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Bean Tree Essays

A significant theme throughout The Bean Trees is the status of the main characters as outsiders in foreign lands. The most glaring and literal examples of this are Esperanza and Estevan, who are refugees and illegal immigrants in the United States, the most extreme case of characters who have fled from their homeland. However, each of the other main characters are also outsiders in their respective areas. The narrator of the novel, Taylor Greer, and the other primary character, Lou Ann Ruiz, are both outsiders in Tucson, Arizona, refugees of a more abstract sort from their Kentucky origins. However, Kingsolver bolsters the theme of outsiders and foreigners through a treatment of these characters as outsiders in terms of beliefs and attitudes as well as through geography. Taylor finds herself an outsider in rural Kentucky because she does not accept the limited option of becoming a wife and mother, and she further feels herself an outsider when she meets Estevan because she does not believe that she has a voice in important decisions such as the fate of the Guatemalan refugees. The effect of this theme of the novel is that it gives the characters flexibility and a sense of autonomy; the characters of The Bean Trees are not in stasis, but because of their outsider status must continually search for their place within society.

Barbara Kingsolver includes a number of examples in The Bean Trees of characters who use their names as markers of their identity and who change in their names in order to designate a significant change in their life. For Kingsolver, names can signify the origin of a character: this is certainly the case for Taylor, whose birth name, Marietta, is the name of the place where she was conceived, but it also is the case for Esperanza and Estevan, whose Mayan birth names signified their heritage in rural Guatemala. Each of these three characters change their names when they make a move from one location to another: Marietta chooses the name Taylor when she leaves Kentucky, Esperanza and Estevan adopt their Spanish names when they move to the urban areas of Guatemala, and they change their names to Hope and Steven when they move from Tucson to Oklahoma. Kingsolver also uses names to signify a shift in relationship status. Turtle gains the name April soon after she becomes established as Taylor's foster child.

Barbara Kingsolver uses the growth of plants as a dominant theme of the novel and a metaphor for the growth of the characters. The growth of plants serve a number of thematic purposes in the novel. The night-blooming cereus that Edna Poppy brings to Taylor and Lou Ann before Taylor undertakes her journey to Oklahoma serves as a harbinger, and represents the ephemeral quality to the character's opportunities. The wisteria vines represent the symbiotic relationships that dominant the novel, and most importantly, the growth of bean trees represents the growth of Turtle Greer and her maturation throughout the novel. Kingsolver endows this theme with some duality, however; the growth of the plants represent both life and death, for Turtle buries her dolls seemingly to have them grow, but in fact does so to replicate the burial of her mother in a cemetery.

The dominant relationship in the novel is between the mother and child; most of the female characters in The Bean Trees are mothers who raise their children without the help of an absentee father. Mama Greer raised Taylor as a single mother, and Taylor in return becomes a single mother when she gets custody of Turtle while traveling through Oklahoma. With her impending divorce from Angel, Lou Ann Ruiz raises Dwayne Ray by herself, just as the waitress Sandi raises her son Seattle alone. In a more abstract sense, Mattie is a single mother to her various refugees, and compares herself to a parent to them on more than one occasion. The one mother in the novel who is not a single parent is Esperanza, yet she no longer parents the kidnapped Ismene. In this manner, Kingsolver idealizes the single mother and diminishes the position of the father, who in all of these cases is errant and irresponsible (Angel leaves his wife while she is pregnant, the man who impregnates Sandi disavows that he is the father of Seattle).

The prevailing symbol of the wisteria vine and the information concerning this plant forms the concluding metaphor of the novel. The wisteria vine grows in seemingly barren soil because of its relationship with rhizobia, bacteria that fertilize the soil under the plant; Kingsolver relates this to the various symbiotic relationships throughout the novel. There are certainly many examples of this: Virgie Mae Parsons provides the blind Edna Poppy with guidance and help, while Edna Poppy serves as a buffer against Virgie Mae's often abrasive manner. Most of the relationships of the novel are in some degree reciprocal. For example, Lou Ann provides Taylor with a perspective on her abilities, while Taylor calms Lou Ann's neuroses and instills her with a sense of confidence. Also, Estevan and Esperanza draw strength from one another and seem unable to function independently, having gone through so much in Guatemala and in the United States. The effect of these symbiotic relationships is that it instills a sense of community through the novel by creating a network of need and fulfillment among the many characters, who sustain and promote one another.

