Otto Rank's conflict theory posits that the experience of birth is the root cause of all human anxiety. The state of being in the womb is theoretically blissful, and birth is a deeply traumatic experience (Wolverton, 2011). From this premise, Rank suggests that several core conflicts characterize the human experience and can lead to neurosis. One conflict is between the life instinct and the death instinct. The life instinct encourages the person to be an independent, competent individual; whereas the death instinct stimulates interest and action in community and family (Boeree, 1998). A second core conflict, related to the first, is between the fear of death and the fear of life. Fear of death leads to dependency, codependency, unhealthy union, and a loss of self. Fear of life leads to isolation, separation, alienation, and too much individualization. Resolving the central conflicts between life and death becomes the goal of self-renewal or therapy. Rank suggested that the person needs to cultivate a strong will, which is the part of the self that can minimize and transcend fears of life and death ("The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," n.d.). When the person is able to transcend and accept fear, he or she can become an archetypal hero.
According to Rank, people can be loosely divided into three categories: neurotic average, and artists ("The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," n.d.). Neurotic people are those trapped by their fears, and have trouble resolving the conflicts those fears entail. Average people may experience anxiety due to central conflicts between life and death, but generally do not manifest neuroses. Artists are the ideal human being, people who come to terms with both life and death. Furthermore, Rank's theory extends Freudian analysis and refers directly to conflict with the father. Unresolved conflict with the father can inhibit self-expression and especially hinder the development of the inner hero. "Besides the excuse of the hero for his rebellion, the myth therefore contains also the excuse of the individual for his revolt against the father. This revolt has burdened him since his childhood, as he has failed to become a hero," ("The Myth of the Birth of the Hero," n.d.).
The film What's Eating Gilbert Grape offers a perfect opportunity to apply Rank's conflict theory. Title character Gilbert Grape lost his father, and his mother has lost the will to live. Gilbert is summarily trapped between fear of life and fear of death. Even though Gilbert's father is dead, the psychological conflict remains. He is attached to his family, but suppresses anger and resentment against his situation. Gilbert is afraid to live, but his encounter with an "artist" type catalyzes his personal growth and helps Gilbert move beyond his neuroses to transcend fear. Indeed, few other theories of personality could so aptly apply to What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and to the title character in particular.
Peripheral characteristics are those that are malleable and which have the potential to change over time with learning and growth. Gilbert Grape's peripheral characteristics include passive-aggressive and aggressive behavior; cynicism; self-doubt; and resignation. Because he lives in a small town, Gilbert's lack of ambition is not typically viewed as a problem because few people in Endora, Iowa have dreams that extend beyond the boundaries of the community. However, Gilbert's friends do cultivate their dreams. For example, Tucker Van Dyke (John C. Reilly) pursues his dream of opening a Burger Barn franchise in Endora. The dream may seem trivial, but it makes Tucker emotional and he becomes his own hero. Gilbert, on the other hand, has no goal in life.
At times, his voice is subdued. He doesn't smile a lot. At one point, Gilbert reveals his peripheral nihilism when he states, "some days you want to live and other days you don't." He lives in the house that his dead dad built from scratch, and which is literally falling apart at the foundations. Change is traumatic or impossible due to the restrictions Gilbert and his family place on him. For example, Tucker wants to help the Grape family improve their home but Gilbert cannot allow the repairs to be carried out because it would involve entering the basement in which his dad died. Gilbert Grape seems to have internalized the sense that "nothing much changes in Endora." Therefore, Gilbert's peripheral personality is paralyzed by fear. Rank's theory situates Gilbert squarely at the center of the conflict between fear of death and fear of life, as well as the instinct for life and for death.
Rank's theory of personality development starts at birth. Gilbert's codependency with his mother is a sign that he has not yet left the womb. He lights his mother's cigarettes and feeds her bacon, even though she is morbidly obese. Gilbert's enabling behavior can be read as an attempt to retain the umbilical cord, to never upset his mother, for fear that he will experience the birth trauma once again. Yet Gilbert's fear of individuation leads to intense neuroticism and repressed emotion. He talks badly about his mother behind her back, calling her a "beached whale." Gilbert also allows the neighborhood children to gawk at his mother through the living room window, even while professing to want to protect her.
Gilbert's development has also been hampered by his relationship with his father, both in life and in death. Rank's theory features the conflict with the father as being central to the development of the hero. Gilbert has been unable to become a hero because he holds onto anger against his father. Ironically, his revolting against his father has turned Gilbert into his father: a man who he describes as being dead to the world. When Becky finally gets Gilbert to open up, he admits that his father didn't "give anything" in terms of emotions. It was "like he was already dead" and he "showed no expression," which is exactly the way Gilbert has become. Becky points this out to Gilbert, and it becomes a catalyst for change. As Rank suggested, artist types are the ideal people who have resolved their birth trauma and their conflicts between life and death. Becky becomes Gilbert's catalyst, and helps Gilbert to grow through the conflicts that have hindered his development.
The core characteristics of Gilbert's personality are viewed primarily through his relationship with Arnie, Gilbert's mentally and developmentally disabled younger brother. Gilbert's behavior is dedicated and caring. Yet because Gilbert has yet to explore who he is, and what his dreams are, he takes out his anger on Arnie. When Gilbert hits Arnie, it becomes the central catalyst for Gilbert's transformation. Deep down at his core, Gilbert values his family. His main challenge is to simultaneously value himself, and develop a sense of individuality separate from Arnie and his mother. It takes the death of his mother for Gilbert to make a break with the past.
Rank's conflict theory does a great job explaining Gilbert Grape's character. One of Gilbert Grape's central conflicts is between life instinct (individuation) and death instinct (subsuming self for family). Another one of Gilbert's conflicts is between stagnation (fear of life) and change (fear of death). Rank's conflict theory elucidates these core concepts and shows how resolving central conflicts helps the person become a hero. Moreover, Rank traces the origin of central conflicts to two things: the birthing experience in which the infant is ripped from the womb into an insecure world; and the relationship with the father in which issues of power and independence are called into question.
Although Rank's theories were developed in tandem with those of Freud's, Rank's theory is more applicable to Gilbert Grape's character. Rank presents neurosis as being related to the persistent anxiety of birth and to the ongoing conflict with the father. Gilbert's anxiety related to birth is expressed in his inability to leave the womb. He takes care of his mother to a fault. His younger sister berates him for not doing enough, and Gilbert internalizes Ellen's anger as his own.
His codependent relationship with Betty the lonely housewife is another example of how Gilbert manifests his fear of leaving the womb and living life to the fullest. When he asks Betty "Why me?" she replies, "Because I knew you'd never leave." Gilbert is viewed as one of the people who will remain stuck in Endora. Becky provides Gilbert with a motivation to change. After meeting Becky, Gilbert begins to feel a gamut of uncomfortable emotions that he had previously suppressed in order to fulfill the death wish. Rank's theory more than any other accounts for the deadness that Gilbert feels, evidenced in his lack of passion for Betty, his repressed passion for Becky, and his unconscious internalization of his father's depressed behavior.
Gilbert feels like he has to become his father in order to fill the hole left when his father committed suicide. Because Gilbert feels like he has to take his father's place, he has never confronted his father or resolved the issues…