The Bean Trees | Study Guide

Barbara Kingsolver

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The Bean Trees | Symbols


Newt Hardbine

Taylor describes Newt Hardbine and the tragic life he led in great depth in the beginning of the novel. She compares herself with Newt, saying that they were very different and that there was nothing in their childhoods that could have predicted how each of their lives would turn out. In high school, he is a little older than she is, but they are both poor and scrappy, looking for opportunity. Newt, however, gets Jolene Shanks pregnant, and they get married. Taylor sees that pregnancy as a trap that will force her into an unwanted marriage and a life she will hate. Newt lives that life, which he hates so much that he eventually tries to shoot his wife before turning the gun on himself. When Newt and Jolene are brought into the hospital, Taylor is working in the hospital lab and sees the aftermath. For Taylor, Newt Hardbine represents everything about life in her hometown that she is desperate to escape.

The Bean Trees / The Wisteria Trees

In the park next to Lou Ann and Taylor's house is an arbor surrounded by wisteria trees, which provide a metaphor for the book's network of supportive relationships. When the blooms on the trees fade, turning into long bean-like seed pods, Turtle names these tree "the bean trees." Because Taylor and Turtle helped Mattie to plant the garden behind her shop, Turtle has been fascinated by all types of vegetables, and these trees produce a vegetable-like pod. The comparison to beans builds upon the earlier conversation between Mattie and Taylor, when Taylor is looking for a job. Taylor has a short resume that includes her work in the lab—for which she would need certification in Arizona—and picking beans. Mattie tells her that they have beans here, too, and shows her the purple beans that the Chinese grocer Lee Sing grows in the plot behind her own. Taylor is amazed that beans can grow in the desert too, even purple beans brought by Lee Sing's Chinese grandmother decades ago. The beans of the bean tree prove, once again, that beans can grow anywhere and represent the resilience of Taylor and Turtle, who have flourished where they have been planted.

The metaphor is fully developed at the end of the novel, when Taylor and Turtle are waiting to receive Turtle's official adoption certificate. Taylor takes her to the library and reads the encyclopedia entry for wisteria trees, which details the microorganisms called rhizobia that support the trees in a symbiotic relationship. Taylor compares the rhizobia to the network of people who rely on one another and who have supported her and Turtle. The relationship between the wisteria and the rhizobia represents this support network.

The Night-Blooming Cereus

The night-blooming cereus is a flowering cactus that represents a good omen for Taylor's journey to Oklahoma with Turtle, Esperanza, and Estevan. The tree blooms once a year and only at night. Virgie Mae says that she would never see it if Edna, who is blind, didn't alert her to the smell of the blossoms. The bloom is so rare and unusual it is better "seen" by a blind woman. The reversal of the expectation that flowers are best noticed by sight helps to highlight the unique and special character of the moment in which it appears. The tree blooms in a prophetic way the night before Taylor and her group departs on their trip to Oklahoma, which will determine all of their futures: Taylor seeks custody of Turtle, and Estevan and Esperanza seek a safer place to build a life. Taylor believes that the luck she has in seeing this rare flower must predict good luck for their upcoming endeavors.

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