The Shared Burden of Womanhood(motif)
The topic of gender is explored in two general ways in the novel. First, the novel shows the success of a nearly exclusively female world. Taylor lives in a small community of women who for the most part live their lives independently of men. The women in this community strengthen one another. Once she begins to share her life with Taylor, Lou Ann stops disregarding her appearance, finds a job, and forgets her irresponsible husband. Taylor, the once-invulnerable spirit, finds the energy to fight for Turtle only after weeks of Lou Ann’s prodding and a long talk with Mattie. The women are remarkably loyal to one another. When she sees Esperanza’s tearful catharsis, Taylor realizes that if Esperanza asked for Turtle, Taylor would give Turtle to her. Esperanza’s loyalty to Taylor is equally strong, for although Turtle is one of the only things that gives Esperanza joy, Esperanza does not ask Taylor to give up Turtle.
Second, the novel portrays gender inequality as a societal phenomenon instead of as a series of individual grievances. When Taylor first sees Turtle’s body, she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected the little girl. This comment immediately suggests that Kingsolver does not mean for us to think of Turtle as an individual but as representative of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender. Women suffer because they are women. Men touch and prod Lou Ann when she takes the bus, and the strip joint with its lewd paintings offends her. Esperanza seems to have had fewer educational and occupational opportunities in Guatemala than her husband did. While Estevan can speak perfect English, she is isolated in her depression, unable to express her grief fluently.
The Plight of Illegal Immigrants(motif)
Kingsolver makes it clear that she sympathizes with the plight of illegal immigrants. Mattie, one of the most beloved characters in the novel, transports and protects illegal aliens. The immigrants Estevan and Esperanza are depicted sympathetically, and Taylor’s horror at their past life changes the way she sees the world. Kingsolver depicts those who denigrate immigrants not as evil, but as ignorant or misguided. Virgie Parsons’s views represent politically conservative ideas about immigration and nationalism. Although her remarks seem insensitive to Taylor, Virgie is not depicted as an evil person, but instead as one who has latched on to a political ideology without considering its moral implications.
Kingsolver also breaks down the us-versus-them rhetoric that often surrounds immigration issues by likening Taylor to Esperanza and Estevan. She levels the hierarchy that values an American citizen over a Guatemalan immigrant by depicting Taylor and the married couple as refugees. Taylor not only describes herself as an alien in Tucson, she finds that she is an outsider in the Cherokee nation, where Esperanza and Estevan feel at home.
Respect for the Environment(motif)
The novel expresses a concern for the environment not by focusing on the potential destruction of the environment, but by focusing on the beauty of the land. The novel also suggests that Native American heritage and respect for the environment go hand in hand. Chapter Twelve dramatizes the intimate relationship between the land and indigenous peoples when Taylor, Esperanza, Estevan, and Mattie reenact the celebration of the first rainfall; we learn that as a child, Taylor loved to climb trees, behavior her mother ascribed to Taylor’s Cherokee inclination get high up in a tree to find God; Taylor’s sudden need to see Lake o’ the Cherokees has to do with her Cherokee blood; and Turtle has a natural love for the earth. Finally, the way that Turtle and other displaced people are symbolized by birds makes a statement about the vulnerability that Native people share with nature: both birds and displaced people will be hunted down if they cannot find a sanctuary.
The pattern of death and new life is repeated throughout the novel. Often, this motif is associated with dualities: when one member of a pair dies, the other gains life force. Newt Hardbine is represented as a kind of double for Taylor: in grade school, people could hardly tell them apart, and their lives seemed to move in parallel directions until they became older. Newt’s death at the beginning of the novel can be viewed as a sacrifice that allows Taylor to get away. His death functions as a kind of symbolic sacrifice that allows his counterpart to prosper. In a similar way, when Taylor leaves her hometown, Alice Greer stops being her daughter’s caretaker, and Taylor starts being Turtle’s caretaker. Only after she separates herself from her mother does Taylor come upon Turtle in the Oklahoma bar. Turtle’s reenactment of her mother’s burial symbolically allows Taylor to take over as mother. Esperanza’s cathartic experience—pretending that Turtle is her daughter and pretending to give her away—symbolically lays Ismene to rest, so that Turtle, Ismene’s double, may live and thrive.
