something is lost in this new way of doing business such as deliveries and personal relationships. Also, fast food is coming to Endora under the name Burger Barn. It will put a dent in the business of the diner where Gilbert goes to meet his friends. The coming of new businesses to the town point out the inevitability of change, that change may not be completely for the better, and that it is best to make adjustments.


3. Several motifs tie the story together and point in the direction of theme. Name one of these motifs and explain its value in the story.

Suggested Response:

There are several important motifs in the film. These include: (1) The coming of new businesses to the town, Food Land and Burger Barn. (2) The repeated line “We’re not going anywhere” expresses Gilbert’s problem which is reiterated. (3) The water tower and Arnie’s attraction to it point out the constant dangers from which Arnie needs protection;


4. Describe Gilbert’s feelings toward Arnie.

Suggested Response:

Answers will differ but a good response will recognize that Gilbert had conflicting feelings. He loved Arnie and knew that he had the responsibility, by default, to take care of his brother. However, there were times when Gilbert resented Arnie and didn’t take care of the boy, such as when Gilbert left Arnie in the bath and when he hit Arnie. Teachers should stress that these are natural feelings which many people feel when they are required to take care of loved ones who are ill or disabled.

Additional Discussion Questions.

More on Theme and Meaning

Note that Question 1 – 4 in the Learning Guide also relate to theme and meaning.


5. Describe one of the themes of this movie. What message are the filmmakers trying to send to the audience?

Suggested Response:

There are several themes in the film and several ways expressing each theme. These include: (1) the need for parents to take care of their children and fulfill their responsibilities and not to require that the children take care of the parents (at least until the parents are very old); (2) young people need to find a way fully develop their own lives and still meet their responsibilities; where these conflict, compromises must be found; (3) change is coming, change may not be entirely for the better, and that it is best to make adjustments.


6. What role does chance play in the story and how does that affect its theme?

Suggested Response:

Chance plays a large role, as it does in life. Gilbert’s mother could have lived years longer. Becky’s grandmother’s camper could have given out in the town before Endora, etc. If these situations had occurred, the story would have had a much different ending. Many of the themes would not have been affected by these events. Gilbert still had to figure out how to deal with these responsibilities to Arnie.


7. What would have happened had Gilbert’s mother not fortuitously died?

Suggested Response:

Any answer is speculation. Strong answers will be based on projecting the trends seen in the story. They include: Gilbert will get fed up and simply leave his sisters to take care of their mother and Arnie; Gilbert stays and becomes an embittered man.


8. Should Gilbert have just chucked his whole family and left to live his own life long before this story started?

Suggested Response:

Answers will differ. That is the solution that Tom Wingfield took in The Glass Menagerie. Good responses will deal with the conflict between responsibility (duty) and the right to live one’s own life, between the responsibility to self and the responsibility to others.


9. The movie opens with a scene showing an empty vista. What does this express?

Suggested Response:

The isolation and loneliness of the small town.


10. Loneliness is one of the problems exemplified in the film. In which characters do you see it most clearly and what may be the problems loneliness creates?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary and should be well supported. The married woman with whom Gilbert is having an affair seems lonely despite the fact that she is married and has a family. She, like Gilbert, wants more out of life and loneliness pushes her to be unfaithful in her marriage. Gilbert is lonely in that he does not have a life of his own; he is bound to Arnie which creates a sense of guilt and a feeling of being trapped. Gilbert’s mother feels the loneliness created by her husband’s suicide. Her feelings lead to obesity and the inability to function.


11. Sometimes in literature, a writer uses the character of a child to enunciate theme. The character of Arnie has the maturity of a young child and makes two statements which strongly relate to theme. What are they and how do they relate to theme?

Suggested Response:

The two statements are that Gilbert is shrinking and the second is that “we aren’t going any where”. They relate to theme in that as a teenager becomes an adult, life is full of possibilities and their ability to deal with the world is expanding. Yet Gilbert, burdened by his responsibilities to his mother and to Arnie, sees the possibilities of his life closing down, limited to Endora and the deteriorating house. In that sense Gilbert is shrinking. (This statement has another meaning, of course, and that is that as Arnie grows larger, relatively speaking, Gilbert grows smaller.) The second statement, “we aren’t going anywhere”, sets out Gilbert’s predicament.


12. In this story, who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?

Suggested Response:

The protagonist is obviously Gilbert who is trapped by responsibilities that have been thrust upon him and who is at risk of losing his youth. Determining an antagonist is a little more difficult. There are a number of possibilities. Gilbert’s mother is one. She is the person who trapped Gilbert by refusing to take responsibility for Arnie and by demanding that Gilbert, along with his older sister, take care of her. Another possible antagonist is that part of Gilbert’s personality which accepted the responsibilities thrust upon him by his mother. After all, Gilbert could have just left, as did Tom in The Glass Menagerie or he could have set limits and refused to accept his mother’s abdication of her parental responsibilities.


13. Do you find the ending of this story entirely satisfying? After all, Gilbert still has responsibility for Arnie, something that will circumscribe Gilbert’s possibilities all of his life.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer. It is true that Gilbert would be freer to pursue his own life without having to care for Arnie. However, life is not always ideal and part of Gilbert is his love for Arnie and his acceptance of the responsibility for taking care of Arnie. And, in fact, the difficulties that these two young men will have to face are immense and their futures, at least in the short-run for Gilbert, are bleak. In their new environment, who is going to take care of Arnie while Gilbert works? Is Becky going to be willing to hitch her life to Gilbert, which includes responsibility for Arnie? What would happen to Arnie if Gilbert put him in a mental hospital or some other institution?


The following three questions should be asked together.


