Free Study Guide for The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver-BookNotes

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THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS


The most powerful of the three themes is the theme of family. The interesting twist is the fact that none of the “families” in the novel are actually families in the nuclear sense. Taylor Greer, the protagonist, comes from a nonstandard family. She was raised solely by her mother, in an atmosphere of love, acceptance, and self-esteem. The absence of a father had no obvious negative impact. Mother and daughter made an effective family unit.

Taylor ventures out into the world and becomes an instant mother when a child is left on her car seat. Parenting an abandoned child is certainly an extraordinary approach to the concept of family. She and the child, Turtle, become as mother and daughter. For a brief time, Taylor has the assistance of Sandy, the Burger Derby waitress, and Kid Central Station at the mall to assist her. Taylor quickly realizes, however, that mothering needs to consist of more than just a convenient arrangement of job and childcare.

Lou Ann Ruiz on the other hand holds tightly to the more conventional definition of family and even has her ex-husband move in temporarily to keep up appearances when relatives visit. She wants desperately to play the role of the good mother, but being single she finds it hard to approve of herself in that role. It is not until the end of the novel that Lou Ann verbalizes her acceptance of a new definition of family.

Mattie, who seems to consider everyone family, brings Estevan and Esperanza into Taylor’s life. The two end up traveling with Taylor and as the climax of the novel approaches, Taylor realizes that the usual view of family is easy for other people to envision. She even sees for herself how “normal” it seems for Estevan, Esperanza and Turtle to be together. It is the believability of this picture that facilitates Taylor’s adoption of Turtle. These four, Taylor, Turtle, Estevan and Esperanza, who each in his own way represents a family torn apart, define family in truth, “a whole invisible system for helping out... that you’d never guess was there.”

The second theme is artfully illustrated in Kingsolver’s descriptions of nature. The beauty of life can be found in apparently empty places. Graphic accounts of a stream in the desert, flowers from bare dirt, life awakened by summer’s first rain, and most remarkably, the night-blooming cereus, depict not only nature’s majesty, but also the reality of everyday miracles. Each occurrence causes Taylor to take pause and, in so doing, allows the reader to understand that everyday miracles are happening in Taylor’s life as well.

The third theme underscores the power of the community of women. Taylor and her mother have made it on their own. Taylor and Sandy find a way to help each other out. Taylor and Lou Ann handle jobs, a home, and the crises, real and perceived, of raising children without once calling a husband or father for assistance. And Mattie, the caretaker of so many, takes on international problems at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. Even the men in the novel adjust their lives to the will of women and mothers (best exemplified by Angel’s responses to Lou Ann’s mother and his own.)


POINT OF VIEW


Being told in first person by Taylor Greer, the novel obviously comes from a female point of view. This point of view, however, goes beyond narration. There are virtually no “good” men in this novel. From page one, Newt Hardbine and his father are depicted as scrubby riffraff; Marietta’s mother describes Marietta’s father as “no one Missy knew” and “long gone”. Next, Angel Ruiz is characterized as inconsiderate and ignorant, even by his own mother. The men at the bar in Oklahoma where Taylor gets Turtle are described as scary. Only female characters are attributed with positive personality traits.

It may be argued that Estevan is indeed a good man, and he is, as far as his character goes. However, his character can accurately be interpreted as a woman’s ideas and feelings in a man’s body. His occupations are teaching and washing dishes. He does not make the slightest sexual advance toward Taylor who puts herself in a receptive position more than once. He uses “having another baby” to illustrate happiness for himself and Esperanza. He exhibits no stereotypically male behaviors. He is not masculine in terms of being the strong one. It is the women who are the heroes in this novel. The point of view is entirely feminine.


STUDY QUESTIONS - ESSAY TOPICS - BOOK REPORT IDEAS


1. What political views does the author express?

2. Is the novelist unduly harsh toward men? Discuss.

3. Outline the main themes in this novel.

4. Discuss the significance of the title.

5. Is the first person narrative an effective technique here?

6. To what extent is this novel about the dissolution of the nuclear family?

7. Bring out the role of family in the novel.

8. Analyze the role played by men in the novel.

9. Discuss why Estevan and Esperanza would have consented to pose as Turtle’s parents and describe how the experience changed them.

10. Suggest an alternate ending wherein Esperanza is unable to part with Turtle and Taylor must leave Oklahoma alone.


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