Turtle embodies the novel’s rebirth motif, undergoing a series of metaphoric deaths and resurrections. When Taylor first finds her, Taylor does not know if Turtle is dead or alive. Gradually, Turtle shows signs of life, as her abuse becomes a more distant memory and she learns to trust Taylor. This cycle goes another round when Turtle is attacked in the park, returns to her catatonic state, and then learns to trust again. Taylor’s fascination with seeds and vegetables represents her reenactment of the cycle of burial and new life. The dried-up seed that, once buried, becomes a living thing, symbolizes her own life experience.
The Bean Trees explores several models of mothering, none of them conventional. Taylor, Lou Ann, and Esperanza make up a trio of mothers, and none of them fits the stereotypical model of motherhood. After avoiding pregnancy her whole life, Taylor is given an Indian child; Lou Ann’s husband abandons her before her child is born; Esperanza must leave her child in order to save the lives of others. All three of these mothers love their children fiercely. They also place their love for children above their love for men: Taylor restrains her impulse to initiate an affair with Estevan (which Estevan does not want either) because she identifies with Esperanza as a mother and does not want to worsen the pain Esperanza feels at having lost a child.
Kingsolver suggests it is unrealistic to expect perfection from mothers. She depicts Esperanza’s decision to abandon her child as painful but also understandable and even noble. She does not blame Taylor when Turtle is left with a blind baby-sitter and attacked by an assailant. Kingsolver values the attempt at responsible parenting over the results.
Beans and Bean Trees(symbol)
“Bean,” Turtle’s first word, symbolizes the promise that, like a dried-up seed that grows, a mistreated woman may thrive if given enough care. The bean trees, another name for the wisteria vine that Turtle spots in Dog Doo Park, symbolize transformation, a spot of life in the midst of barrenness. The bean trees have a symbiotic relationship with bugs called rhizobia, which move up and down the wisteria vine’s roots and provide a network that transfers nutrients. This mutual aid symbolizes the help and love human beings give one another. The bean trees, like people, only thrive with a network of support.
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Ismene symbolizes all abandoned children, and the grief of all mothers forced to abandon them. Since we never meet her in the narrative and only hear about what she means to her parents, to Taylor, and to Turtle, Ismene is nothing but a symbol in the novel. She exists as Turtle’s dark twin, the embodiment of what could have happened to the abandoned Turtle had not Taylor rescued her. Ismene reveals Kingsolver’s commitment to writing as a means of social change, for Kingsolver portrays Ismene as representative of the pain inflicted by political corruption.
Most often, birds are metaphorically associated with Turtle, the abandoned child with strong survival instincts. As Turtle’s life changes, so do the birds that symbolize her. Taylor makes her first sound, a quiet laugh, when the car she is in stops to allow a mother quail and her babies to pass. Turtle is beginning to feel safe in the small family composed of herself and Taylor, and so the birds that elicit a happy sound from her are a mother quail and her chicks. Later, Taylor takes Turtle to the doctor and discovers the gravity of the abuse Turtle has suffered. As she makes this discovery, she sees a bird outside the doctor’s window. The bird has made its nest in a cactus. Like the bird in the cactus, Turtle’s life persists in spite of her painful surroundings. After Turtle encounters the prowler, a sparrow gets caught in Lou Ann’s house, and the bird’s fear suggests Turtle’s own fright and confusion. The sparrow’s survival suggests that Turtle will survive.
Taylor Greer is gutsy and practical. She views her hometown as stifling and tiny, and she decides she wants to avoid the trap of an early pregnancy and make her escape to a more interesting life. Taylor’s spirited, quirky voice shapes the novel. She perceives things in an original fashion, communicating her wonder at the customs and landscape of the Southwest with unusual metaphors and folksy language. Taylor settles in Tucson, Arizona, because its landscape strikes her as outlandish; newness and amusement appeal to her more than comfort or familiarity. As she contends with dangerous poverty, an unasked-for child, and many other trials, Taylor’s wit and spirit remain intact.
