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Written by Timothy Sexton
"Run, Forrest, Run"
The overarching theme of the film is summarized in one of its most memorable lines of dialogue. A scene early in the film shows young Forrest being picked on by some bullies because of the braces he wears on his legs and the fact that they deemed him not to be too smart. His best friend Jenny urges him to run to escape the bullies despite the handicap of the braces and the fact that the other kids have bikes. As the intensity of his running increases, the braces break under the pressure and begin falling from his legs. In that instant, Forrest has both literally and metaphorically broken free from two different types of threats: the purely negative threat of the bullies as well as the more complex threat of the braces which, while designed with a positive purpose in mind, have actually had the negative effect of holding him back. From that moment on Forrest will escape a variety of threats by literally running. Not running away from problems, but running as a way of breaking away from the obstructions creating the problems.
The Wisdom of the Fool
Forrest Gump is thought to be kind of slow, or an idiot or a fool. He may be all of these things, but primarily he is an innocent. He sees the world though a perspective that is literal and not encumbered by metaphor or abstraction. This can, of course, be confused with idiocy, but it is has a proud tradition in literature. Don Quixote’s loyal sidekick, Sancho Panza is one example. A more oblique antecedent would be the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear. All three characters represent an aspect of the same basic archetype: the person who sees the world as it is and acts accordingly. Lear goes mad and Quixote is obsessed by his delusions. The analogue to that archetype in this case would Jenny, the best friend of Forrest and love of his life. Like Quixote and Lear, she goes a little mad and is too overwhelmed by abstractions to make decisions grounded in the literal reality of common sense. Forrest is situated as the innocent who is wiser than the more sophisticated types around him. Ironically, many critics and reviewers chose to view this innocence springing from literal-mindedness exactly as the bullies did who chased after him on their bikes. Volumes of criticism exist suggesting Forrest Gump is a film that extols the values of idiocy and ignorance rather than the value of innocence and common sense.
Forrest Gump is a film that is deeply invested in what became during the 1990’s the singular thematic tone of American fiction: irony. The ironic detachment pervades throughout the film: examples of the so-called stupidity and idiocy of the title character are revealed as ironic through voice-over commentary. One obvious example is when the adult Forrest’s narration recalls that Jenny had a very loving father “always kissing and hugging her and her sisters” when it is obvious from the visual accompaniment that what Jenny had was a sexually abusive father. But Forrest is only describing what he sees and appearances can, after all, be deceiving. This is true throughout the film: when Forrest tells the legless Lt. Dan that he “ain’t got no legs” it is not a demonstration of Forrest having a developmentally low IQ, it is simply a literal response to Dan’s metaphorical statement that he is ready to “test his sea legs.” Thus, the widespread acceptance by many that the film is literally espousing a hard-core conservative Reagan-esque Republican agenda of conservative values and morals because Forrest lives and is successful while Jenny has a miserable life, gets AIDS, and dies young would to be wildly incoherent and out of step. If this reading were the truly the case, then the film’s sociopolitical theme is the only aspect that is irony-free.
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