A significant theme throughout The Bean Trees is the status of the main characters as outsiders in foreign lands. The most glaring and literal examples of this are Esperanza and Estevan, who are refugees and illegal immigrants in the United States, the most extreme case of characters who have fled from their homeland. However, each of the other main characters are also outsiders in their respective areas. The narrator of the novel, Taylor Greer, and the other primary character, Lou Ann Ruiz, are both outsiders in Tucson, Arizona, refugees of a more abstract sort from their Kentucky origins. However, Kingsolver bolsters the theme of outsiders and foreigners through a treatment of these characters as outsiders in terms of beliefs and attitudes as well as through geography. Taylor finds herself an outsider in rural Kentucky because she does not accept the limited option of becoming a wife and mother, and she further feels herself an outsider when she meets Estevan because she does not believe that she has a voice in important decisions such as the fate of the Guatemalan refugees. The effect of this theme of the novel is that it gives the characters flexibility and a sense of autonomy; the characters of The Bean Trees are not in stasis, but because of their outsider status must continually search for their place within society.
Names as Markers of Identity
Barbara Kingsolver includes a number of examples in The Bean Trees of characters who use their names as markers of their identity and who change in their names in order to designate a significant change in their life. For Kingsolver, names can signify the origin of a character: this is certainly the case for Taylor, whose birth name, Marietta, is the name of the place where she was conceived, but it also is the case for Esperanza and Estevan, whose Mayan birth names signified their heritage in rural Guatemala. Each of these three characters change their names when they make a move from one location to another: Marietta chooses the name Taylor when she leaves Kentucky, Esperanza and Estevan adopt their Spanish names when they move to the urban areas of Guatemala, and they change their names to Hope and Steven when they move from Tucson to Oklahoma. Kingsolver also uses names to signify a shift in relationship status. Turtle gains the name April soon after she becomes established as Taylor's foster child.
Barbara Kingsolver uses the growth of plants as a dominant theme of the novel and a metaphor for the growth of the characters. The growth of plants serve a number of thematic purposes in the novel. The night-blooming cereus that Edna Poppy brings to Taylor and Lou Ann before Taylor undertakes her journey to Oklahoma serves as a harbinger, and represents the ephemeral quality to the character's opportunities. The wisteria vines represent the symbiotic relationships that dominant the novel, and most importantly, the growth of bean trees represents the growth of Turtle Greer and her maturation throughout the novel. Kingsolver endows this theme with some duality, however; the growth of the plants represent both life and death, for Turtle buries her dolls seemingly to have them grow, but in fact does so to replicate the burial of her mother in a cemetery.
The dominant relationship in the novel is between the mother and child; most of the female characters in The Bean Trees are mothers who raise their children without the help of an absentee father. Mama Greer raised Taylor as a single mother, and Taylor in return becomes a single mother when she gets custody of Turtle while traveling through Oklahoma. With her impending divorce from Angel, Lou Ann Ruiz raises Dwayne Ray by herself, just as the waitress Sandi raises her son Seattle alone. In a more abstract sense, Mattie is a single mother to her various refugees, and compares herself to a parent to them on more than one occasion. The one mother in the novel who is not a single parent is Esperanza, yet she no longer parents the kidnapped Ismene. In this manner, Kingsolver idealizes the single mother and diminishes the position of the father, who in all of these cases is errant and irresponsible (Angel leaves his wife while she is pregnant, the man who impregnates Sandi disavows that he is the father of Seattle).
The prevailing symbol of the wisteria vine and the information concerning this plant forms the concluding metaphor of the novel. The wisteria vine grows in seemingly barren soil because of its relationship with rhizobia, bacteria that fertilize the soil under the plant; Kingsolver relates this to the various symbiotic relationships throughout the novel. There are certainly many examples of this: Virgie Mae Parsons provides the blind Edna Poppy with guidance and help, while Edna Poppy serves as a buffer against Virgie Mae's often abrasive manner. Most of the relationships of the novel are in some degree reciprocal. For example, Lou Ann provides Taylor with a perspective on her abilities, while Taylor calms Lou Ann's neuroses and instills her with a sense of confidence. Also, Estevan and Esperanza draw strength from one another and seem unable to function independently, having gone through so much in Guatemala and in the United States. The effect of these symbiotic relationships is that it instills a sense of community through the novel by creating a network of need and fulfillment among the many characters, who sustain and promote one another.
The Bean Trees Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Bean Trees is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Taylor has a childhood memory of Newt Hardbine’s father getting thrown in the air by an exploding tire. This shakes the narrator to the core and she vows to leave her poverty stricken hometown as soon as she can get out.
The novel is being told in first person by Taylor Greer. After Taylor heads west, there is a fairly chronological unity of time. Although the setting changes, the book generally follows a traditional plot structure.