How Disability Can Enable Us: Examining Irony in the Film Forrest Gump

Irony is a tool used in literature to expose some incongruity or discrepancy either in characters’ language or behavior or in a situation. Irony reveals the deeper truth about the complexities of life. One type of irony is situational irony, which occurs when there is a discrepancy between what is expected or seems appropriate and what really is. Situational irony is prevalent in the 1994 film Forrest Gump. Both the title character and his friend Lieutenant Dan Taylor experience forms of disability in the film. We expect these ailments to impair these characters. In some ways they do, but in other ways, they actually enable the characters. This use of situational irony communicates a powerful message of the ability to face adversity.

Forrest has an apparent physical disability that hinders him at the beginning of the film. His back, as his chiropractor says, is “crooked as a politician,” and Forrest must wear braces on his legs to correct it. Though his mother assures Forrest that he is “no different than anybody else,” Forrest stands out among his peers and is ridiculed in school. To everyone around him, his braces seem like an impairment. One day, however, some bullies taunt and throw rocks at Forrest. He starts to try to run away from them and at first is slowed down by his legs. As he keeps going, though, his braces fall off, and he is able to run amazingly fast. He then discovers the talent he has for running. Forrest’s braces, which always seemed to hinder him, were slowly strengthening his legs all along. The moment these braces fall off accentuates this situational irony. Without his braces, Forrest’s legs may have never become as strong as they are. The strength of his legs allows him to be an excellent runner. His athletic ability gives him many opportunities such as a scholarship to play football in college. He also uses his incredible running ability in the Vietnam War and becomes a war hero. Later in the film, he becomes famous for running for over two years straight. If it were not for his disability that required him to wear leg braces, Forrest’s greatest accomplishments in his life would not have been possible.

Forrest’s leg braces strengthen him not only physically, but internally as well. When his braces fall off, he realizes his talent for running. This newfound talent gives him great confidence. Forrest also shakes off his identity as a cripple. His physical impairment no longer defines him. He gains an inner strength and a deeper faith in himself. We would expect Forrest’s disability to cripple him both physically and emotionally, but it actually enables him. The same argument could also be made for his intellectual abilities, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. The situational irony teaches us not to assume that someone with a disability is incapable of being great. It also shows us that sometimes it is our very trials, which appear to hinder us, that slowly strengthen us.

Lieutenant Dan, whom Forrest meets as a soldier during Vietnam, also experiences an enabling disability. In an ambush, Lt. Dan is severely wounded and loses his legs. He begs Forrest to leave him in the field so he can “die with honor,” but Forrest saves his life regardless. Lt. Dan is embarrassed and ashamed of being a cripple. In his words, he is a “legless freak.” He hates having to rely on other people to take care of him and eventually becomes a bitter drunk who lives on welfare. At this point in his life, it seems that Lt. Dan has lost everything.

Lt. Dan, however, has gained something precious: a new chance at life. Lt. Dan came from a long military tradition. Someone in his family fought and died in every American war. He believed it was his purpose to die in the Vietnam War. Thus, Lt. Dan is furious with Forrest for saving his life. While in the hospital, Lt. Dan tells Forrest, “I had a destiny, and you cheated me out of it!” Lt. Dan wanted to be the dying hero, but instead he must be living wounded, the one who goes on. He is thus presented with an opportunity for redemption. Lt. Dan’s disability enables him to find an inner strength and peace that goes beyond his role as a warrior. In the middle of the film, Lt. Dan agrees to be Forrest’s first mate in his shrimping business. The two of them get caught in a hurricane out at sea. Forrest describes this storm as the time when “God showed up.” Lt. Dan sees this as a “showdown” between himself and God. He finally expresses his anger towards God for letting him live. Through this experience, Lt. Dan makes his “peace with God.” He is also able to reconcile with himself and Forrest. He even thanks Forrest for saving his life. He finds new purpose and direction in working with Forrest and being his friend.

Despite his initial bitterness, Lt. Dan also develops humility through living with his disability, one he would never have found in the same measure without his accident. He learns to accept the help and the love of others such as Forrest. He lets go of his pride and his plans for his own life. He gains deeper compassion for other people and himself. He accepts his identity as the wounded warrior. He learns that it is not only those who die that are heroes. The ones who go on and bare the battle scars are also triumphant. Lt. Dan may look wounded and weak on the outside, but internally he is strong. This situational irony enhances his character and exemplifies man’s ability to grow through pain. Lt. Dan accepts the life he never imagined for himself. When Forrest first tells Lt. Dan about his plans to be a shrimping boat captain, Lt. Dan laughs. He says, “The day you’re a shrimping boat captain, that’s the day I’m an astronaut!” He never expected this to happen, but ironically, Forrest does become a captain. Also, towards the end of the film, Lt. Dan gets new “magic legs” made out of titanium. “It’s what they use on the space shuttle,” he tells Forrest. Lt. Dan does, in a sense, become an astronaut. This situational irony highlights the difference between what we often expect and what truly happens. Life often surprises us, as it did Lt. Dan. Without the loss of his legs, Lt. Dan would never have had a chance for redemption and new life. He would not have gained strength and found peace with his life, God, and himself. In this sense, Lt. Dan’s greatest loss is also his greatest gain. We would expect Lt. Dan’s trauma to debilitate him, but in reality, it is his catalyst for growth.

The connection between Forrest and Lt. Dan centers around a moment of dramatic irony, the discrepancy between what a character thinks and what the audience knows to be true. While in the army hospital, Lt. Dan, still angry with Forrest, asks him, “Do you know what it’s like not to be able to use your legs?” The audience knows that Forrest indeed understands what that is like, but Lt. Dan does not. Forrest simply tells him, “Yessir, I do.” This dramatic irony serves as their first moment of truly understanding each other and is critical for their friendship. After this, Lt. Dan tells Forrest, “I was Lt. Dan Taylor.” Forrest replies, “You still Lt. Dan.” Forrest, whom Lt. Dan believes is ignorant, is the one who gives wisdom in this scene. Lt. Dan learns from Forrest that he is the same man with or without his legs. Neither of these two men’s disabilities define who they are. This moment is a building block of the friendship they later experience that Lt. Dan and the audience never expected. The use of dramatic and situational irony in this scene makes this moment especially poignant.

Both Forrest and Lt. Dan deal with physical issues during their lifetime, but these disabilities, rather than being liabilities, become assets and allow them to achieve more than they could have without them. This situational irony conveys a powerful truth about adversity. We often expect tragedies and trauma to hold us back. Our weaknesses, however, are often our greatest strengths. Forrest Gump inspires us to look at our struggles in a new way: not as something that is debilitating but rather as an opportunity for growth.

Work Cited

Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field. Paramount Pictures, 1994. Film.