Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The novel is about the struggles of American life for the vast number of people for whom the rags-to-riches dream is never realized. This is the real America, the America of unskilled labor, low levels of education, and limited access to the perks of American society. Yet in Kingsolver’s novel there is no bitterness, no petty jealousy or envy, no crime, merely an easy acceptance of the way things are and an appreciation of life’s good parts.
The novel is also about growing up. While the device of the journey has often been used to focus such a theme, Taylor’s growing up comes not so much as a result of her experiences traveling as a result of her attempts to deal with the new and unexpected responsibility of a needy child. Taylor must learn how to be a mother—how to provide for Turtle’s physical needs and, even more important, how to provide for Turtle’s emotional needs. Slowly, she becomes committed to satisfying those needs, to being a real parent for Turtle.
Another theme of the novel is women’s strength. All the major characters are women, and they form a community of support for one another. They accept one another’s weaknesses, helping one another to change what can be changed and to work around what cannot. This is a story of women who are not empowered in any way but who nevertheless have the will, the spirit, and the commitment to find the resources within themselves to do right individually.
(The entire section is 257 words.)
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The Bean Trees combines two traditional storytelling forms: the coming-of-age story and the quest narrative. We learn much about Taylor's upbringing and teenage years in the opening chapter of the book, but she does not become a full-fledged adult, with a purpose and direction in life, until the novel's end. Taylor's story can also be viewed as a quest. It features a physical journey, a person seeking something (though that something is unknown), and many adventures, obstacles, and dangers along the way.
The central theme of the novel is the importance of community. Taylor feels like an outsider in her hometown of Pittman, Kentucky. The poor children are called "Nutters" because they pick walnuts to earn money for school clothes. The walnut oil stains their fingers black, marking them as outcasts. Though herself a Nutter, Taylor feels alienated from her rural classmates, who have little ambition beyond marriage and farming. Yearning for an unnamed "something else," Taylor winds up with a surrogate family and a place in a community by the novel's end. The central metaphor of the book's title makes Kingsolver's point clear. The "bean trees" in Mattie's garden are actually wisteria vines. As Taylor learns from a horticultural encyclopedia, wisteria "often thrive in poor soil." This is clearly descriptive of both Taylor and Turtle. Rhizobia, microscopic creatures that convert nitrogen into fertilizer for the plants, help wisteria to survive and thrive....
(The entire section is 466 words.)
At the center of the novel, friendship is portrayed as having the power to transform even the loneliest and most broken of lives. When they first appear, most of the main characters—Taylor, Turtle, Lou Ann, Estevan and Esperanza—are broke, hurt, lonely, frightened, or just unlucky. However, as their friendships and fierce loyalty to one another grow, these forces begin to sustain the characters' lives. Alone in a city far from their homes, Taylor and Lou Ann make a new home by creating a kind of family with each other and their children. Mattie rescues Taylor and Turtle when they first arrive in Tucson by talking to them sympathetically and by giving Taylor a job. Mattie also rescues Estevan and Esperanza by giving them shelter and keeping them safe. Virgie Mae and Edna Poppy watch out for each other and help Taylor and Lou Ann with the children. Throughout the novel, the characters develop ties with one another by helping each other to survive in a difficult world. The community the characters build grows in the dry Arizona earth, just as the flowers and vegetables in Mattie's garden grow.
Choices and Consequences
Part of learning to survive is learning to make wise choices and realizing that one's choices have consequences. The novel shows how each character has faced important choices and then had to live with the consequences. The choices a character makes can also serve to define that character, showing him or...
(The entire section is 853 words.)