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.