The Bean Trees: Essay Q&A
1. What do names signify in this text?
In The Bean Trees, Taylor Greer comes home to find her new roommate reading her adopted daughter, Turtle, names out of a baby name book. Since Turtle does not have an official name, Lou Ann is hoping to see a reaction and find out what the child's name really is. She is doing this out of concern for the fact that Turtle "doesn't seem to have too much personality" (86), believing that finding her proper name will help her develop more of a personality. While Taylor ridicules this notion, it is actually quite consistent with her own beliefs and the significance of names throughout the text. Identity and names are interrelated in The Bean Trees.
Names can reflect a person's background or cultural identity. Taylor's original name, Marietta, reflects where she was conceived. Estevan and Esperanza's names are a reflection of their complex background and cultural identities. They began with Indian names, but they had to abandon those. "We chose Spanish names when we moved to the city," Estevan explains (204). They have names that reflect the history of oppression in their country, one that privileges Spanish over Indian heritage. However, they must give up the names that reflect their Guatemalan nationality, as well. They choose American names so as to hide their backgrounds and make them fit in. Taylor mourns this necessity, saying that their names are "about the only thing you came here with that you've still got left" (219). These two refugees recognize that names are markers of cultural identity and know that they need to change their names if they are to fool people about their backgrounds.
People also can have names that reflect their personal identities. Taylor is called "Missy" as a child because she adamantly stands up for her right to be treated with respect. Later, she chooses the name Taylor because it reflects her courage to leave home and build a life for herself. Turtle's name, too, is indicative of her personality. Initially, Taylor chooses that name because, as she tells the child, "You're like a mud turtle. If a mud turtle bites you, it won't let go till it thunders" (23). However, Turtle's name comes to reflect a more lasting aspect of her personality. At first hiding and wary, she soon comes out of her shell and shows her true personality. Even after they decide "April" must be her name, Lou Ann and Taylor continue to call her Turtle, which is much more indicative of her identity.
Barbara Kingsolver clearly has fun inventing names that demonstrate something about the characters, such as a woman named Poppy who dresses in all red. Names are more than just a game, however. They tell something about the person to whom they are attached and give people a chance to express their personalities.
2. What point is Kingsolver making about gender in this text?
The Bean Trees is populated mostly by women. They support one another as they face life's challenges. The book is not, however, only about women interacting with women. There are men in their lives, as well. Sometimes these men are hurtful or dangerous, but they can also be wonderful parts of the women's lives. While Kingsolver celebrates the traditionally feminine virtues of communality, support, and generosity of spirit, she creates a community in which men sometimes exemplify these traits.
Most of the women are generous in their support of one another. The best example of this is the relationship between Taylor and Lou Ann. As single parents, they face many challenges raising children alone. Together, they devise a system for arranging chores. It is a logical one, in which, Taylor says, "she would do the vacuuming, because she liked to, and I would wash the dishes because I didn't mind them" (104). They also provide each other with moral support, talking through issues like Lou Ann's divorce or Turtle's custody. Rather than allowing egos to intrude, they find ways to take burdens off one woman without adding them to another.
It is fortunate these women have one another, because men can be brutal and turn femaleness into a liability. While being female gives these woman access to mutual support, it can also expose them to danger. When Taylor first bathes Turtle, she discovers this sad fact. "The Indian child was a girl," she writes. "A girl, poor thing. That fact had already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine" (24). Because she is a girl, Turtle was vulnerable to being hurt in a particular way. The same can be said of Lou Ann, whose love Angel takes advantage of. Esperanza, as well, is tortured in gender-specific ways. As a mother, she is forced to give up her daughter by people who want information from her. All of these females are hurt in different ways by men who take advantage of the vulnerabilities that being female creates.
Generosity of spirit is not limited by gender, however, and sometimes men can be a wonderful part of the women's lives. Esteban is a gentle person who believes in helping others. His story for Turtle about how people eat in heaven demonstrates that he is a truly caring person. He tells her that in hell, people are "starving because they only have spoons with very long handles." In heaven, they have the same spoons, but they feed one another, and so they are perfectly happy (113). This anecdote shows that he is a man who believes in communality as much as any of the women around him do. He has some traits that are traditionally considered female, and they make him a better person.
Just as Taylor is a better person because she is not afraid to adopt the traditionally male traits of stubbornness and strength, so too can men be better because they are not limited by gender. The people who are able to blend traditionally feminine characteristics like caring with stereotypically male traits like self-confidence are the ones who are most able to help and support one another. In The Bean Trees, these are the people who make the world a better place.
3. How does Lou Ann change through this text?
Lou Ann Ruiz is a loving woman who cares so much about her family that she worries about them all the time. She often sacrifices her own comfort for them. This allows people to take advantage of her and keeps her from standing up for herself. As the text progresses, Lou Ann learns to believe in herself more, which makes her a stronger woman.
