Study Guide

Forrest Gump Forrest (Tom Hanks)

Forrest (Tom Hanks)

He's a lover, a fighter, a football star, and a multimillionaire. In other words, he just might be the perfect all-American man.

Well, except for one teeny-tiny problem: his teeny-tiny IQ. 

Before we dive in, keep this in mind: throughout the course of the movie, Forrest ... doesn't change. Like, not even a little. This protagonist just doesn't have an arc. But hey, protagonists are like a box of chocolates.

Or something.

Momma's Boy

Maybe you believe IQ measures something meaningful; maybe you don't. Either way, we can all agree that Forrest isn't going to be winning any "most intellectual" awards. He wouldn't even have made it into regular school if it weren't for his momma.

In fact, we can trace just about all of Forrest's success to his devoted and loving momma. In addition to having a way with uptight principals, she has a down-home way with words that enables her to put complex life truths into phrases that Forrest can understand—and that he later uses to get himself through just about every sticky situation life throws at him.

Life throwing a few unexpected changes his way? Momma Gump has a saying for that. In Forrest's own words: "My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Mrs. Gump knows that Forrest doesn't need long explanations about the vicissitudes of life; he needs a simple, easy-to-understand analogy that turns the abstract nature of fate into something concrete, tangible, and, above all, delicious.

Someone casting aspersions on your intelligence? Momma Gump has a saying for that, too: "Stupid is as stupid does." In other words, a person is only as stupid as he acts—and Forrest might act clueless sometimes, but he never really acts stupid.

Let's just do a quick run-through of some of Forrest's major actions. He:

  • stays loyal to the first person who ever stood up for him
  • honors his friend's memory and shares his wealth
  • rescues his fellow soldiers, even when they protest
  • defends Jenny whenever she looks like she's in trouble
  • picks up the book that someone knocks out of an African-American girl's hand

So, who's the stupid one now?

Race to the Top

You might think that having an IQ of 75 would hold a person back. And, okay, we'll be honest and say that we'd rather our neurosurgeon or tax attorney break 100. But Forrest does surprisingly well with his low digits. In a lot of cases, he comes off better than the genius standing next to him. Could it be that intelligence doesn't always correlate with financial or social success?

Excuse us for a moment while we consider our advanced humanities degrees and weep silently.

Ahem. Back to Forrest, whose low IQ often works to his advantage. For example, Forrest doesn't really understand the race politics of the Deep South, making him basically the least racist person in Alabama. When one charming fellow talks about "coons" wanting to get into the University of Alabama, the meaning of the word zooms right over Forrest's head. He says, "When raccoons tried getting on our back porch, Momma just chased them off with a broom," and then rushes over to pick up a book that one of the African-American girls drops.

It turns out that, just as a low IQ apparently makes you immune to prejudice, it also makes you great at following rules—which means that Forrest is a natural in the Army. Remember back when Forrest refuses to get on the school bus because he's so intent on following his momma's orders not to talk to strangers? Multiply that by a whole Army's worth of orders, and you'll get some idea of how Forrest reacts to the structured life of an Army private.

On his very first day of training, a drill sergeant asks him what his job in the Army is, and Forrest yells back, "To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!" The sergeant is so happy with this answer that he calls Forrest a genius and says he'll be a general someday.

Hmmm. Maybe—just go with us for a minute—raw IQ isn't the best way to measure a person's value, after all. (Can you see Steve Jobs successfully completing basic training?) And, as the movie continues, Forrest does almost come across as a genius. At least, he has a genius for trusting the right people, in large part because he always trusts himself and his momma's rules.

Turns out, it's pretty handy to lack the intelligence for self-doubt.

Innocents Abroad

Forrest may be a war hero, a shrimping genius, and a ping-pong whiz, but there's one thing the guy can't seem to wrap his head around: the ladies. Or, at least one lady by the name of Jenny Curran, his childhood sweetheart whom he loves faithfully all throughout her life. This is where the movie's basic ironic stance becomes kind of grim.

Wait, ironic? Isn't this movie supposed to be all positive and innocent, like its hero?

Not when it comes to narrative perspective. See, as the audience, we get Forrest's perspective on events, but we also can use our superior smarts to figure out what's really going on in situations that go straight over sweet, dumb Forrest's head. That's narrative irony: when the audience knows something the character doesn't.

This difference can be endearing, like when Forrest talks about racial dynamics or presidents. But other times, it's definitely unnerving, like when poor Forrest says that Jenny's dad is "a very loving man." Eek.

Forrest goes on and says, "He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters." Unfortunately, it goes right over Forrest's noggin that Mr. Curran's a child molester... not just a guy who really loves his daughters. 

This innocent attitude means that Forrest is completely incapable of meeting Jenny on her level. He insists to her that he's "not a smart man, but [he] know[s] what love is," which, OK, he probably does. But, he can't ever understand what she's gone through—so could they ever really be together as equals?

The movie doesn't really make it clear, but in the end, we're not sure that it matters. When Jenny is dying, Forrest unselfishly takes care of her. He doesn't need to be smart to do that; he doesn't need to have a Ph.D. in virology to know that Jenny is sick and needs his help. No wonder she proposes to him. You know how Forrest's mom always said life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know which one you're going to get when you bite down? Well, we know what's inside Forrest: nothing but the highest-quality, premium love.

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