14. The adult characters who live in Endora and figure in Gilbert’s life are his mother, the owner of the grocery store where Gilbert works, Mrs. Carver and her husband. They all have something in common. What is it?

Suggested Response:

They are all dysfunctional and they all demand something from Gilbert.


15. Gilbert has two friends in town who are roughly his age. What do they have in common with the adults in the town?

Suggested Response:

They are losers as well.


16. What are the filmmakers trying to tell us by presenting these characters as the people who are important to Gilbert’s universe?

Suggested Response:

Endora is not an interesting place; it’s a place that Gilbert needs to get out of.


17. Given the fact that Gilbert will take Arnie with him wherever he goes, do you see any future in Gilbert’s relationship with Becky or with any other woman?

Suggested Response:

It will be difficult for Gilbert to have a relationship with any woman because Arnie take up a lot of Gilbert’s time and attention.


Expository Phase

18. This story has an expository phase. When does it end and what function does it play in the story?

Suggested Response:

The expository phase ends when Gilbert’s truck drives up to the market where he works. In the expository phase in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape the audience has been introduced to the characters in Gilbert’s family, his restricted life (the conflict), the fact that he lives in a small town undergoing pressure for change from, for example, a new large supermarket and last but not least, Becky’s grandmother’s camper has broken down and she and her grandmother have stopped in Endora bringing into the story an important force that will help Gilbert break out of the constraints that bind him to the town.



19. What does the name of the town tell the viewer about the place in which Gilbert lives?

Suggested Response:

That it’s a dead end; a place from which Gilbert must escape if he is going to live a satisfying life.


20. Describe a symbol that is used in the story.

Suggested Response:

Here are several. There are indubitably more.
The house = Gilbert’s family in its dysfunctional state;

Arnie jumping on Gilbert’s back and being almost too heavy for Gilbert to take = Gilberts’ obligations are about to crush him;

the water tower = the heights Arnie will never achieve and the danger he is in all the time;



21. Gilbert says to Arnie, “Match in the gas tank: Boom, Boom!” and Arnie comes down from the water tank. How do a match and a gas tank figure in the end of the story?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Students should note that Gilbert got Arnie to come down from the water tank by reciting this line and that it was a match and gasoline that burned down the family home at the end of the film. In each case, the problem was ended.


See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.



See Discussion Questions numbered 1, 4 – 8, 11 – 14.



See Discussion Question #3



1. Evaluate Gilbert’s mother as a parent.

Suggested Response:

She was a terrible parent She reversed the roles and instead of taking care of her children which is what parents do, she required that her children take care of her. She was a terrible example to them in a host of ways including her obesity and her failure to live up to her responsibilities.



(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)


See Discussion Questions 1, 4 – 8, 11 – 14 and the question under Parenting.


1. What would you do in Gilbert’s situation? Would you just walk away, or would you try and meet the responsibility that your mother had thrust upon you.

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer.


See also Discussion Questions which Explore Ethical Issues Raised by Any Film.


Most of the discussion questions in this Guide and in the Supplemental Materials can serve as writing prompts. Additional assignments include:


1. Write an analytical essay in which you illustrate how Betty’s death and the burning down of the house are not the solution to the problem; they are important events but not real solutions. In your essay indicate how the events clarify the solution on a symbolic level.


2. Write a character study of Becky describing at least three scenes in which she says or does something that shows her to be an exemplary character. Remember that Becky is insightful in her relationship with Arnie, kind in her words about Betty and open-hearted in interaction with Bonnie.


3. Write six letters from Gilbert to his sisters or his friends in Endora that reveal where he and Arnie have gone, who they are with and what they have been doing. Keep the tone of the letters true to Gilbert’s character and spread the dates of the letters over time. You are writing an epistolary, a story told in letters, to continue the events in the film and to create a new ending.
Tell students to try to use in the letters at least one metaphor or simile and one ironic situation or reference. Also tell them to show rather than tell by describing action (including dialogue), revealing thoughts (including internal monologues), describing observations by the characters, using descriptive language (including images of people, places and things), and comparing one thing to another. Consider giving students, as preparation for this assignment, TWM’s Exercise in “Showing Rather than Telling” When Writing a Narrative. Also, check out the Narrative Writing Lesson Plan.


4. Write informally about any conflicts that stem from what your family members may expect or want from you and what you may want or expect for yourself. Consider schoolwork, friendships, behaviors, etc. Suggest any solutions that may be possible to resolve the conflicts. For additional Assignments, see the Supplemental Materials for this Guide.

Additional Assignments

5. Compare the stories told in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and in The Glass Menagerie; compare the background; the mother characters and the characters of their sons; compare the resolution and how it was attained.


6. Write a character study of Becky in which you describe three scenes in which she says or does something that shows her to be an exemplary character. Remember that Becky is insightful in her relationship with Arnie, kind in her words about Betty and open-hearted in interaction with Bonnie. 7. Rewrite the ending or the story assuming that: (a) Gilbert’s mother had not fortuitously died or (2) Becky has not come to town; or (3) Gilbert was prosecuted for neglect and abuse of a child in his custody and Gilbert’s Mother was prosecuted for neglect of a child?
Tell students to try to use at least one metaphor or simile and one ironic situation or reference. Also tell them to show rather than tell by describing action (including dialogue), revealing thoughts (including internal monologues), describing observations by the characters, using descriptive language (including images of people, places and things), and comparing one thing to another. Consider giving students, as preparation for this assignment, TWM’s Exercise in “Showing Rather than Telling” When Writing a Narrative. Also check out the Narrative Writing Lesson Plan.


See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.

This Learning Guide was written by James Frieden with assistance from Mary RedClay.

This Guide was published in 2013.

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