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Extended Essay – The Bean Trees

Characters are what make novels what they are, without them; there would be no way to express what the author of the novel is trying to say. When focusing on the characters and their development one gets a meticulous view of what each character has experienced and how they have grown to become what they are in the end. Throughout many examples in this novel, Kingsolver has amazingly shown how life goes on even when death comes in the way, as life is continuous. When certain things die, new experiences come out of it which brings a sense of freedom. When The Bean Trees was published in 1988, it was very well appreciated since it touched many social issues happening during American history at that time. Most critics were impressed with the way Kingsolver could produce such a great dialogue while touching on these issues. Karen Fitzgerald in her 1988 review of the book in Ms. asserted that: “in spite of the novel’s strong political views, Kingsolver’s characters are vivid and believable enough that they never become “mouthpieces for the party line,” causing politics to overshadow plot”

Some however disagree, a review of the same year in the New York Times by Jack Butler made comments on how “the characters are not believable, seeing them “purified to types” as the novel progresses, and thus lacking depth and colour “Throughout the novel, Kingsolver shows us in different ways how each individual develops as well as giving the reader a feel of how tough it was in America in those days for women especially. This essay examines the way each individual character develops emotionally while being portrayed through other animals, characters and plants in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. Taylor Greer, the protagonist of the novel starts off in a small town where women are very dependent on men for the most part. Except for Taylor who has created some sort of ‘negative identity ‘, she has managed to stay out of trouble and her mother knew this as well: barefoot and pregnant was not my style.

Taylor is meant to represent Kingsolver’s childhood as she mentions in an interview where she states that: In her time of adolescence there was immense pressure on girls to play some sort of Russian roulette with our bodies. And if you won, you could be the most popular girl in the class. But if you lost you were a pregnant 15-year-old girl, way out of luck. I saw this happen to my classmates, beginning in the 7th grade. We can see that she has to overcome her relationship with men, who she claims are very alarming as she even goes as far as saying that she is happy she never had a father to overpower her. “I told her I didn’t know because I didn’t have a daddy. That I was lucky that way.”

However not having a father in her life has made her lose part of her identity and the only way to surmount her identity loss is through other people, including men. When Taylor leaves town, the reader is able to see that she wants to find her independence on her own, to be a person who finally belongs where she is as well as being herself, she even renames herself. In her hometown, we could say that Newt Hardbine was seen as her double, people used to think they were brother and sister: If you were to look at the two of us, myself and Newt side by side in the sixth grade, you could have pegged us for brother and sister.

Their lives were so similar as well and seemed to move in a parallel direction until Newt Hardbine gets killed which enables Taylor to break free. The motif of rebirth is also seen when Taylor’s mother, Alice, is finally separated from her only daughter and motherhood is passed on at the same moment when an unplanned woman appears and leaves her a baby. “Take this baby, she said.” This is quite ironic since she has been avoiding pregnancy her whole life. Turtle starts off being so still Taylor thought she was dead, “After a while, I began to wonder if it was dead. Maybe the woman had a dead child, murdered or some such thing, and had put it in my car, and I was riding down the road beside it, talking to it.”

This foreshadows that something terrible has happened to Turtle, which we, later on, learn that she has been sexually abused. “When I pulled off the pants and the diapers there were more bruises. Bruises and worse. The Indian child was a girl. A girl, poor thing. The fact had already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine. Kingsolver wants us to see Turtle as a representative of all women and how life is already so difficult because of their gender. This has great meaning to why Turtle seems like an unusual child, she has been robbed of a part of herself that she will never get back. However, as the novel progresses; Turtle begins to trust Taylor and starts to feel comfortable in the presence of the little family she is in. This is shown when Turtle makes her first sound. She did a somersault. I think that sound was a laugh. It must have been true. She was hanging on to Lou Ann’s boob tube for dear life and smiling. We both stared at her.

Then we stared at the tailgate of the truck in front of us, stopped dead in the road. What in tarnation? Lou Ann asked. I said I didn’t know. Then I said, look. In the road up ahead there was a quail, the type that has one big feather springing out the front of its head like forties-model ladies’ hat. We could make out that she was dithering back and forth in the road, and we gradually could see that there were a couple of dozen babies running around her every which way. The quail and her babies evoke this laugh that comes out of Turtle, and this view almost made Taylor cry, due to the fact that this has the sentimental value of family and trust. Throughout the novel, we are shown how Turtle feels through birds since she still does not speak very much. Later on in the novel, we are shown how badly Turtle was abused when the doctor comes back with the x-rays: He put up more x-rays in the window, saying things like “spiral fibular fracture here” and “excellent healing” and “some contraindications for psychomotor development.”

