The Bean Trees

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Disaster and Survival Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family and Motherhood Theme Icon
Feminism and Solidarity Among Women Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon
Belonging and Homeland Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Bean Trees, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Disaster and Survival Theme Icon

Though disasters and tragedies loom large in The Bean Trees, the novel also includes the ever-present hope of survival. Characters in the novel across all social, economic, and political divides struggle with all manner of disasters, ranging from the personal loss of a family member, to the failure of national institutions, to the high number of natural disasters occurring with greater frequency around the globe. Kingsolver does not blame her characters for the disasters they face, instead condemning the isolation and competition of modern American life for making these problems even worse in recent times.

Given that disaster is unavoidable for all characters in The Bean Trees, Kingsolver examines the various ways that people can respond to disaster. Some characters, like Mattie and Esperanza, turn to religion as a way to make sense of a disordered world. Other survivors, like Lou Ann at points in the novel, begin to see the potential for disaster in all everyday situations, and feel hopeless or lost because of it. Still others, like Taylor, stay practical and form contingency plans to prepare for any disaster without becoming paranoid. Lou Ann’s worries provide comic relief in the novel, whereas Taylor’s knack for staying calm in a crisis save the family on multiple occasions. Taylor learns even more about surviving adversity from Estevan and Esperanza, while they remake their lives in America after making it out of the Guatemalan Civil War, and Turtle, who is resilient enough to bond with Taylor after the assault and abandonment she suffered at the hands of her birth family. These characters show Kingsolver’s belief in the ability of people to recover from disaster and thrive, and even suggest that people who have survived disaster are more compassionate and better able to help other people who are in trouble.

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Disaster and Survival ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Disaster and Survival appears in each Chapter of The Bean Trees. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Disaster and Survival Quotes in The Bean Trees

Below you will find the important quotes in The Bean Trees related to the theme of Disaster and Survival.
Chapter 1 Quotes

She had on this pink top that was loose so it could have gone either way, if you were pregnant or if you weren’t. As far as I know, she wasn’t just then. It had these little openings on the shoulders and bows on the sleeves, though of course it was shot to hell now.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Jolene Shank
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jolene comes into the hospital the first week that Taylor (then called Marietta) works there, Marietta focuses on the blood from Jolene’s bullet wound getting on Jolene’s shirt. Focusing on the damage done to the clothing rather than the damage done to Jolene’s arm is indicative of Marietta’s unique way of responding to disaster, as she never seems to worry about the things that other people are concerned with. Marietta is practical-minded enough to be able to worry about clothing in the midst of disaster, but also seems to lack empathy by minimizing Jolene’s tragedy to its effect on her clothing.

Yet Kingsolver also uses this shirt as a metaphor for the female experience in the male-dominated American society that Marietta grew up in. The shirt is pink, a stereotypically female color, and is useful during pregnancy, the main female occupation in Marietta’s experience of rural Kentucky. The bullet holes and blood stains on the shirt were caused by a man, through no fault of Jolene’s. Marietta, another woman, is left to try to salvage the shirt, just as women in the novel must pull together to help each other after tragedy strikes. This experience is one of many that Marietta experiences that makes her wary of men and it is another incident that Kingsolver uses to expose the damage of misogyny and the necessity of women to protect each other.


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The Indian child was a girl. A girl, poor thing. That fact had already burdened her short life with a kind of misery I could not imagine. I thought I knew about every ugly thing that one person does to another, but I had never even thought about such things being done to a baby girl.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

When Taylor finally gets Turtle to a bath after the small child is dropped off in her car at a gas station in the middle of Oklahoma, Taylor realizes that the child is a girl and that she has been severely physically and sexually abused. These incidents are unfortunately fairly common in the United States, and often this abuse is explicitly tied to the child’s gender. Furthermore, Kingsolver also mentions Turtle’s Cherokee heritage, suggesting that the poverty and lack of opportunities on the Native American Reservation also played a role in Turtle’s abuse. Kingsolver points out that, in certain places and environments, simply being born female can cause a lifetime of mistreatment. Taylor, meanwhile, cannot imagine this type of abuse because her mother raised her with such love and care. This is why Taylor’s duty as Turtle’s mother, to teach Turtle to stand up for herself and other women, is so important.

Chapter 3 Quotes

By this time, I had developed a name for the child, at least for the time being. I called her Turtle, on account of her grip. She still wasn’t talking but she knew her name about as far as a cat ever does, which means that when you said it she would look up if she was in the right mood.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April)
Page Number: 48-49
Explanation and Analysis:

Taylor names the Native American child that was given to her Turtle, because Turtle has a very strong grip like a mud turtle, which has an extremely strong jaw. At this point, Turtle seems to have retreated to the animal world after experiencing horrible abuse at the hands of her human family. Taylor’s name for Turtle, and her description of Turtle as cat-like, reveal both that Taylor has an immense respect for animals and that she chooses to meet her child on Turtle’s own terms. Turtle’s name does not come from the shyness or slowness often negatively associated with turtles, but from the strong grip. Taylor clearly admires these turtles for their ability to hold on, and hopes that Turtle will be able to hang on despite the hard start to her life.

