Balancing the Individual with the Community in Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees

Balancing the Individual with the Community in Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees

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    In an interview with Barbara Kingsolver by David Gergen, editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, Kingsolver states, I think everything I write is about the idea of community and about the special challenge in the United States of balancing our idealization of the individual, or glorification of, of personal freedom and the individual with the importance of community, how to balance those two offices. (Qtd. by Gergen) I found this idea of Kingsolver's to be the basis of her book The Bean Trees.

Kingsolver develops the story of a strong young woman, named Taylor Greer, who is determined to establish her own individuality. The character learns that she must balance this individualism with a commitment to her community of friends, and in doing this, her life is immeasurably enriched. Many books speak of family, community, and individuality. I believe, however, that the idea that Barbara Kingsolver establishes in her book, The Bean Trees, of a strong sense of individualism, consciously balanced with a keen understanding of community as extended family, is a relatively new idea to the genre of the American novel.

The balance of the individual and community is a prevalent theme throughout The Bean Trees. Kingsolver organizes the book by first introducing us to Taylor's unique individuality and then combining that with the community ideal. The first chapter of the book takes place in Kentucky where Taylor lives with her mother. Through the incidents in Taylor's early life, we come to recognize her strong resolve to be individual. In her book Barbara Kingsolver A Critical Companion, Mary Jean DeMarr agrees with me when she tells us Taylor is "a strong character who usually knows what she wants and what she wants to do and goes about getting and doing it" (45).

Taylor refers to herself when she was younger, along with a neighbor boy, as "dirty-kneed kids scrapping to beat hell and trying to land on our feet" (TBT 2). Her independence is also evident in the way she dressed. When teased that she dressed like an eye test for color blindness, she reveals she was actually flattered. "I had decided early on that if I couldn't dress elegant, I'd dress memorable" (TBT 6).

Taylor was also determined not to accept what was considered the "norm" for the girls in her town. She decided that she would finish school, and no matter what, she would not get pregnant.

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She tells us, "in those days the girls were dropping by the wayside like seeds off a poppyseed bun and you learned to look at every day as a prize" (TBT 4).

Taylor's independence and individualism also comes from her strong and independent mother, who worked as a cleaning lady for a wealthy family, as well as taking in laundry. She also praised anything that Taylor brought home, and taught her that she was as good as anyone else. She told Taylor, the way I see it, a person isn't nothing more than a scarecrow. You, me, Earl Wickentot [a smart classmate], the President of the United States, and even God Almighty...The only difference between one that stands up good and one that blows over is what kind of a stick they're stuck up there on. (TBT 7)

This kind of support bolstered Taylor's growing sense of individualism.

I see this introduction into Taylor's childhood as laying the foundations for one side of the balance that Kingsolver is trying to establish. In her interview with Gergen, Kingsolver refers to the individual side of the balance as "the glory and the power of the individual" (Gergen). I believe Kingsolver is making the point that it takes a strong understanding of oneself as an individual in order to balance that with family community.

Some earlier novels that we have read involve this idea of the individual and the community. But instead of being a balance of the two, they are often in conflict. One of the best examples is found in Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware. We are told, "he had never in his life been more sensible of the charm of his own companionship", and "the impossibility of his continuing to sacrifice himself to a notion of duty to these low-minded and coarse-natured villagers was beyond all argument" (253). It is Theron's pursuit of satisfaction as an individual, to the exclusion of his community, which finally leads to his downfall or "damnation". Kingsolver takes us in a new direction and makes Taylor's character and experience entirely different.

Taylor's other major determination is to get out of Kentucky, so at twenty-three she finally earns enough money to buy an old car and leaves Kentucky heading west. It is on this trip that she gets her first taste of the extended family, when she stops in Oklahoma, and through very strange circumstances, winds up with a little three-year-old Cherokee girl that she later names Turtle.

Something is awakened within Taylor when she gets Turtle. Although she had been fiercely determined not to become a mother and to remain independent, Taylor feels an immediate affection and protectiveness for Turtle that she didn't expect. DeMarr shares the same idea when she says that Taylor, "accepts this new responsibility with good humor, her concern for the child quickly outweighing any inconvenience it may cause her" (47).

What is interesting to me is that Taylor doesn't find motherhood repulsive or threatening to her independence. In fact as her relationship with Turtle grows, she begins to see the necessity of the individualism/community balance. In concordance with this idea, Catherine Lazaroff wrote about The Bean Tree that Taylor Greer finds something in this abandoned Indian Child that she didn't know she was missing, and which she rapidly becomes unable to live without. The transformation of instant motherhood causes her to reevaluate her relationships with others. (Lazaroff)

Taylor and Turtle finally end up in Tucson Arizona where their community of friends blossoms. Taylor meets a fellow Kentuckian, Lou Ann Ruiz, and Taylor and Turtle move in with Lou Ann and her baby Dwayne Ray, the two women becoming fast friends. At first, Lou Ann stays at home with the kids and fixes dinner for everyone while Taylor works. Taylor rejects this arrangement, realizing that she and Lou Ann are becoming too much like a nuclear family. She tells Lou Ann, "we're acting like Blondie and Dagwood here...It's not like we're family for Christ's sake" (TBT 114). I think Taylor still struggles with the new idea of a caring, familial community. It's hard for Taylor to let people help her without feeling that she is losing something of her own individualism. I also feel that Taylor gets frustrated with Lou Ann sometimes, because she hasn't developed a strong sense of self-esteem and individualism.

