The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver
Summary

Chapter One: The One to Get Away

Summary Chapter One: The One to Get Away

Analysis

The first chapter introduces us to the strong idiosyncratic voice of Taylor Greer. She uses slangy Southern language and describes the world in off-kilter metaphors. She also uses hyperbole and narrates in a gently sarcastic tone. A dependable narrator, she establishes our trust in her storytelling. The first chapter introduces one of the novel’s central ideas: the importance of motherhood. Kingsolver contrasts the effect of Alice Greer’s good parenting with that of Mr. Hardbine’s and Mr. Shanks’s bad parenting, suggesting that parents determine their children’s destinies. Because Alice constantly tells Taylor how wonderful and smart she is, Taylor becomes wonderful and smart. Because Mr. Hardbine abuses his son, his son kills himself. Because Mr. Shanks tells Jolene she is a slut, Jolene gets pregnant. Jolene acknowledges the direct effect of parents’ words on children’s behavior when she says, “[M]y daddy’d been calling me a slut practically since I was thirteen, so why the hell not? Newt was just who it happened to be.”

Taylor makes herself literally homeless when she leaves Kentucky, and she feels figuratively homeless when she reaches the Cherokee Nation. She had thought of the Nation as her ace-in-the-hole, her homeland, but to her dismay, she finds it depressing. She thinks Oklahoma and the Nation so disheartening that she breaks her own promise to herself, and instead of settling where she lands she spends most of her savings to get her car fixed so she can leave. By the end of the chapter, however, Taylor begins to rethink her own definition of home. She had associated the idea of home with a physical place, thinking of Kentucky or the Cherokee Nation as her homeland, but when she writes to her mother and says she will take her head rights (meaning the baby) with her, it suggests that Taylor is beginning to think of home as a connection with people rather than as a place.

Beginning in this chapter, Kingsolver portrays women as oppressed and mistreated. In Taylor’s hometown, pregnancy is depicted as a disease that spreads to most of the girls, a disease to be avoided with determination and luck. When Taylor sees that the baby has been sexually abused, she remarks that the baby’s gender “has already burdened her short life,” which suggests her belief that sooner or later, all women are burdened as the girl has been. The fact that Taylor immediately characterizes this specific instance of sexual abuse as a universal female experience rather than an isolated perversion suggests that Taylor and the novel itself regard women as besieged. The discovery of the abuse inflicted on the baby solidifies Taylor’s commitment to the young child. At first she does not know what to do with the child, but immediately after seeing proof of sexual abuse, Taylor writes her mother to say that her “head rights . . . [are] coming with [her],” implying that she now sees the child as an inalienable part of her.