Taylor does not take the fact that Turtle doesn’t talk and doesn’t always answer to her name as a sign that Turtle is not smart, simply explaining that Turtle must be clearly choosing when she wants to answer and when she doesn’t. Taylor also does not blame Turtle for choosing not to engage with the human world that has caused her so much harm already. Taylor will give Turtle the space, support, and praise that she needs to reenter the human world when she is ready, and let her take solace in the natural world as long as she chooses to.

I never could figure out why men thought they could impress a woman by making the world out to be such a big dangerous deal. I mean, we’ve got to live in the exact same world every damn day of the week, don’t we?

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker)
Page Number: 51
Explanation and Analysis:

When Taylor stops for gas for the first time in Arizona, she meets a man at the gas station who insists on warning Taylor about a tarantula they see on the ground and the special kind of poison that the tarantula carries. Taylor, naturally distrustful of men, does not believe that tarantulas actually release poison, and wonders to herself why men always feel the need to scare women. In Taylor’s perspective, raised by a single mother who was far more capable of taking care of a child than any man in her hometown, women are just as qualified to assess the dangers of the world and deal with them without male help. Taylor completely rejects the idea that women need men to keep them safe, or indeed that women need men at all. She resents the ways that men seem to exaggerate the danger of the world in order to force women not to live their lives as fully as possible. Admittedly, Taylor does not yet understand how dangerous the world can actually be, but the novel makes it clear that this naïve bravery is due to her youth and inexperience and that her gender will not stop her from continuing to face the world head on. Taylor’s attitude about female independence also shows in the way that she raises Turtle without any male figures at all.

Chapter 9 Quotes

But poor Scotty with his electricity and his trigonometry, he just didn’t belong to any group. It was like we were all the animals on Noah’s ark that came in pairs, except of his kind there was only the one.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker)
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

When Estevan comes over to tell Taylor the sad news that his wife, Esperanza, has attempted suicide, Taylor begins to think of a boy she knew in high school who committed suicide on his 16th birthday. Taylor describes this sad event as a product of Scotty’s loneliness. As in the biblical story of Noah where all the animals survived a great flood because Noah collected two of each animal and put them on a huge boat until the water was gone, Scotty did not have a mate and therefore could not survive the inevitable disasters of life. Humans, just like animals, need to belong to each other in order to be happy and healthy. Scotty had no group or clique to belong to at his high school. Without a family to depend on, Scotty was not able to survive. This parallels Turtle’s failure to thrive when she lived with her abusive birth family and underscores the incredible importance of family connections in the novel.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“It's terrible to lose somebody,” I said, “I mean, I don’t know firsthand, but I can imagine it must be. But it's also true that some people never have anybody to lose, and I think that's got to be so much worse.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Esperanza, Ismene
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

After Esperanza attempts suicide, Taylor goes to speak with Esperanza while she is recovering in Mattie’s office. Taylor wants to convince Esperanza that she still has much to live for, even if Esperanza has lost so much with the raid against her family in Guatemala, the loss of her daughter Ismene, and her refugee status in America. Yet, by Taylor’s own admission, Taylor herself does not know what it is like to deal with that sort of tragedy. Taylor has to learn from Esperanza how to keep going after the many tragedies that have marked her life.

With the little that Taylor does know about loss, she reminds Esperanza of the bonds that she has with her family that made it so hard to lose them in the first place. This underscores the importance of family in the novel. It was far better for Esperanza to have Ismene, and experience the joy of family and motherhood for a short while, than to never have it at all. Kingsolver maintains that humans need to be connected to other people in order to be truly happy, even if that means running the risk of losing them.

Chapter 11 Quotes

…If somebody offered to show me a picture of Dwayne Ray in the year 2001, I swear I wouldn’t look.”
“Well, nobody’s going to,” I said gently, “so you don’t have to worry about it. There’s no such thing as dream angels. Only in the Bible, and that was totally another story.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Lou Ann Ruiz (speaker), Dwayne Ray
Page Number: 210-211
Explanation and Analysis:

Lou Ann and Taylor bond over their shared experience as new mothers, but Taylor often gets frustrated with how much Lou Ann worries that Dwayne Ray will fall victim to some disaster. Lou Ann’s preoccupation with disaster is her defining character trait for much of the novel, as her father’s death and her family’s superstitious outlook on life have caused her to look for danger everywhere. Yet Taylor insists that worrying about all the possible disasters is a waste of effort that won’t help the young women deal with disaster when it actually happens. Taylor often references Christianity as a place that people look to for comfort during a disaster, but she usually seems skeptical that this religious belief will help either. Here, Taylor suggests that “dream angels” are only real in the Bible, an alternate reality where anything can happen that does not have much to do with the real world that she and Lou Ann have to live in. Kingsolver seems to agree that there are a lot of terrible things that can happen to a child, considering her frank portrayal of Turtle’s sexual abuse or the hardships that the Guatemalan refugee children face. Yet the proper response to these dangers is not to make up “dream angels” that warn Lou Ann of all the possible things that might happen to Dwayne Ray, or retreat to asking help from other sources, but to face up to these events when they come and deal with them as best as one can.

