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What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Reading Group Guide

    Reading Group Guide
    The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Peter Hedges's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
    1. In the first chapter, Arnie Grape tells Gilbert, "You're getting littler and littler. You're shrinking." "Stupid people sometimes say the smartest things," Gilbert reflects. With this exchange, what themes does Peter Hedges begin to develop in his novel? How is Gilbert shrinking?
    2. Consider the nature of Gilbert's relationship with Becky alongside his relationship with Mrs. Carver. What do these characters mean to Gilbert? Do they present him with the same possibilities for escape, love, and healing? Explain.
    3. Remembered chiefly for his relentless "optimism," Albert Grape nevertheless hung himself in his basement. How might this irony persist in Gilbert's own life, particularly in his relationship with his boss, Mr. Lamson? Throughout the novel, what does Gilbert reveal to us about his father? What sort of legacy has Albert left his son?
    4. Unlike Amy and Gilbert, who have stayed behind to take care of Momma and Arnie, Larry and Janice have managed to escape, at least physically and geographically. What significance lies in Hedges' decision to make Janice an airline stewardess, a job that requires perpetual flight? Why has Larry all but cut himself off from his family?
    5. Who is Lance Dodge? What does his success represent to each of the novel's characters?
    6. What kind of person is Gilbert's younger sister Ellen? Discuss Hedges' use of dialogue to develop her character. What is the source of Ellen's hostility toward Gilbert? Why might the fact that Gilbert has done nothing since high school bother Ellen, and even frighten her?
    7. Critics have compared the narrative voice of Gilbert Grape to that of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. What similarities and differences exist between the two? Discuss other works of literature or film that echo the themes, characters, or tone of What's Eating Gilbert Grape (e.g.: Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show, Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, Don DeLillo's End Zone).
    8. On a final tour of the condemned elementary school, Becky hopes to help Gilbert "say goodbye." What comes of Gilbert's recollection of his second-grade trauma? And why do you suppose Hedges places this scene just after the one in which Gilbert witnesses Mr. Carver's adultery with a bewigged Melanie? How does this pair of scenes affect Gilbert? How does the novel unfold in the aftermath of these episodes?
    9. About Momma, Gilbert says, "She thought she was going to enjoy my hate. But it has broken her." Discuss the nature of Gilbert's relationship with his mother, who can't seem to look at Gilbert without seeing her dead husband's face.
    10. Over many bottles of beer -- and accompanied by the songs of Sinatra and Elvis -- the Grape children gather around Momma's body to perform a makeshift memorial service. What is happening here? Discuss the characters' tacit decision to burn the house down. In addition to their wish to avoid the embarrassment and humiliation of having all of Endora gather to watch Momma's body removed from the house by a crane, what might the destruction of the house represent to the Grapes?
    11. Faced with Momma's steady growth, dwarfed by Endora's barren landscape, and resentful of the invasion of corporate America in the form of the hulking Food Land and the prefab Burger Barn, Gilbert has long felt trapped and dissatisfied with his life. But as "the walls in Momma's room fall down in flames," What's Eating Gilbert Grape ends with an unexpected sense of contentment, offering an almost idyllic image of family togetherness: the Grape children huddled before the house as silent spectators. What might Hedges be suggesting here? Are the children liberated? What do you imagine happens to each character after the novel ends? With the house, the school building, and his mother all gone, can Gilbert finally stop "shrinking"? Will he see Becky again? Will he escape? Has he already escaped? Explain.
    12. Watch the Lasse HallstrÖm film adaptation of Hedges' novel and compare the two. How does the movie echo the book's themes? How does your reading group feel about the movie's ending?

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