Study Guide

The Bean Trees

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

The novel’s title refers to the name that Turtle uses for wisteria: Their seed pods resemble beans. When Turtle finally begins to talk, she does so in a vocabulary rich with vegetable and other plant names. Organic metaphors can be found throughout the book. For example, a large, unstructured garden behind Mattie’s tire shop spills over into Lee Sing’s yard—just as the characters form friendships without regard for artificially constructed boundaries. Relationships grow naturally out of mutual needs and interests. The final chapter, “Rhizobia,” refers to microscopic organisms that aid in fertilizing wisteria; as Taylor explains it to Turtle, “There’s a whole invisible system for helping out the plant. . . . It’s just the same as with people”—on their own, wisteria vines “would just barely get by,” but “put them together” with rhizobia (or their friends) and “they make miracles.” Mutual support and interdependence allow all the characters to flourish in ways that they could not on their own.

With the exception of the second and fourth chapters, which are told in a third-person omniscient point of view and focus on Lou Ann Ruiz before she meets Taylor, the novel is told from Taylor’s first-person point of view. Taylor is thus both outsider and central focus; as a transplanted Kentuckian living in Tucson, she meets people different from any she knew back home—especially those from other ethnic groups. As a working-class mother in a community of other working-class women, however, she shares their concerns and their struggles.

Taylor’s first-person narration is one of the many examples of the novel’s focus on language: Her Southern idioms seem “poetic” to Estevan, while his precise and grammatically perfect English seems beautiful and formal to Taylor. The early chapters have titles that seem at first nonsensical—“New Year’s Pig,” “Jesus Is Lord Used Tires,” “Tug Fork Water”—but whose meanings are revealed in the chapters themselves. Because these examples occur at the beginning of the book, they signal Taylor’s initial confusion with being in this new part of the country, having a suddenly acquired child, and not being able to “speak the language” of either motherhood or the Southwest. Many characters speak Spanish; Estevan and Esperanza use it as a lingua franca, for their native languages are two different Mayan dialects. Lou Ann Ruiz’s in-laws all speak Spanish, and her mother-in-law speaks no English, just as Lou Ann does not speak Spanish. Turtle creates a language of her own, based largely on vegetable names; this combination of two of the novel’s central motifs, organic growth and language, points to the importance of both communication and community.

Issues of community and interconnectedness figure prominently throughout the novel. Turtle, an American Indian, looks a lot like Ismene, the daughter of Estevan and Esperanza who is taken from them. Lou Ann’s relatives, the Central American refugees, and the Hispanic community in general appear at first strange and foreign to the Kentuckians Lou Ann and Taylor, but they soon become family, both literally and figuratively. When Taylor, Turtle, Estevan, and Esperanza travel to Oklahoma, Taylor—ever on the lookout for those who might try to arrest and deport the refugees, who do not have identification papers—is comforted by the fact that Estevan and Esperanza look “Indian.” Even though they are Mayan and not Oklahoma Cherokee, their physical likeness to the resident American Indians makes them less anomalous than Taylor in this environment.

More broadly construed, issues of race figure in subtle ways. All the characters can be seen as outsiders or foreigners, but the real focus here is on their common humanity: how their race and nationality are one characteristic of their personalities, but not the defining one. Moreover, the characters continually break stereotypes: Estevan, the Guatemalan refugee, speaks perfect and precise English; even though he washes dishes now, he was a respected teacher in his native country. Edna Poppy, who seems at first fastidious and confused to Taylor and Lou Ann, is actually blind—something these younger women do not discover until weeks after meeting her.

Many women in the novel take charge of their lives without the aid of male partners: Mattie creates a successful business after her husband’s death; Taylor, reared without a father, sees no need for a father for Turtle or husband for herself; and Lou Ann manages to support herself and her son after her husband leaves them. In fact, the one main female character in the novel who is married, Esperanza, is suicidal and depressed—clearly, because of the torture she suffered in Guatemala, and not because she is married—but the implication here is that women with husbands fare no better than those without them. The relationship between Virgie Mae and Edna, while not explicitly lesbian, shows that two older women can care about and for each other deeply, without suffering any social stigmatization.