The Bean Trees

by: Barbara Kingsolver

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Rebirth

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.

Motherhood

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.