The Theme of Gluttony in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape


Gluttony is one sin that can be rather difficult to hide. While I suppose there may be some thin people who overeat the results of this particular sin are largely, sometimes very largely, evident. Thomas Aquinas defined it as “inordinate desire not regulated by reason.”

In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape the title character feels trapped. Gilbert lives in a small town with few opportunities but can not leave because he is needed at home to help take care of his mentally challenged younger brother Arnie. His mother Bonnie is extremely obese and cannot take care of the family or the house. Most of the time she sits on the sofa eating and watching TV.
When she does have to go to town people stop and stare at her in shock. Bonnie hates herself for becoming so fat but she also hates everyone else for rejecting and loathing her for being fat. The stigma placed on her, even by those who love her, makes it even more difficult to deal with her problem. Obesity shrinks Bonnie’s world. She cannot climb the stairs to her bedroom. She’s uncomfortable going out in public. She has a limited wardrobe. She has become a burden to her children. She’s depressed.

The movie doesn’t go into all of Bonnie’s issues but we do discover that her husband has disappeared. Bonnie is experiencing valid feelings of pain and loss that need to be addressed. She is in need of healing and encouragement but her fat is like a layer of protection that she’s placed between herself and the very people who might be able to offer comfort.

Her obesity has shrunk the worlds of her children as well. The older two grown children continue to live at home to help. None of the children invite friends home, partially because of Arnie but mostly to protect Bonnie and themselves from embarrassment. In the movie there is a picture of Bonnie before she became so large. She was once beautiful, young and thin. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a compassionate, subtle picture of how daily choices can result in an overwhelming condition that affects every member of the family.

Bonnie didn’t go to sleep thin and wake up enormous the next morning. She made self-destructive decisions about food that were gradual. Few people who overeat think, “I hope I become so fat I can’t walk.” Perhaps it’s a little upsetting when we move into a larger size but at the time it seems like a temporary setback. We’ll do something about it soon. Then we end up having to shop at special stores with names like “Big and Tall,” “Woman’s World,” “Plus-Sized” or, my personal favorite, “The Stout Shop.”

Food is satisfying and satisfaction is habit forming. If we were not meant to enjoy food why does it taste so good? On the other hand, even if we don’t become full-fledged food addicts, we can easily find quick satisfaction in food and allow it to become an emotional crutch. We may become frustrated and impulsive when we try to change our eating habits especially if those habits are also feeding us emotionally.

The actors, screenwriter and director discuss the characters in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

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