Chapter 12 Quotes

I wasn’t really afraid, but there is something about seeing a snake that makes your stomach tighten, no matter how you make up your mind to feel about it. “Fair’s fair,” Mattie pointed out, as we skirted a wide path around the tree. “Everybody’s got her own mouths to feed.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Mattie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Birds
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Taylor and Mattie are walking back from watching the first rain of summer come in when they hear a rattlesnake in a tree. Mattie tells Taylor that the snake is probably climbing to get birds’ eggs to eat. Taylor attempts to stay as calm as Mattie, but can’t help feeling scared of the snake. The novel certainly celebrates nature, but it does not shy away from the harsh stakes of the natural world. Throughout the novel, birds have been a symbol of the vulnerable parts of nature that need protection. Taylor wants the natural world to be fair according to her desires, helping the underdog live and giving a break to the weaker animals. But Mattie knows that the animals that eat birds’ eggs deserve to live too. It is easy to try to paint the snake as a villain because it is a scary animal, but humans who truly care for nature have to remember that the snake is simply trying to feed its own babies and is not truly acting maliciously. In the natural world, things that seem unjust according to human sensibilities are actually the truly “natural” outcome. It is the human responsibility to protect all facets of nature and not interfere with the aspects that seem wrong to us.

“Well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger," she said. “Nobody is.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Lou Ann Ruiz (speaker)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

After Turtle is assaulted in Roosevelt Park because Edna accidentally kept her out after nightfall, Turtle returns to the non-responsive state that Taylor originally found her in and Taylor starts to question her own fitness as a mother. Lou Ann gets angry at Taylor, wondering why she would consider abandoning her child like that. When Lou Ann finally confronts Taylor, Taylor confesses how worried she is about keeping a child safe in such a dangerous world. Lou Ann’s answer refers to the Lone Ranger, a cowboy character who famously worked alone while he crossed the frontier of the United States. While this lone wolf attitude may have worked for the cowboy hero, it is the exact opposite of what the responsibilities of motherhood require. Taylor has to remember that she isn’t raising Turtle on her own, even if she is a single mother. She has Taylor, Mattie, and countless others supporting her as she supports Turtle. Moreover, every mother has to have some sort of human support system in order to survive and help their children. These family connections are the most important human bonds in the novel, as the characters step up to help each other again and again through disaster and tragedy.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“You're asking yourself, Can I give this child the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm's way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can't. But nobody else can either… Nobody can protect a child from the world. That's why it's the wrong thing to ask, if you're really trying to make a decision.”
“So what's the right thing to ask?”
“Do I want to try? Do I think it would be interesting, maybe even enjoyable in the long run, to share my life with this kid and give her my best effort and maybe, when all's said and done, end up with a good friend.”

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Mattie (speaker), Turtle (April)
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

After Turtle is assaulted in the park, Taylor begins to question whether she is even fit to be Turtle’s adoptive mother. Taylor goes to Mattie for advice on whether she should fight to keep Turtle or give Turtle up to be brought up by the state. Mattie reinforces the idea that no mother is perfect, telling Taylor that these bad things that have happened to Turtle are not her fault or her responsibility. The important thing that Taylor can give is her “best effort” in sharing her life with Turtle. This view of motherhood deals with both mother and child as individuals, and suggests that each has just as much to offer the other. Approaching Turtle as a “friend” means that Taylor can learn from Turtle how to be a good mother, rather than worrying about protecting Turtle from the world or becoming the perfect mother for Turtle overnight.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Here were a mother and her daughter, nothing less. A mother and child – in a world that could barely be bothered with mothers and children – who were going to be taken apart. Everybody believed it. Possibly Turtle believed it. I did.

Related Characters: Taylor Greer (Marietta Greer) (speaker), Turtle (April), Esperanza
Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

When Taylor can’t find any of Turtle’s relatives in order to try and legally adopt Turtle, she asks the Guatemalan couple Estevan and Esperanza to pose as Turtle’s parents in order to fake an adoption. Over the course of the novel, Esperanza and Turtle have grown very close, partly due to their similar looks and personalities, as well as the fact that Esperanza has lost her biological daughter and Turtle has lost her biological mother. By the time the little group reaches Oklahoma, Esperanza and Turtle have seemed to use each other to fill the void that their lost blood relations left in their lives. At the public notary’s office, Esperanza and Turtle say a truly heart-wrenching goodbye as they draw up the adoption papers. Their relationship is no longer false in any sense of the word, and they are truly family in that moment right before they will be separated. This chance to say a proper goodbye gives both Turtle and Esperanza closure on the previous tragedies where they were denied that opportunity.

The bond of motherhood is sacred in the novel, and one of the most significant influences in a child’s life. Even though society at large can “barely be bothered” about this bond, Kingsolver continues to uphold this value as the highest calling for any mother. Taylor, believing in the bond that Esperanza and Turtle have made, dedicates herself to becoming the mother that Turtle deserves, now that she has had to say goodbye to two mothers – her birth mother and Esperanza.