Destiny, chance, and choice in the motifs in Forrest Gump


gump shoes“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both,” Forrest tells Jenny as he stands over her grave. Forrest Gump begins and ends with the feather caught on the breeze. Yet this seemingly random feather lands at Forrest’s feet and he picks it up.

It lands there as he waits for the bus that will reunite him with Jenny twenty-something years after their first meeting. He picks it up and puts it in his Curious George book, the book his mother read to him when he was little. Later it falls out of the book at another bus stop and is carried away by another breeze. (Notice how many films begin and end with bookend scenes like this.) 

A motif is a repeated image, symbol, object, or word in a film that points to a theme. When something is repeated several times in a film it usually is important. Forrest Gump has a number of motifs including the feather and the chocolates that point to the themes of destiny, chance, and choice. 

Forrest has a box of chocolates with him which he offers to share with those who sit down beside him on the bench. The chocolates are a present for Jenny. Earlier in the film Forrest visits Jenny at college and brings her chocolates. He quotes his mother saying that “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” 

The bus stop acts as a frame story as Forrest tells his life story to strangers who join him on the bench to wait for the bus. It is at the bus stop in Savannah that the flashbacks end and the story’s present begins.  The feather we see Forrest pick up at the beginning of the film is safely tucked in the book. Forrest meets Jenny on the bus ride on his first day of school. He meets Bubba on the bus ride to basic training that will eventually result in going to Vietnam and meeting Lt. Dan. After reuniting with Jenny at the rally in Washington D.C. Jenny boards a bus for California that takes her away from Forrest and into the cycle of abusive relationships and drug abuse that victims of childhood abuse often experience.

Once Forrest is told that he doesn’t have to wait for the bus to get to Jenny, he picks up his suitcase and runs. Running is also a motif in the film. The first time Jenny tells Forrest to run his braces fall off. Running makes it possible for Forrest to attend college. When he is in Vietnam he remember Jenny’s words again. Forrest’s running saves Lt. Dan’s life. News of his mother’s illness sends him running again. Later, when Jenny leaves him once again Forrest puts on the running shoes she gives him and runs across the country for three years. Early in the film Forrest discusses shoes with one of the people on the bench. When Bubba and Forrest get to Vietnam, Lt. Dan discusses the importance of foot care. Obviously this is an important motif.

Young Jenny hides in a field with Forrest praying that God would “make me a bird so I can fly far far away.” She refers to this prayer again when Forrest visits her before he leaves for Vietnam. Perhaps the desire to fly away is what prompts Jenny, drunk and drugged, to climb up on a balcony banister. Near the end of the film Forrest visits Jenny’s grave and speaks with her. As he walks away a flock of birds take off.

In the final scene Forrest walks little Forrest to the bus stop for his first day of school. Little Forrest has the Curious George book with him. As he opens it the feather flies away. Forrest sees his son board the bus to school driven by the same driver who picked him up years before. The feather is caught on a breeze and flies away as Forrest sits down at the bus stop in a similar pose to the one he has when the film begins. 

My theory is that the motifs dealing with destiny and with chance also deal with the theme of choice. Children and privates who board buses have no control over where that bus will take them. When Jenny boards the bus to California she thinks she is controlling her destiny but her fear and dysfunction are really in control of her life at that point. The chocolates illustrate that life can seem random and unpredictable and just as out of control as belief in destiny can make it seem. Running, shoes and birds seem to have more to do with freedom and choice than with either destiny or chance.

The wedding scene shows spiritual healing and restoration. Lt. Dan comes for the wedding with a new leg and a fiance. Jenny is finally free and happy though she is dying. The marriage scene allows the audience to see the healing effect of Forrest’s love on two very broken people. Whether Forrest is meant to be a healing force in Jenny’s and Lt. Dan’s lives or they are thrown together by chance, when these lives land like feathers at his feet Forrest loves them. He picks them up.

John writes that the wind of the Spirit blows where it will and humans have no idea where it comes from or goes (3:8). Whether we be proponents of destiny or chance, we control neither. What we can choose is how we will respond when the feather lands on our shoes. 




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