The Bean Trees By Barbara Kingsolver Critical Essays Literary Tools

Kingsolver relies on her familiarity with Southern dialect to reinforce the realism and lyricism evident in her writing style. As a realist, she imitates what is real. The Southern dialect spoken by Taylor and Lou Ann is the dialect that Kingsolver remembers speaking while growing up in rural Kentucky. It is a dialect full of imagery that awakens the senses. Years after leaving Kentucky and her native dialect behind, Kingsolver utilized the poetic and unique features of that dialect to give her characters substance and personality.


A dialect is a spoken version of a language. Dialects develop when people are separated or isolated from one another due to natural geographic barriers, such as mountain ranges, or social barriers, such as class. Prior to the development of motorized travel, which allows people to move about more easily, and mass communication technology, including telephones, communication among regional groups of people was practically nonexistent. As a result, dialects are regional and often have distinct features of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. There are three general areas in the United States in which people speak different dialects. The eastern dialect is spoken in eastern New York and New England; the Southern dialect is spoken south of Pennsylvania and the Ohio River and Westward beyond the Mississippi into Texas; and the rest of the country speaks what is called a general American or Western dialect.

The Southern dialect that Taylor, Lou Ann, and their relatives speak includes figurative language that creates images that tell stories about simple, daily occurrences. For example, when Taylor first meets Lou Ann, Lou Ann understands her perfectly when she says, "I'm just a plain hillbilly from East Jesus Nowhere with this adopted child that everybody keeps on telling me is dumb as a box of rocks. I've got nothing on you, girl." Other common expressions they use are "I'll swan," "ugly as a mud stick fence," and "everybody deserves their own piece of the pie." Taylor's mother uses expressions like "even a spotted pig looks black at night" and "that's my big girl bringing home the bacon." Lou Ann tells her mother and grandmother not to sit on a concrete bench because "it'll be hot as a poker in this sun."

When Estevan tells Taylor that the way she speaks is poetic, Taylor replies, "That's the biggest bunch of hogwash." Estevan tells her that "washing hogs is poetic." Because Estevan taught English in Guatemala, he is able to appreciate Taylor's colorful expressions.

The rural Kentucky dialect spoken by characters in The Bean Trees accurately depicts the dialect spoken in that particular region of the United States. Southern dialect is a tool that Kingsolver uses to realistically portray — at least to her — life lived by women from Kentucky.

Figurative Language

Kingsolver's lyricism transforms settings, scenes, characters, and actions into patterns of imagery, indirectly appealing to her readers' senses. The imagery in her prose is as vivid as the imagery found in poetry. Kingsolver makes use of figurative language — language that is taken figuratively as well as literally — to write a lyrical novel.

In The Bean Trees, figurative language includes metaphors and similes. Metaphors compare two unlike things without using words of comparison (like or as). In the novel, for example, when Taylor and Turtle are nearing Tucson, it begins to hail and the roads are covered with ice. Traffic is slow, and Kingsolver describes the pace as being "about the speed of a government check." Another example of Kingsolver's use of metaphor, this time influenced by her feminist views, is a humorous Valentine's Day card that Taylor buys for her mother. The card compares a man's helpfulness around the house to that of a pipe wrench. Kingsolver also relies on her extensive background in biology to include natural history metaphors. She compares the "thick, muscly [wisteria] vines" as they come out of the ground to "the arms of this guy who'd delivered Mattie's new refrigerator by himself."

Similes, comparisons of two unlike things that use words of comparison such as like or as, are direct comparisons that Kingsolver uses throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel, Taylor relates how Newt Hardbine's daddy was thrown over the top of a Standard Oil sign "like some overalls slung over a fence"; she gives her new little Cherokee child the name Turtle because the girl is "like a mud turtle"; and later, while Taylor is getting her tires checked at Jesus Is Lord Used Tires, she watches as Mattie "rubbed Ivory soap on the treads and then dunked them in [a tub of water] like big doughnuts. Little threads of bubbles streamed up like strings of glass beads. Lots of them. It looked like a whole jewelry store in there."