Taylor takes a job at the Jesus is Lord Used Tires auto repair shop and meets more of the people who will become members of her family community. Mattie, who owns the auto repair shop, becomes like a mother figure to Taylor. Mattie also runs a sanctuary for Guatemalan refugees, and Taylor comes to care deeply about their plight. DeMarr makes an interesting point when she says, "she [Kingsolver] demonstrates how the concern for others that leads to the development of deep friendships may also lead to political concern and involvement in political causes" (43), thus enlarging the idea of familial community. Mattie introduces Taylor to two of the refugees, Estevan and Esperanza, and they become part of Taylor's growing community. Two older women, who live next door to Taylor and Lou Ann and watch their two kids from time to time, round out the family. All of these characters become increasingly important in Taylor's life, helping her to learn to share her individualism with them.

Throughout the story, Taylor is drawn into their lives, and they in hers, and she begins to realize how important a family community is, and that a balance between that and individualism is necessary. Estevan tells an old Indian story of heaven and hell that helps Taylor to see this. He says that hell and heaven are the same in that each is like a kitchen with a large bowl of delicious soup on the table. Everyone sits around the table with spoons that have handles as long as brooms so that no one can feed himself or herself. In hell, they sit starving because they cannot reach their own mouth with the long spoon, but in heaven they are happy and full because they eat by using the spoons to feed each other (144-145).

Some examples of the family community are found in earlier novels, but with a difference. In Blithedale Romance, Nathaniel Hawthorne's idea of a farm community where all work together seems to relate this community as family idea. The main characters, however, are all so caught up in their individual agendas that they cannot comprehend nor contribute to the community ideal, and Miles Coverdale tells us near the end of the book that, "the experiment, so far as its original projectors were concerned, proved...a failure" (249).

Another earlier novel that seems to show a caring community is William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. As the Bundren family heads to town, neighbors along the way offer their southern hospitality, however, it is often grudgingly. This is evident when the Bundrens stop at the Samson farm and Samson offers them to stay, but adds to himself, "if I had my rathers, you wouldn't be here a-tall, I wanted to say" (116). Also, as with The Blithedale crew, the Bundrens have their own agendas that effectively disregards the generosity of their neighbors. Neither of these stories reflects what Kingsolver is trying to establish of the individual and community balance. In fact, they are decidedly out of balance.

Taylor and her friends share many trials and tribulations together as the story progresses, and by the end of the book, we learn that Taylor's ideas about family and community have evolved and changed. While in Oklahoma waiting on adoption papers for Turtle, Taylor looks through a horticulture encyclopedia. She finds there a picture of wisteria (that Turtle calls bean trees) like the kind that grows in Tucson. What catches Taylor's interest, is that wisteria can't grow without microscopic bugs called rhizobia. These bugs aren't part of the wisteria, but they enable it to grow. She says, "the wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by...but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles...It's just the same with people" (TBT 305).

Later, while on the phone, Lou Ann (who's self esteem has grown immensely), tells Taylor "don't get mad, but I told somebody that you and Turtle and Dwayne Ray were my family" (TBT 309). Taylor listens to Lou Ann's explanation and finally says, "I guess you could say we're family" (310) (emphasis added). I think Taylor learns that caring deeply for others and being involved in their life, and letting others into her life to care for and appreciate her unique qualities, has strengthened her individualism like the rhizobia and the wisteria, and like them, she achieves a supportive balance.

I feel that Barbara Kingsolver's book The Bean Trees renews the idea of community as family. Kingsolver agrees, relating a need for new stories she tells us, "we need stories that can help us construct, reconstruct the value of, of solidarity, of not, not the lone solo flier, but the family, the community, the value of working together" (Gergen).

I also believe that The Bean Trees broaches new territory in the development of the American novel by creating a theme of unity and balance between the self and the family community. In an interview by Kurt Jensen, Kingsolver clarifies this when she says, "I don't really see a lot of people living a life where they are combining themselves with other people, but are also preserving their autonomy, holding on to a kind of reserve that can keep them happy" (Jensen). I think that is precisely why Kingsolver felt impelled to write The Bean Trees. I believe she wanted to make what she felt is an important statement about balancing an independent sense of oneself, that is so prominent in American culture, with a renewed sense of a caring family community.



DeMarr, Mary Jean. Barbara Kingsolver A Critical Companion. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.


Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage Random House, 1990.


Frederic, Harold. The Damnation of Theron Ware. 1896. New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.


Gergen, David. "Barbara Kingsolver". NewsHour Online. 24 November, 1995


Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Blithedale Romance. 1852. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1958.


Jensen, Kurt. "I Start with a Question". Elliot Bay Books. May 1992.


Kingsolver, Barbara. The Bean Trees. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1988.


Lazaroff, Catherine. "The Bean Trees: Lessons in Life". Webster's Weekly. 13 July 1994.

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