Initially, Lou Ann denigrates herself both in her words and her actions. When she and Taylor first meet, Lou Ann is surprised Taylor wants to live with her, saying "Here you are, so skinny and smart and cute and everything, and me and Dwayne Ray, well, we're just lumping along here trying to get by" (79). She refuses to believe someone might like her because she has valuable attributes. This causes her to let people hurt her, as is the case with her husband, Angel. He takes advantage of her love and vulnerability. For example, he pretends she got so drunk that she did not remember a meteor shower that never actually took place (90). Lou Ann's vulnerability comes from her lack of confidence.
After spending time with Taylor, who is a strong person, Lou Ann takes steps that allow her to gain more self-confidence. She gets a job, which "seemed to even out some of [her] wrinkled edges" (160). She actually flourishes in this job, being promoted in just a few weeks. Later, when Angel wants her back, Taylor says "If I knew Lou Ann, she would go," believing that Lou Ann will let her husband take advantage of her again (166). Instead, she turns him down, finds out the meteor shower never happened, and starts dating another man. She does not immediately jump into a relationship, instead dating casually and retaining her own identity.
Lou Ann learns to value herself, and so she becomes a more interesting and attractive person. She no longer says how ugly she is or cuts her hair constantly. Instead, she has a life she has chosen for herself with people who care for and support her.
4. How does Taylor change throughout the text?
Taylor Greer was called "Missy" for most of her childhood. When she was three, she says, "I stamped my foot and told my own mother not to call me Marietta but Miss Marietta" (2). From her early years, Taylor had a sense of personal pride and knew how to stand up for herself. These are wonderful attributes, but until she grew more mature, Taylor was unable to really fulfill her potential. Through the course of The Bean Trees, Taylor develops traits that augment her courage and make her a much stronger and more compassionate person.
When Taylor learns how cruel the world can be, she becomes committed to using her courage for the good of others. Initially, her gumption is manifested in her determination to preserve herself. She buys a used car and gets herself out of Pittman County. When she is in Tucson, however, she comes to realize that people are in much worse situations than her own. As she tells Estevan, "I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about" (141). This realization frightens her for a time. However, she eventually marshals her courage and helps her friends get to a safe haven. When she learns how much danger they are really in, she comes to realize that her strength can allow her to help others.
Taylor also learns to value her obligations to others, so she reaps the benefits of interpersonal bonds. In her youth, Taylor does everything she can to avoid being tied down. She says that "I knew the scenery of Greenup Road, which we called Steam-It-Up-Road, and I knew what a pecker looked like, and none of these sights had so far inspired me to get hogtied to a future as a tobacco farmer's wife" (3). She wants the freedom to escape, and she does, leaving everything behind her. Once Turtle comes into her life, however, Taylor is fortunate to recognize the value of caring about another person. She explains that she is terrified because, "I realized I had no business just assuming I could take responsibility for a child's life" (186). Due to her love for the child, Taylor decides to take on that challenge, and she is rewarded by Turtle's love.
Taylor's courage made her independent, but her ties to others and her maturing understanding of the world make her truly strong. Her final trip with Estevan and Esperanza is a sign that she has learned how to use her strengths for others, and in return, other can help her. By the end of The Bean Trees, she has grown into a remarkable person.
5. What is the attitude towards government in The Bean Trees?
Ideally, the government's role is to represent and help the people. As Taylor Greer in The Bean Trees discovers, this is not always the case. In this text, the government often serves to hamper people's well being, however well-intentioned the rulers may be.
Sometimes, the government is deliberately violent. In Guatemala, Estevan and Esperanza find that their government is their enemy. The Mayans are chased off their land, and they are persecuted when they live in the city. Because they are in the teachers' union, they are tortured and their child is taken away. The government gets help from other governments, as the United States sends them telephones on which "They disconnect the receiver wire and tape the two ends to your body. To sensitive parts" (140-1). Taylor realizes when she hears this that her own government does not represent her, saying "nobody asked my permission" (141). She has always known that the U.S. government can be violent, as she is aware of the expulsion of the American Indians, but now she really understands that the government can deliberately work against what she believes in.
There are also occasions on which the government regulations, while well-intentioned, are so out of touch with the people's needs that they are unnecessary hindrances. For example, the laws that restrict immigration are there to keep track of the population, but they instead put people in danger. Mattie is questioned about legal means of immigration on television, and she points out that the laws prevent most people who need help from entering the United States (108). The laws can also hamper people within the U.S. from living happy lives. While Turtle is clearly best with Taylor, she finds out that "it had recently come to the attention of the Child Protection Services Division of the Department of Economic Security . . . that I had no legal claim to Turtle" (182). "Child protection" and "economic security" are excellent goals, but those departments, in following governmental guidelines, want to take a child away from a home where she is happy.
Fortunately, individuals within the government can be positive forces for the people they serve. Taylor is surprised to find out that Cynthia wants Turtle to remain with her. She has not seen any governmental initiatives that are positive, so she is surprised to find someone who will help keep her child.
Ultimately, Taylor learns how to work around a system that can be frustrating at best and hurtful at worst. She manipulates the system so that she can legally keep Turtle. While breaking the law may be seen as unethical, in The Bean Trees circumventing a government that works against its people is the most moral thing she can do.