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.