I couldn’t really listen. I looked through the bones to the garden on the other side. There was a cactus with bushy arms and a coat of yellow spines as thick as fur. A bird had built her nest in it. In and out she flew among the horrible spiny branches, never once hesitating.  The bird symbolizes the pain in which Turtle has gone through, she had built a home with her family and even after the way they treated her, she would not hesitate to come back home. It gives the reader an idea of how strong Turtle is and how she as well as the rest of humankind can thrive through tough times. While Turtle grows to trust her new family, she begins to speak, her first word being “bean” Which is very symbolic of the title of the novel. Bean refers very much to the women in the novel who start off not so well but then grow past it and become stronger, just like a bean tree can grow in non-fertile soil, meaning it has to strive to grow. This could also be a symbol of the characters growing in unity with each other since a bean tree has a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia which helps transport nutrients for the tree.

Another character, Ismene is mentioned in the novel but never physically there. We are foreshown that something horrible has happened to Ismene when Esperanza first sees Turtle: Esperanza was just stepping out of the cab, and when she saw the kids she fell back against the seat, just as if she’d been hit with twenty-eight pounds of air.13 This demonstrates that Turtle obviously has a great effect on Esperanza which we later on learn is due to the fact that her child was taken away. Ismene in other words represents Turtle’s dark twin since we learn that they are almost identical. “…she looked {Turtle} very much like a child we knew in Guatemala.”14 She is a symbol of what could have happened to Turtle if Taylor had not rescued her, in other words, she is an embodiment of all abandoned children in the world. When she is mentioned by her parents we can see the pain in which they have to have let her go due to political corruption: A god damn hook. He was looking away from me again. Sometimes, after a while, usually…

These children are adopted.15Although Turtle was abandoned, she continues to strive throughout the novel; however, there is a crescendo foreshown when Taylor is out of the house and she witnesses a snake in the desert: I didn’t know they could get up in trees, I said. Sure, they’ll {rattle snakes} climb. After birds’ eggs.16 This symbolizes that as soon as Turtle has managed to grow strong like a tree, she is still going to be attacked by an invader; hence the bird’s eggs symbolizing Turtle. This soon after is proven when Turtle gets attacked in the park by a pedophile, she is back into the same state she was at the beginning of the novel.

“Open the screen door, I commanded Virgie. It’s locked, you have to flip that little latch. Now hold it open. Slowly I moved in on the terrified bird, which clinging sideways to the screen. You could see its little heart beating through the feathers. I had heard of birds having heart attacks from fright. Easy does it, I said. Easy, we’re not going to hurt you, we just want to set you free. The sparrow darted off the screen, made a loop back towards the hallway, then flew through the open screen door into the terrible night.”  Turtle’s fear is again portrayed through a bird, as soon as they get back home; a bird flies into the chimney and is very frightened. It is clinging to everything it can just like Turtle is clinging to Edna’s sleeve. It has a hard time being helped out of the house since it thinks that Taylor and Virgie are going to hurt it, however, once they set it free Turtle begins to feel much more secure, Taylor has managed to save her again just as as like she saved the bird.

Turtle continues to grow which is seen through her planting everything she gets a hold of, she even buries her doll, a symbol of her finally letting go of her original mother and excepting Taylor as her new mother. “…Turtle, who was hard at work burying Shirley Poppy in the soft dirt at the base of a pine tree. I had to laugh. I went over and squatted beside her at the foot of the tree. I’ve got to explain something to you, sweet pea. Some things grow into bushes or trees when you plant them, but other things don’t. Beans do, doll babies don’t. Yes, Turtle said, patting the mound of dirt. Mama.” Here again, we are shown the motif of life and death as she has witnessed her original mother’s death, a new mother has come out if just like plants grow. At the end of the novel, Turtle has flourished into an individual who begins to trust the people around her, although she has always been a strong individual she would have never been able to get where she is without Taylor as well as Taylor would have never been able to become the woman she is without Turtle and the women around her.

“She (Turtle) watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest. And me. I was the main ingredient.” After everything that Taylor and Turtle have been through, Taylor has been able to mature and care for Turtle and although she wanted to escape a young pregnancy, she ends up adopting Turtle, even though it took her a while to realize that she needed her in her life. “Why should I, Lou Ann? Why should I think Turtle is better off with me than in a state home? At least there they know how to take care of kids. They won’t let anything happen to her.” Taylor does not realize how much Turtle has grown to trust her at this point, Turtle does believe that Taylor is the perfect mother for her and later on she realizes this. “I’ve made up my mind about something. I’m going to drive Esperanza and Estevan to a safe house in Oklahoma. And while I’m there I’m going to see if I can find any of Turtle’s relatives.”

