Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 257

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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

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. Reliance on others in order to have a fulfilling and happy life is shown in the novel through the various supportive relationships in the book.

Another theme is responsibility. At the beginning of the novel, Taylor reluctantly assumes responsibility for Turtle, but she resists committing herself as Turtle's permanent caretaker. This is partly because she had no plans, at this point in her life, to become a mother, and partly because she feels that she is inadequate and unprepared for the task. Just before Taylor decides to adopt Turtle, Mattie tells Taylor that no one feels up to the challenge of parenting, but that instead one should ask oneself whether "it would be interesting, maybe even enjoyable in the long run, to share my life with this kid and give her my best effort and maybe, when all's said and done, end up with a good friend." Taylor's decision to become responsible for Turtle is intertwined with her decision to help Estevan and Esperanza. Here, she is taking responsibility to further a cause she feels is right. By actively assisting them in moving to a safer location, she is making an important transition from someone who simply feels badly about the problems in the world to someone who actively tries to better the world. Influenced again by Mattie, Taylor is taking responsibility for doing what she can to make life better for others.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853

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 her to be, for example, generous or selfish, strong or weak The do-or-die moments portrayed in the novel include Taylor's choice to leave Pittman County; her split-second decision to keep Turtle when Turtle's aunt insists she "take this baby"; Estevan and Esperanza's choice not to turn in their friends to the police and also not to pursue Ismene after she was kidnapped; Lou Ann's choice not to return to Angel after he has left her; Taylor's choice to drive Estevan and Esperanza to a new safe house in Oklahoma; and her choice to adopt Turtle for good. Each of these choices is difficult—a viable option exists in each case—but a choice has to be made, and each of these choices has changed the character's life and defined the character.

Human Rights
Human rights involve personal safety and freedom, which most United States citizens take for granted. In the novel, Latin American refugees Estevan and Esperanza, whose personal safety and freedom has been denied them in Guatemala, provide the obvious symbol for human rights. In addition, Turtle, as an abused member of the Cherokee Nation, represents two groups that have been denied human rights: abused children and Native Americans. But Taylor, as a sensitive and empathetic narrator, does not get bogged down in politics when she feels the injustice of human rights violations—she simply worries about people she loves. Her narrative is imbued with concern for human rights regardless of nationality or political views, and her view of the world changes as she becomes more exposed to the reality of human rights violations. Taylor begins to feel overwhelmed by sadness over what Turtle and Estevan and Esperanza have been through, saying to Lou Ann, "There's just so damn much ugliness. Everywhere you look, some big guy kicking some little person when they're down ... it just goes on and on, there's no end to it.. . the whole way of the world is to pick on people that can't fight back." Her anger over what she sees as the "way of the world" leads her to try to fight against that way, as she chooses finally to adopt Turtle and to risk danger to deliver Estevan and Esperanza to safety. Taylor's rage and despair over human cruelty transforms her by motivating her to work against cruelty and oppression.

Human Condition
Although not all of the characters in the novel endure human rights violations, all of them find life to be hard in some way. No one in the novel has had an easy life: Taylor has always been poor, Turtle has been abused and abandoned, Lou Ann perceives herself as inadequate, Estevan and Esperanza have lost their child and fled their home country in political danger. But the novel's treatment of the theme of the human condition does not stop with the notion that life is difficult. The humor and friendships generated by the characters in spite of their troubles redeem the novel from presenting a bleak view of the human condition. The novel's stance is that friendship and the support it provides relieves the characters from life's oppressiveness. Mattie provides shelter, work, love, and moral support. Taylor takes care of Turtle. Lou Ann and Taylor make each other laugh and help each other with their children. Taylor and Estevan admire the way each other uses the English language. Virgie Mae and Edna watch Turtle and Dwayne Ray for Taylor and Lou Ann. The characters in the novel have to cope with poverty and may fear for their safety, yet the novel shows that even the most dismal of lives can be transformed by a community of friends.

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