Kingsolver's knowledge of biology is evident when she compares railroad tracks in Tucson to blood vessels in the human body. She writes that the tracks "at one time functioned as a kind of artery" and compares the once-busy railroad line to a blood vessel "carrying platelets to circulate through the [body's] lungs." Such figurative language, derived from Kingsolver's knowledge of biology, evokes vivid images throughout The Bean Trees and appeals indirectly to the reader's senses.

Allusion

Another figure of speech that Kingsolver often uses throughout The Bean Trees is allusion. She refers to historical or famous people, objects, and events to suggest more than what she is saying. Examples of Kingsolver's allusions include:

  • Taylor's mother always told her that trading Foster, Taylor's father, for her "was the best deal this side of the Jackson Purchase."
  • When Taylor was in high school, she had a new science teacher who "came high railing in there like some blond Paul McCartney."
  • As Taylor and Turtle drive across the Arizona border, they see "clouds [that] were pink and fat and hilarious looking, like the hippo ballerinas in a Disney movie."
  • Because Taylor is afraid that a tire will blow up whenever she goes to Jesus Is Lord Used Tires to check on her car, she "felt like John Wayne in that war movie where he buckles down his helmet, takes a swig of bourbon, and charges across the mine field yelling something like, 'Live Free or Bust!'"

Because the emotional effects created by allusions depend on the association that already exists in the reader's mind, it is necessary for the reader to either have knowledge of the allusions or be willing to research the allusions to understand the various meanings that Kingsolver attaches to them.

Symbolism

Symbols in The Bean Trees enrich the themes found in the novel and, oftentimes, suggest Kingsolver's extensive background in biology.

A symbol functions literally as a concrete object and figuratively as a representation of an idea. Symbols allow writers to compress complicated ideas or views into an image or word. Some symbols, such as a dove as a representation of peace or winter as a representation of death, are well known; they are called public symbols. Many times, writers invent their own symbols. When Kingsolver creates symbols, she has her own definite meanings for the symbols. However, because each symbol has a myriad of interpretations, she prefers that her readers interpret the symbolism as it relates to their own life experiences.

Much of the symbolism found in the novel is biological in nature, as Kingsolver repeatedly employs birds, plants, and animals. For example, the symbiotic relationship between the rhizobia and the wisteria vines represents the theme of the interdependency between people in a community. The "bean trees," or wisteria, that are able to thrive in non-fertile soil and the bird that builds its nest in a cactus ("You just couldn't imagine how she'd made a home in there") may symbolize the resiliency and ability to thrive that human beings (like Turtle) possess.

A bird is used as a symbol again later in the novel. After Turtle is molested in the park, a bird gets trapped in the house and, with Taylor's help, is freed. This trapped bird symbolizes the fact that Turtle is once again trapped within herself — she stops speaking and has a glazed look in her eyes — but with Taylor's help, Turtle is freed, too. This symbol reinforces the themes of interdependence between people, the importance of family, and hope for the future.

Fundamentalism is a religious movement that interprets scripture literally and applies it to daily life. Fundamentalism flourished during the twentieth century, particularly in the South. The doctrines of the movement were published around 1910 in pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals. Modern Fundamentalism stresses Bible study, is anti-intellectual, and is revivalist (involving highly emotional gatherings that serve to promote religion).

In literature or art, a leitmotif is an intentional repetition of an idea, word, phrase, or situation. Fundamentalism used as a leitmotif in the bean trees includes the oral roberts telephone number, 1-800-the lord. Taylor first sees the telephone number on an Oral Roberts television show (Roberts is a television evangelist) when she is in a restaurant in Oklahoma. The telephone number becomes a lifeline for Taylor, her "ace in the hole." She knows that if things get really bad, she can call 1-800-the lord to get help.

After Taylor "hit bottom and survived," she realizes that she no longer needs the security that having the telephone number gave her. She calls 1-800-THE LORD to thank them for the emotional and psychological support that they have given her — although, of course, they have no idea who Taylor is — and finds out that she's been deceived. The number is not a number to call for help, but a number to call to pledge money to Oral Roberts' ministry. Instead of being upset, Taylor asks them to give her a donation and is thankful that she is no longer in a position to need the number.

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