This demonstrates that Taylor has finally noticed that she must at least try and fight for Turtle or she will not be able to forgive herself. We are foreshown that this will do well, at the end of the chapter when the night-blooming cereus blooms, later on, that night. “Enormous blossoms covered the plant from knee level to high above our heads.” These flowers only bloom for one night, and it is no coincidence why they chose that particular night every character has been able to develop and become independent and although tough times are coming ahead this flower symbolizes that life will thrive on even through these tough times. In some sort of way, Taylor is a God, who has left home and gone to the unknown to do some good for everyone else around her. In the process, she has managed to learn about political corruption and has managed to make friends and nurture a young life. She has even been able to change her new family member’s opinion of herself and helped Lou Ann get on her feet.

Lou Ann starts off very dependant on her husband Angle, who very quickly into the novel decides to leave her when she is seven months pregnant. This makes her very much by surprise as she gave up everything for him. “When he came home Lou Ann gave up her part-time job at the Three Bears Day School to be with him…”Evidently, Lou Ann is very much in love with Angle, and once he leaves with all of her things it hardly seems to affect her. “In a strange way, she was fascinated to see what he had claimed for his own.”She realizes that maybe the man she fell in love with was lost with his leg in the accident, as she learned more about his personality with what he had taken than all the years they spent together. She has very low self-esteem which affects her development as she does not even express her own thoughts. “…and she always meant to ask (if only she had the nerve) if the people there came from her part of the country.” It is as if once Angle left, he took her voice and independence with him as well her confidence in herself. She will never say her opinion even if something such as the door of Fanny Heaven makes her sick to her gut; she will stay quiet about it. “…the door handle, when a person pushed it, would sink right into her crotch.”

This gives us a good image of how many women are looked upon in our society, walked over and walked through without sensitivity. It is very hard for Lou Ann to walk past Fanny Heaven since she is one of those women and it makes it that much harder for her to become independent. However as the novel continues to unravel, with the help of Taylor who Lou Ann is very much inspired by, Lou Ann is able to come out with her own opinions, she even finally gets a job even though Taylor mocks her modesty. “Really ma’am, I could understand why you wouldn’t want to hire a dumb old thing such as myself.”Even though she develops we can still see that she doubts herself since as soon as Angle comes back into the equation she loses her stability. “He actually says here that he misses me. She mulled over and over, twisting her gold wedding band around her finger. She had stopped wearing it about the time she started working at the salsa factory, but now put it on again almost guiltily.

“This quote is very significant to Lou Ann’s development since we are shown that when she started to work she felt good about herself and no longer felt like she had to hold on to any part of Angel, however, Lou Ann is very unstable and paranoid and as soon as she has the chance to have the opportunity to be back with Angle she practically jumps for it. She is lucky however as she has now found a new family member Taylor to keep her in line. So many of our experiences are shaped by what we make of them. Barbara Kingsolver was able to show her awareness of this as she continued to show that life goes on even through hard times and when death is surrounding you. Using the motif of life and death throughout the novel was of great significance since it gave a much deeper insight into the characters and their strengths. Without all the women in this novel supporting each other, there is no way they would have been able to develop into their unique selves.

I completely agree with Jack Butler, that the character’s experiences are somewhat not believable and are pushed to the extremes to achieve a happy ending. However, this is what makes the novel, without the happy ending all women would seem to have no hope. Therefore I do not completely agree with Karen Fitzgerald, as the characters are able to do things one would never be able to do in society, hence are not very believable. Although I agree with her in the way that politics do not take over the novel due to the fact that Kingsolver has a gift in writing “like poetry but making it read like realism.”As demonstrated in this essay, there is much corruption in this novel, however, Kingsolver was able to look past the corruption and create humour out of it at some points, which I believe is why this novel was such a great success.

Sources:

  • Butler, Jack, New York Times, April 10th 1988, p.15
  • Fitzgerald, Karen, Ms., April 1988
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, Interview, Barbera Kingsolver talks with Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky, 2001
  • Fitzgerald, Karen, Ms., April 1988
  • Butler, Jack, New York Times, April 10th 1988, p.15
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.3)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, Interview, Barbera Kingsolver talks with Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky, 2001
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.9)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.2)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.17)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.20)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.23)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p.95-96)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 124)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 97)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 93)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 136)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 136)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 164)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 168)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 210)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 132)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 175)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 183)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 185)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 26)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 31-32)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 30)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 30)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 144)
  • Kingsolver, Barbera, The Bean Trees, New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1988 (p. 157)
  • Butler, Jack, New York Times, April 10th, 1988, p.15

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Extended Essay - The Bean Trees. (2021, May 25). Retrieved September 18, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/extended-essay-the-bean-trees/