The Bean Trees: Theme Analysis
Evil versus love
There are many examples of man's inhumanity to man in The Bean Trees. Estevan and Esperanza have lived the worst possible life; they have been tortured and their child was taken away. Turtle, as well, has had a difficult life. She was molested and abused at a young age. Even those characters who have escaped true torture have experienced how people can be cruel to one another. Taylor's family life is strong, yet she has seen cruelty in families like the Hardbines. While she personally has not been physically hurt, she has been the victim of verbal cruelty by her wealthier classmates.
While people can make life miserable for others, love can do a great deal to neutralize cruelty. For example, Turtle suffers failure to thrive, because "in an environment of physical or emotional deprivation a child will simply stop growing" (129). However, the condition disappears once she has a loving mother figure. The scars of past trauma may remain, but people can move on and find happiness despite living through abuse. Estevan and Esperanza will never recover from the loss of their child. However, Taylor, Mattie, and others help them go to a new place and build a new life for themselves. Taylor does not see this as an extraordinary act, saying "If I saw somebody was going to get hit by a truck I'd push them out of the way. Wouldn't anybody?" (198). Of course many people wouldn't, which is why so many of the characters have faced such extraordinary cruelty. However, by coming together and helping one another, good people can mitigate the effects of cruelty and violence.
Families in The Bean Trees are not defined traditionally. Instead, a family is any group of people that supports one another. Of course, there are some more traditional situations, like Alice's unconditional support for Taylor, but even that family does not have a father, which leads Taylor to remarks "I was lucky that way" (9). While many consider having a father and mother the most fortunate situation, this book indicates that this is not necessarily the best arrangement, and that families are built in all sorts of ways.
Families are defined by the way that they help one another. Mattie tells Taylor she has "something like" grandchildren (46) because the families she helps become a part of her life. Taylor takes in Turtle and gives her a good home. The state does not recognize her legal claim to the child until she pretends that a traditional family has sanctioned the arrangement, yet the true family is the one formed by love, not the one defined by the state.
In The Bean Trees, a person gets the rewards of family because she wants to be a part of a family. Although Taylor initially tries to avoid becoming part of an extended family, she eventually embraces it. As she tells Estevan, "I spent the first half of my life avoiding motherhood and tires, and now I'm counting them as blessings" (144). Lou Ann gets to enjoy being a part of a family, as well, because she gives so much to them. This is why she is more a part of Angel's family than he is. When the two women form a family together, they are able to support one another and their children. Although Taylor initially did not wish to be a family with Lou Ann, at the end, she agrees with Lou Ann that the four of them constitute a family, and she is thus privy to all the valuable assets that a family can bring to her life (p. 244).
Violence of prejudice
There are many examples of violence in this text, but they all stem from the bigotry of small-minded people. Estevan and Esperanza are forced to flee their homes within Guatemala and then to leave the country entirely because they are Indian. "As soon as they planted their crops," Estevan tells Taylor, "the police would come and set their houses and fields on fire and make them move again. The strategy was to wear them down so they'd be too tired or too hungry to fight back" (205). Later, they are subjected to physical torture because they try to protect their rights. The violence they face is due to the intolerance of the ruling bigots, yet they are not the only ones in the text to face this kind of cruelty.
The other characters have all experienced one type of bigotry or another. Turtle comes from a culture that was forced onto reservations. Lou Ann's mother is bigoted against her children's minority spouses. Even Taylor faced bigotry as a child. She lived in a culture in which "there were different groups you would run with, depending on your station in life" (149). Her poverty marked her as a "nutter," and the wealthier children teased her and her peers for being poor. While this kind of bigotry is much less severe than that faced by Estevan and Esperanza, it is still a form of violence because it degrades everyone involved.