Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The topic of gender is explored in two general ways in the novel. First, the novel shows the success of a nearly exclusively female world. Taylor lives in a small community of women who for the most part live their lives independently of men. The women in this community strengthen one another. Once she begins to share her life with Taylor, Lou Ann stops disregarding her appearance, finds a job, and forgets her irresponsible husband. Taylor, the once-invulnerable spirit, finds the energy to fight for Turtle only after weeks of Lou Ann’s prodding and a long talk with Mattie. The women are remarkably loyal to one another. When she sees Esperanza’s tearful catharsis, Taylor realizes that if Esperanza asked for Turtle, Taylor would give Turtle to her. Esperanza’s loyalty to Taylor is equally strong, for although Turtle is one of the only things that gives Esperanza joy, Esperanza does not ask Taylor to give up Turtle.
Second, the novel portrays gender inequality as a societal phenomenon instead of as a series of individual grievances. When Taylor first sees Turtle’s body, she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected the little girl. This comment immediately suggests that Kingsolver does not mean for us to think of Turtle as an individual but as representative of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender. Women suffer because they are women. Men touch and prod Lou Ann when she takes the bus, and the strip joint with its lewd paintings offends her. Esperanza seems to have had fewer educational and occupational opportunities in Guatemala that her husband did. While Estevan can speak perfect English, she is isolated in her depression, unable to express her grief fluently.
Kingsolver makes it clear that she sympathizes with the plight of illegal immigrants. Mattie, one of the most beloved characters in the novel, transports and protects illegal aliens. The immigrants Estevan and Esperanza are depicted sympathetically, and Taylor’s horror at their past life changes the way she sees the world. Kingsolver depicts those who denigrate immigrants not as evil, but as ignorant or misguided. Virgie Parsons’s views represent politically conservative ideas about immigration and nationalism. Although her remarks seem insensitive to Taylor, Virgie is not depicted as an evil person, but instead as one who has latched on to a political ideology without considering its moral implications.
Kingsolver also breaks down the us-versus-them rhetoric that often surrounds immigration issues by likening Taylor to Esperanza and Estevan. She levels the hierarchy that values an American citizen over a Guatemalan immigrant by depicting Taylor and the married couple as refugees. Taylor not only describes herself as an alien in Tucson, she finds that she is an outsider in the Cherokee nation, where Esperanza and Estevan feel at home.
The novel expresses a concern for the environment not by focusing on the potential destruction of the environment, but by focusing on the beauty of the land. The novel also suggests that Native American heritage and respect for the environment go hand in hand. Chapter Twelve dramatizes the intimate relationship between the land and indigenous peoples when Taylor, Esperanza, Estevan, and Mattie reenact the celebration of the first rainfall; we learn that as a child, Taylor loved to climb trees, behavior her mother ascribed to Taylor’s Cherokee inclination get high up in a tree to find God; Taylor’s sudden need to see Lake o’ the Cherokees has to do with her Cherokee blood; and Turtle has a natural love for the earth. Finally, the way that Turtle and other displaced people are symbolized by birds makes a statement about the vulnerability that Native people share with nature: both birds and displaced people will be hunted down if they cannot find a sanctuary.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The pattern of death and new life is repeated throughout the novel. Often, this motif is associated with dualities: when one member of a pair dies, the other gains life force. Newt Hardbine is represented as a kind of double for Taylor: in grade school, people could hardly tell them apart, and their lives seemed to move in parallel directions until they became older. Newt’s death at the beginning of the novel can be viewed as a sacrifice that allows Taylor to get away. His death functions as a kind of symbolic sacrifice that allows his counterpart to prosper. In a similar way, when Taylor leaves her hometown, Alice Greer stops being her daughter’s caretaker, and Taylor starts being Turtle’s caretaker. Only after she separates herself from her mother does Taylor come upon Turtle in the Oklahoma bar. Turtle’s reenactment of her mother’s burial symbolically allows Taylor to take over as mother. Esperanza’s cathartic experience—pretending that Turtle is her daughter and pretending to give her away—symbolically lays Ismene to rest, so that Turtle, Ismene’s double, may live and thrive.
Turtle embodies the novel’s rebirth motif, undergoing a series of metaphoric deaths and resurrections. When Taylor first finds her, Taylor does not know if Turtle is dead or alive. Gradually, Turtle shows signs of life, as her abuse becomes a more distant memory and she learns to trust Taylor. This cycle goes another round when Turtle is attacked in the park, returns to her catatonic state, and then learns to trust again. Taylor’s fascination with seeds and vegetables represents her reenactment of the cycle of burial and new life. The dried-up seed that, once buried, becomes a living thing, symbolizes her own life experience.
The Bean Trees explores several models of mothering, none of them conventional. Taylor, Lou Ann, and Esperanza make up a trio of mothers, and none of them fits the stereotypical model of motherhood. After avoiding pregnancy her whole life, Taylor is given an Indian child; Lou Ann’s husband abandons her before her child is born; Esperanza must leave her child in order to save the lives of others. All three of these mothers love their children fiercely. They also place their love for children above their love for men: Taylor restrains her impulse to initiate an affair with Estevan (which Estevan does not want either) because she identifies with Esperanza as a mother and does not want to worsen the pain Esperanza feels at having lost a child.
Kingsolver suggests it is unrealistic to expect perfection from mothers. She depicts Esperanza’s decision to abandon her child as painful but also understandable and even noble. She does not blame Taylor when Turtle is left with a blind baby-sitter and attacked by an assailant. Kingsolver values the attempt at responsible parenting over the results.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
“Bean,” Turtle’s first word, symbolizes the promise that, like a dried-up seed that grows, a mistreated woman may thrive if given enough care. The bean trees, another name for the wisteria vine that Turtle spots in Dog Doo Park, symbolize transformation, a spot of life in the midst of barrenness. The bean trees have a symbiotic relationship with bugs called rhizobia, which move up and down the wisteria vine’s roots and provide a network that transfers nutrients. This mutual aid symbolizes the help and love human beings give one another. The bean trees, like people, only thrive with a network of support.
Ismene symbolizes all abandoned children, and the grief of all mothers forced to abandon them. Since we never meet her in the narrative and only hear about what she means to her parents, to Taylor, and to Turtle, Ismene is nothing but a symbol in the novel. She exists as Turtle’s dark twin, the embodiment of what could have happened to the abandoned Turtle had not Taylor rescued her. Ismene reveals Kingsolver’s commitment to writing as a means of social change, for Kingsolver portrays Ismene as representative of the pain inflicted by political corruption.
Most often, birds are metaphorically associated with Turtle, the abandoned child with strong survival instincts. As Turtle’s life changes, so do the birds that symbolize her. Taylor makes her first sound, a quiet laugh, when the car she is in stops to allow a mother quail and her babies to pass. Turtle is beginning to feel safe in the small family composed of herself and Taylor, and so the birds that elicit a happy sound from her are a mother quail and her chicks. Later, Taylor takes Turtle to the doctor and discovers the gravity of the abuse Turtle has suffered. As she makes this discovery, she sees a bird outside the doctor’s window. The bird has made its nest in a cactus. Like the bird in the cactus, Turtle’s life persists in spite of her painful surroundings. After Turtle encounters the prowler, a sparrow gets caught in Lou Ann’s house, and the bird’s fear suggests Turtle’s own fright and confusion. The sparrow’s survival suggests that Turtle will survive.