Lesson No. 7: Character & Setting: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?

In our final week four lesson, we will be revisiting character and how setting/place can both strengthen and provide ironic resonance for our characters. In the above clips from the film What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, we can analyze scenes that focus on the character, Arnie Grape, and how the settings/places are both supportive and ironic for his characterization.

In the scenes, we experience Arnie Grape as a mentally challenged individual who transcends his family’s trauma. The father/husband, patriarch, has hung himself in the family home basement. The entire family has been hindered and traumatized by this. Arnie, though hindered by his mental condition and his father’s suicide, is also the most transcendent of his family members, as we can study in the various scenes and settings:

  • Water Tower: Arnie, a mentally challenged young man, repeatedly climbs the town’s water tower. He has no fear of heights. Climbing gives him joy and he sees it as a game. His setting is a visual representation of transcendence above the entire town, though, the town looks down upon both Arnie and his family for many reasons. This love of climbing has further resonance in how it relates to Arnie’s father. His father “climbed” then dropped in a hanging, resulting in death. Annie’s climbing represents both a personal accomplishment and constant reminder of his father’s suicide, suffered by both Arnie’s family and the entire town. No one wants to see a mentally-challenged young man fall from the water tower and die. It is a constant source of conflict.
  • Family Dinner: Arnie’s brother, Gilbert, the protagonist of the film, states that Dad is dead. Arnie repeats it, yells it, claps the table. He sees “Dad is dead” as a game. He repeats the phrase, again and again, at the family dinner table and disrupts the family discussion and angers his mother, puts his siblings on edge. This is another sort of transcendence. Arnie’s family members are all “weighted” by the suicide of the patriarch, reflected physically within the mother’s obesity. The family eats dinner over the spot where the patriarch hung himself in the basement of the family home, due to the other’s obesity. She cannot sit in a regular chair. She must sit on the couch that happens to sit over the spot where her husband hung himself. As the family tries to mitigate Arnie’s “Dad is dead” outburst, the obese mother attempts to quiet Arnie by stomping on the floor, weakening the foundation and the brace beneath her, nearly caving the first floor down into the basement where the father hung himself. The setting of the family dinner in the family room, over the spot where the patriarch hung himself, keeps the conflict and patriarch very much alive within the overall narrative. Again, the setting supports the main conflict each of these characters are facing. The suicide of a family member is difficult as it feels external, yet, it becomes entirely internal. Character versus self. Each time the family eats dinner over the spot the patriarch died, they each are facing their internal conflicts with this devastating conflict. Arnie is the only person who seems to transcend the trauma, though, at the same time, he creates post-traumatic stress for his family. If the family ate their meals in the kitchen, they would not be eating over the death place. Setting plays a significant part in each family dinner and each individual conflict.
  • Hide and Seek: Similar to Arnie’s water tower climbs, he likes to climb trees. Gilbert often plays with him in this way and feigns looking for him. When Arnie jumps out of the tree, Gilbert pretends he hasn’t seen him and allows Arnie a sense of joy and supremacy in his “hiding” skills. The game’s effect is ironic. It entertains Arnie and allows him a sense of accomplishment, while also encouraging his climbing behaviors that will result in climbing the town water town, where Arnie will get in trouble and potentially be put in a foster home for his safety. In this scene, Arnie transcends his family and individual hinderance by physically climbing a tree. Yet, he puts himself in a precarious position both presently and in the future. When Arnie climbs the tree, Gilbert transcends his pain by acquiescing to Arnie’s tree-hiding “stealth,” while simultaneously putting Arnie and the family in a vulnerable state. The resolution to Arnie’s climbing comes when a migrant tourist befriends Arnie and falls in love with Gilbert. She is swimming in a pond. A large tree hangs over the pond and Arnie climbs it. In this scene, he can be both accomplished and safe, as a fall or jump would be softened by the water. Still, the viewer is concerned how this will affect Arnie’s climbing the water tower. The suspense has been heightened by the setting/place of the pond and the tree.


Writing Assignment

Choose a scene you’ve already written, and study the scene for opportunities where the setting/place can be further developed as character support and irony. Rewrite the setting to better develop one or more characters in that scene. Submit this scene in script form using Final Draft.



  • DUE DATE: The following class session.
  • SUBMIT: Below forum.
  • CONTACT: Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. There is also a FAQs section that covers a good deal of information.


[bbp-single-forum id=29780]