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Written by Timothy Sexton
Forrest runs a lot in the movie. Jenny is also seen running more than a few times. It would be nice to say that Forrest is always seen running to things and Jenny is seen running away as that would make the imagery abundantly easier to understand and while many critics have made just that assertion, the fact is that it is not so. For instance, the first time we see Forrest running it is intensely away from the pursuit of bullies on bikes. Forrest does run into enemy fire while in Vietnam, but for the purpose of saving his comrades in order to run away. The actual imagery of running is simply too complex to boil down to advice about facing your problems or running away from them. When Forrest first starts running, the legs braces he was forced to wear as a child start flying off as the result of his intensity, thus suggesting that running did not just save him from a bully beating, but from the handicap imposed upon his natural movement by the braces. The imagery basically seems to imply something much less ideological and more fundamentally philosophical: life is not about standing still or being handicapped external imposition, but about having the courage to face it without any guarantees about how things turn out.
Shrimp becomes a significant piece of recurring imagery throughout the film. It is first introduced in a long montage sequence showing Bubba explaining all the many ways that shrimp can be prepared for eating which suggest that this list has been going on for days. In this way, shrimp is effective used as imagery to cement the friendship between Forrest and Bubba that will last even beyond death. When Forrest makes good on his promise to see that Bubba’s dream of being a shrimp fisherman is realized for the benefit of his family, the imagery of the many ways to cook shrimp is expanded to parallel with the many ways for making one man’s dream come true. When Lt. Dan shows up to become part of the business, the imagery is further expanded to allow shrimp to become a metaphor for achieving what was thought impossible relative to the Dan’s earlier scornful reaction: “If you're ever a shrimp boat captain, that's the day I'm an astronaut!” Ultimately, the central symbolic meaning of this shrimp imagery is that even something as small, seeming insignificant and unlikely to accomplish much as a shrimp can, in fact, change lives. (Forrest is the metaphorical shrimp here.)
Bird-related imagery is the domain symbolic imagery which characterizes the character of Jenny. She prays to God to “make me a bird so I can fly far away from” her sexually abusive father. At one point, a drug-addled, shame-raged Jenny is contemplating suicide by throwing herself off the ledge of a skyscraper while the song “Freebird” plays in the background. When Jenny does die, her finally being laid to rest is accompanied by the sudden release of birds from a tree. And, of course, the film’s opening and closing imagery is also connected to Jenny and birds.
The film opens with its most iconic image: the single feather floating through the air before landing between Forrest’s feet at which point he picks it up. The film ends with a feather between Forrest’s feet being picked up in the swirl of the wind and carried off into the air. That the film opens and ends with the very same imagery situates it a commentary upon what happens in between. The feather is one aspect of the larger use of bird imagery to characterize Jenny, but it can also be interpreted as a commentary upon how most people tend (including audience members) tend to see Forrest: as a birdbrain just floating through life accidentally being carried from one momentous event to another.
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