Although never naïve, Taylor becomes even more worldly after learning about the political corruption and personal tragedy faced by Estevan and Esperanza and the abuse inflicted on Turtle. Her sympathetic reaction to the difficulties of others reveals Taylor’s tenderheartedness. Taylor cares for the abandoned and the exiled with increasing enthusiasm as the novel progresses. Mattie calls her a hero for risking her own safety in order to achieve a more just society. In some ways, Taylor is an archetypal hero: she leaves her home and family, descends into darkness, and reemerges to accomplish some good for the sake of her society. She also functions as Esperanza’s comedic counterpart. Whereas tragedy permanently enshrouds Esperanza’s life, Taylor has a chance to hold on to her daughter and her happiness. Unlike traditional female heroines, Taylor’s adventures do not revolve around finding or keeping a man. Her life focuses instead on females—primarily on Turtle, but also on her mother, her friend, and her mentor. The male-female love she experiences remains purely platonic.
Lou Ann is soft, motherly, and worrisome; she fears her own death and the death of her child. Far more womanly in a traditional sense than Taylor is, she pines for her husband and expresses her conviction that marriages and love should last forever. A Kentuckian, she retains the innocence of a small-town girl. Despite this innocence and occasional spates of homesickness, Lou Ann demonstrates her grit by moving to Tucson and then staying there alone to raise a child over the objections of her female relatives. She and Taylor form a functional family, caring for their children and for each other.
Lou Ann undergoes a transformation from dependent housewife into strong single mother. She has feminist instincts from the beginning of the novel, but initially she does not express them. She remains silent even though the sight of the local strip joint makes her shudder; she notices that her house feels more whole with her female relatives present than with her husband; she reflects on the strength of her body during her pregnancy. Around Chapter Ten, Lou Ann changes. She begins to speak about the contradictions and injustices of gender relations. She tells Taylor that she despises the obscene painting on the door of the strip joint. She searches for a job and accepts that she will have to support herself. She acts more boldly, scolding Taylor when Taylor does not fight hard for her rights.
Though a cast of strong women peoples The Bean Trees, the only male character of consequence is Estevan, whose presence grows more important as the novel progresses. Taylor’s affection for him suggests that he is a welcome addition to an otherwise exclusively female world. Estevan represents the opposite of the stereotypically chauvinistic American male. A good man, he counters the novel’s villainous and sexually predatory men, such as Turtle’s abuser, the prowler in the park, and the absentee Angel. We empathize with Estevan not only because of his kindness, but because he lacks a homeland. Like women and like the natural environment, he knows destruction and persecution. Via Estevan, Kingsolver dispels many myths about illegal immigrants. One myth holds that immigrants cannot speak English well, but Estevan speaks better English than any of the native English-speakers in the novel. His pristine English and impeccable grammar suggest his intelligence and industry.
A history of abuse makes Turtle silent for much of the novel. She seems almost catatonic, anxious to remain unnoticed and therefore unmolested. However, as the novel progresses and Turtle begins to trust that Taylor will take good care of her, the three-year-old girl becomes increasingly talkative and charming. She begins to preface friends’ names with the word Ma: Lou Ann becomes Ma Woo-Ahn, for example. She demonstrates a connection with the earth, taking great pleasure in naming vegetables and playing with seeds or dirt. Her made-up songs concern vegetables, and her preferred bedtime story is the seed catalogue. This love of the land links her, Kingsolver suggests, to her Native American heritage.
One of the first characters we meet, Alice Greer sets the precedent for the series of strong, loving women that come after her in the novel. Kingsolver suggests that children become what they are told they will become; because Newt Hardbine is told he will fail, for example, he does fail. In contrast, because Alice constantly tells Taylor she is wonderful and smart and will succeed, Taylor is wonderful and smart and successful. Alice also represents the independence from men advocated by the novel. She lives happily, sometimes married, sometimes not, and never imagines she needs a man in order to raise Taylor.
Mattie acts as a mother to hundreds of people, including Taylor. She does not fit the typical portrait of a mother figure, however, for although she is wise and loving, she is also fearsomely intelligent and tough. Her combination safe house, garden, and tire shop symbolize Mattie’s combination of qualities. Mattie does not push anyone to act heroically, as she herself acts, but she does inspire heroism through her own actions. She also breathes fresh air into the lives of her provincial, undereducated friends with her work as an intellectual. The other characters only dimly grasp her work as an activist and an intellectual, but the fact that it exists points to a world outside the novel’s scope.
