Each of us wants to find happiness in one form or another. We hope to obtain material objects or attain non-material moral and societal standards because we trust that these things will bring us happiness. British literary critic Matthew Arnold believed in adopting disciplined strategies that minimize the role of chance in order to ensure happiness. He asserted that true happiness comes only through reading the standard-bearers of literary achievement, the “classics.” Arnold insisted that only by reading the classics can a person attain culture: a set of common meanings and values that can then be applied to the real world and guide an individual on how to live a life worth living (5). To stray from this well-ordered path, he warned, is to fail to reach the final goal of perfection. Arnold, writing in the mid-19th century, rejected the notion that culture can be obtained from any other source, and dismissed contemporary film and literature as superficial, without substance, and to be avoided at all costs.
Fellow academic Raymond Williams agreed with Arnold on this topic; he too denigrated modern media as low-brow babble aimed at an expanding audience presumed to be stupid. Williams recognized the value of classic education, yet also believed that “ordinary,” working-class people, and not the elites, have a culture that can teach us valuable lessons on how to live a happy life (4). Each man overlooked the potential insights to be found in the newest generation of literature and film.
The 1994 film Forrest Gump presents a theory of happiness born of both education and ordinary experience, enhanced by the role of free will and chance. The protagonist is a simple, small-town man who by conventional standards is lacking in both culture and intelligence, yet exemplifies both in the unorthodox, almost accidental fashion in which he lives out his life. Forrest is not well-read, but heeds his mother’s sage advice. He is optimistic, avoids judging others, and is kind and respectful to everyone he meets. He is a shining example of the honorable culture of the poor that Williams touts. The film celebrates the simple truths of blue-collar values, which can be just as illuminating as classic literature. It also demonstrates that happiness can be found in a life led without a plan.
Forrest takes life as he finds it and without any clear path, but succeeds and finds joy in every situation he faces because he responds to each in the same cultured manner: with kindness, respect, integrity, and optimism. The feather that floats through the air at both the beginning and end of the movie is a perfect metaphor: Forrest never knows where his life will take him next, but he goes with the flow and he finds happiness at all stops along the way because that is what his mother taught him to do. From a young age, Forrest listened to his mother’s advice. One quote, in particular, always comforts and reassures him: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Surprises are to be expected, and some are more pleasant than others. He lives his life by this motto, and and it guides him through a most astonishing series of random events. He finds himself in the middle of some of the most important moments of his generation: dancing to the music of a young Elvis Presley in his home; meeting presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in the White House; and fighting in Vietnam. Through it all, he maintains his same demeanor. He even wins a Purple Heart simply because he keeps two promises: he promised Jenny he will run away from the conflict when things got bad, and he promised his good friend Bubba that he had his back, just as Bubba had his. Bound by his culture to keep these promises, he carries countless wounded men out of the field of battle, including Bubba (who does, however, die). This keeping of promises as a means of survival is exactly what Raymond Williams is talking about when he discusses the culture of the ordinary people.
In his essay entitled “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams describes the selfless deeds his neighbors perform in assistance of his family while his father was on his deathbed: “one man came in and dug his [father’s] garden; another loaded and delivered a lorry of sleepers for firewood; another came and chopped the sleepers into blocks; another – I don’t know who, it was never said – left a sack of potatoes at the back door; a woman came in and took away a basket of washing” (11). His neighbors perform these acts of kindness without even saying they did them and with the expectation that, were they in the same situation, Williams and his family would do the same for them. Forrest does the same, even when he is mistreated. He generously gives Bubba’s share of profits from the business they hoped to start together to Bubba’s mother, even though she called him stupid for even starting the company on his own. He also donates large sums of money to institutions that have helped him in the past, thereby returning the favor. Forrest’s life is grounded by his values, and he is a happy man.
The life of Forrest’s one true love, a hometown girl named Jenny, illustrates a life defined by chance and whim and unanchored by culture. Jenny did not have good parenting, and her childhood was filled with brutality and betrayal. Her adult life is defined by a series of poor choices. She is dismissed from college because of a series of lewd photographs, performs topless at a club in Memphis, continues a harmful relationship with an abusive jerk and Black Panther Party member, and samples various psychedelic drugs with hippies. She achieves nothing of permanence in her life, and as a result is so unhappy that she considers suicide on several occasions. This unhappiness is consistent with Arnold’s theory that happiness is created by doing things that cannot be taken away.
But when Jenny needs help, and even when she really doesn’t, Forrest comes to her aid. He punches out a myriad of men who he believes to be a threat to Jenny over the course of the movie. His constancy is a perfect counterbalance to her many missteps, because, although his life is far from well-ordered, he is steady, anchored by his values, and finds happiness in simple things. He tries to help Jenny do the same.
With all of the poor choices Jenny made throughout her life, she acts as a foil to Forrest. The fact that they grew up together in the small town of Greenbow, Alabama, did not result in them internalizing the same culture. The fact that it was a small town should not be romanticized, because that town included much meanness and treachery. Forrest and Jenny are products of the best and the worst in rural values.
Greenbow contradicts Raymond Williams’ notion that culture of a town is particularly good just because it is small and ordinary. The people of Greenbow call Forrest abusive names. The school principal extorts sex from Forrest’s mother as a condition of accepting Forrest into the school. Mrs. Gump does what she has to do to make sure that Forrest gets the education he needs so he can fit in more with the other kids his age. In this light, Mrs. Gump’s conduct aligns with the ideas of Arnold in that she believes Forrest will be better off if he learns “the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon [his] stock notions and habits” (Arnold 5). She believes that the knowledge Forrest will gain in the regular elementary school will improve the quality of life. She realized what Raymond Williams did not: that a child like Forrest needs education to complete his “culturization” and ability to more intimately relate with the world around him.
Arnold and Williams are both products of their time and place. It is understandable that, as a highly educated British theorist, Arnold would assume that only people of comparable intellectual potency could be considered cultured. So, too, is it understandable for Williams, a small-town boy who, although he attended a prestigious university, grew up in a working-class town, to believe that his own origin is a superior place of culture and intelligence. Both Arnold and Williams refuse to acknowledge that a culture other than their own is indeed legitimate. In the final analysis, neither of these men took into account that a work such as Forrest Gump could reveal so much about culture. Neither Arnold nor Williams imagined a person quite like Forrest Gump – a feather blowing in the breeze.
Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
Williams, Raymond. “Defining a Democratic Culture.” Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989).