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements for “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver that can be used as essay starters or paper topics. All five incorporate at least one of the themes in “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a short summary of “The Bean Trees” in terms of different elements that could be important in an essay. You are, of course, free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them for your essay. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes from “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent essay.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Burden of Womanhood in The Bean Trees

Throughout Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, the women throughout the novel form fast friendships and become important support networks for one another. Each of the women is going through an issue that has been thrust upon them and has a large psychological impact because of their sex. Lou Ann is abandoned by her husband, Esperanza is coping with the loss of her daughter and Taylor is trying to learn how to live with a child that has been thrust upon her. However, through it all, the three women fight to find a better future, not just for themselves, but also for one another. In the beginning of The Bean Trees, Taylor says of Turtle that being born a woman has already affected her, due to her abused body and mind. In what ways does Turtle embody the various troubles that the women in The Bean Trees face?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Motherhood in The Bean Trees

The three women in Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees have many similarities, but they find their common bond in motherhood. Neither Esperanza, Lou Ann, nor Taylor have conventional views on motherhood, and none of the women are raising their children in a normal family setup. Lou Ann’s husband has deserted both herself and the baby; Taylor has had an Indian child thrust upon her as her own; and Esperanza has left her child behind in her homeland with kidnappers in an attempt to save the lives of many other people. Taylor’s situation is especially significant as she was determined to make it out of Kentucky without any responsibilities. In which ways do these characters share the same parenting techniques? Although their situations are all very different, how does Kingsolver explore the different kinds of love they have for their children?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Importance of A Name in Relation to Identity in The Bean Trees

In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, the idea of rebirth through name change is very common. Marietta changes her name to Taylor when her car runs out of gas in a city of the same name. Esperanza and Estevez shed their Guatemalan names when they immigrate to America, and become Steven and Hope when they move away from Tucson. No one knows Turtle’s real name, though she was given the name Turtle because of her clingy and frightened nature; once Taylor gains legal custody of her, she becomes April, signifying the start of spring and yet another season of rebirth. The issue of names is clearly something that is important in The Bean Trees. In what way do the characters represent their new names and how do they grow as people after each name change?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Issue of Illegal Immigration in The Bean Trees

It is clear that Kingsolver feels sympathy for the illegal immigrants in The Bean Trees. Mattie, who is very caring and a likeable character, is deeply entrenched in the immigration movement into Tucson, even going so far as harboring the men and women on her own property. In which ways does Virgie act as a foil to Mattie’s sympathetic nature towards the immigrants? Also, how does Kingsolver bring up other issues regarding illegal immigration, such as political crackdowns and language barriers? Do you think that the portrayal of Estevan and Esperanza is realistic?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #5: Reciprocal Relationships in The Bean Trees

With the exception of Angel and Lou Ann’s relationship, it seems like every personal interaction in The Bean Trees is equal parts of give and take. For example, Virgie Mae helps Edna Poppy who is blind, while Edna Poppy runs interference on Virgie’s inappropriate remarks. Lou Ann teaches Taylor how to hone her abilities, and Taylor calms and reassures Lou Ann. Even Estevez and Esperanza are symbiotic; they have been through so much, with their illegal immigration that they cannot function outside of one another. In what ways do these relationships, and the other, less prominent relationships in The Bean Trees promote a network of reliance? Think of the quote, “It takes a village to raise a child", how do these reciprocal relationships enable the mothers in the novel to provide a wide family base for their children?


This list of important quotations from “The Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “The Bean Trees” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes and explanations about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned and explained. Aside from the thesis statements for Kingsolver's “The Bean Trees” above, these quotes alone can act as essay questions or study questions as they are all relevant to the text in an important way. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.

“Turtle's main goal in life, other than hanging on to things, seemed to be to pass unnoticed.” (81)

“I feel like the only reason I have any friends at all is because I'm always careful not to say something totally dumb, and if I blow it just one time, then that's it.”(89)

“You can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, and the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat.” (113)

“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. You just couldn't imagine how she'd made a home in there.” (130)

“There seemed to be no end of to the things that could be hiding, waiting it out, right where you thought you could see it all.” (172)

“Starting right now, you've only got one Ma in the whole world. You know who that is?” (238)

“Lou Ann shuddered. “That door’s what gets me. The way they made the door handle. Like a woman is something you shove on and walk right through. I try to ignore it, but it still gets me." “Don’t ignore it, then," I said. “Talk back to it. Say, ‘You can’t do that number on me, you shit-for-brains.’ . . . What I’m saying is you can’t just sit there, you got to get pissed off."’ (150)

“It didn’t seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was. . . . She 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." (240)

“The petals stood out in starry rays, and in the center of each flower there was a complicated construction of silvery threads shaped like a pair of cupped hands catching moonlight. A fairy boat, ready to be launched into the darkness.” (249)

“I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me." (32)

Source : Kingsolver, Barbara. The Bean Trees. New York: HarperTorch, 1988. <

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