“I have always thought you had a wonderful way with words,” he said. “You don’t need to go fishing for big words in the dictionary. You are poetic, mi’ija.” . . . “Well, thank you for the compliment,” I said, “but that’s the biggest bunch of hogwash, what you said. When did I ever say anything poetic?” “Washing hogs is poetic,” he said.(quote)
These lines from Chapter Eight record a conversation between Estevan and Taylor. To emphasize the idea that immigrants should be treated with respect, Kingsolver pointedly makes Estevan, an immigrant, the character with the best command of the English language. He is better educated and more articulate than any of his friends, all of whom use slang and bad grammar. Kingsolver does not condemn those characters who use nonstandard English, as this quotation indicates; rather, she suggests that all forms of English can be considered poetic. Although Taylor wishes she could use bigger words, like Estevan does, Estevan points out that her slang and colloquial expressions are beautiful. Taylor’s “hogwash,” Esperanza’s silence, and Turtle’s vegetable songs all have their own bit of poetry.
Turtle shook her head. “Bean trees,” she said, as plainly as if she had been thinking about it all day. We looked where she was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. They looked as much like beans as anything you’d ever care to eat. “Will you look at that,” I said. It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.(quote)
These lines, which come from Chapter Ten, occur as Lou Ann, Taylor, Turtle, and Dwayne Ray sit in Roosevelt Park (commonly known as “Dog Doo Park”). The quotation points to the novel’s idea that miracles happen in modest or unlikely places. Appropriately, it is Turtle who makes the discovery that gives the novel its title. Turtle is herself a miracle in an unlikely place. Like the bean trees discovered in the ugly park, Turtle is discovered in a barren parking lot. And like the dirty, barren park, which later seems magical, Turtle at first strikes Taylor as an unwanted burden, but gradually becomes more and more important to Taylor, until the possibility of losing Turtle becomes the main conflict in the novel.
Lou Ann shuddered. “That door’s what gets me. The way they made the door handle. Like a woman is something you shove on and walk right through. I try to ignore it, but it still gets me.” “Don’t ignore it, then,” I said. “Talk back to it. Say, ‘You can’t do that number on me, you ****-for-brains.’ . . . What I’m saying is you can’t just sit there, you got to get pissed off.”(quote)
In Chapter Ten, Lou Ann and Taylor discuss Fanny Heaven, the local strip joint. Lou Ann has just had her first job interview, during which her interviewer talked to her breasts instead of to her face. This quotation demonstrates Taylor’s usual feistiness and spirited support of her friend. With Taylor, Lou Ann feels comfortable articulating a disgust that until this point she kept secret. Previously, Lou Ann had tolerated the offensive strip club in silence, thinking of it as an unassailable part of her surroundings. Here, for the first time, she identifies her discomfort aloud, even identifying what particularly upsets her: the mural of a woman painted so that the door handle opens into the woman’s crotch. Kingsolver makes a point by including Fanny Heaven in her novel. The existence of the strip club suggests that the sexual violence or violent attacks suffered by women do not spring from nowhere, but are the byproduct of a society that objectifies and exploits women’s bodies.
The whole Tucson Valley lay in front of us, resting in its cradle of mountains. The sloped desert plain that lay between us and the city was like a palm stretched out for a fortuneteller to read, with its mounds and hillocks, its life lines and heart lines of dry stream beds.(quote)
This description comes in Chapter Twelve, at the time of the first rain, when Mattie takes her young friends into the desert so they can see the natural world come to life. This quotation, typical of Kingsolver’s descriptions of the natural landscape, shows her consciousness of the environment. It also exemplifies Kingsolver’s use of unusual metaphors. By describing the landscape as the palm of a human hand, Kingsolver personifies the mountains and city. Her phrase “resting in its cradle of mountains” likens the valley to a baby, and the phrases “city like a palm” and “life lines and heart lines” suggest an adult. The land embodies a life lived from birth to death. Taylor falls in love with the Arizona land and sky, and her appreciation for nature in all its forms, with all its surprises, mirrors the values the novel espouses.
It didn’t seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was. . . . She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest. And me. I was the main ingredient.(quote)
These lines recount Taylor’s thoughts at the end of the novel, in Chapter Seventeen, as she and Turtle head back to Tucson. With this final scene, Kingsolver provides a mirror image of Taylor’s first trip to Tucson with Turtle, during which the little girl’s behavior was entirely different. On the first trip, Turtle remained so silent and motionless that Turtle wondered if she had died. On this trip, Turtle remains wide awake, happily babbling about her vegetables. Most important, Turtle now includes names of people in her vegetable-soup song. This marks a change, because in the beginning, Turtle could not connect with people or form ties to them. By adding names of people she knows to her babble, Turtle shows she has begun to recover from her history of abuse and has gained the ability to trust people. Most significant is that she identifies Taylor as the “main ingredient.” For a space of time, Turtle demonstrated her confusion about her caretakers by calling most women in her life “Ma.” Now, she identifies Taylor as her mother. The last sentence of this quotation reaffirms not only Turtle’s attachment to Taylor, but also Taylor’s happiness in hearing herself identified as the main ingredient, and her confidence in herself as a mother.
Traditionally, American society has defined “family” as “nuclear family”—a father, a mother, and children living together. The biological mother is often viewed as the natural caregiver, and the father is viewed as the provider. How does this novel ask us to rethink our definition of family and how does it suggest alternative role models in place of or in addition to the biological mother?(essay)
This novel presents several models of unconventional yet functional families. Kingsolver does not scoff at the traditional family—Taylor affectionately refers to a family of paper dolls she had as a child. She remembers loving the dolls and intensely longing for a family like theirs. Kingsolver suggests such perfect doll families exist less and less frequently, and women must come up with new versions of family. Lou Ann and Taylor form a new familial structure that does not depend on a romantic or a blood relationship, but still provides two parental figures for the children. At the end of the novel, Lou Ann responds to the news of Turtle’s adoption with a relief and joy that rivals Taylor’s. This novel values a sociopolitical system that regards caregiving as the work of a community, not an individual.
The first mother introduced in the novel, Alice Greer, sets the stage for all the models of motherhood to come. Alice is a loving, responsible single mother, and her daughter does not grieve the absence of a male role model—in fact, she counts herself lucky to lack a father in a town where men call their daughters sluts, or get girls pregnant and run away. As the novel progresses, Kingsolver presents more models of motherhood: Taylor becomes an adoptive mother overnight, acquiring a child of a different racial makeup and background than her own. Lou Ann gives birth to a child on her own. We never find out if Mattie has children of her own or not, but this seems unimportant. Mattie provides for many “adopted” people, loving them and risking her safety for them just as a mother would.
What is the relationship between religion and spirituality in this novel? What role do the conspicuous signs of commercialized religious belief (Jesus Is Lord Used Tires and the sign reading 1-800-the lord) play in establishing the novel’s moral code?(essay)
The Bean Trees reverberates with a deep sense of spirituality that has little to do with organized religion. In the novel, commercialized religion works not as the means to salvation, but as a humorous lucky charm. At the bar with the sign that reads 1-800-THE-LORD, Taylor finds Turtle, who will become the most precious part of her life. Jesus Is Lord Used Tires brings Taylor to Mattie, who becomes a mother figure and mentor. While the Jesus mural on the wall of the used-tire store holds no sacred value for Lou Ann and Taylor, they relish the fact that it scares off would-be patrons of the neighboring strip club.
To what extent does the novel define home in terms of geographic setting? In terms of people?(essay)
Kingsolver first addresses the question of home as geographic setting when Taylor reaches Oklahoma. Taylor thinks back to the way her mother talked about the Cherokee Nation, and feels thoroughly let down. Still, although her mother’s Cherokee “head rights” do not amount to much, she finds head rights of her own when an Indian woman gives her Turtle. The postcard Taylor writes to her mother indicates that Taylor’s obligation is to a little girl, not to a geographic place: “I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me.” Taylor’s sense of home has to do not with the geographical location of the Cherokee nation, but with Turtle.
Eventually, Taylor does locate a physical place that feels like home. The quirky beauty of the Arizona desert begins to feel homey, and by the time she returns to Tucson at the end of the novel, she is returning both to her geographic home, and to her home community of people. Esperanza and Estevan are forced to define home as the place where they have friends, rather than as the location of their homeland. When they arrive at the Cherokee Nation, where they look similar to the inhabitants, they seem heartened. Although they cannot live in their native South America, they find a community of similarly displaced people where they blend in. As someone tells Taylor, the Cherokee Nation is not a place, but a people.