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Barbara Kingsolver in her work "The Bean Trees" reveals to us a certain feminist consciousness regarding the definition of a family that comes out in the novel on a number of levels. Taylor Greer, who is the main character, leaves her own family behind as she goes out on a mission to find a more fulfilling life. Along the way, she happens to meet with a new family group in Arizona. The concept of family as represented in this novel is associated with an idea of a community. Towards the end of the book, the story concentrates on a group of women showing their growing sense of personal power and identity in world that frequently expects them to sublimate both offering support of a patriarchal family organization. Although the book addresses a number of issues, it is feminism and the changing family structures that attract the reader.
In the western world, the common family structure for a long time has been commonly the nuclear type i.e. households that less frequently have more than one married couple with children. The traditional family was mainly structured in a way that, the women's role was mainly centered on childcare and taking care of the husbands. Kingsolver in her novel, replaces this kind of traditional family by a mixed family unit with adults and children from different households; lacking a male figure; with duties and responsibilities being shared, including those for childcare, and of course with a couple of individuals in one household who are not related in any way. The idea of family in this book is derived from what a family should provide and not how it should be structured (Rubenstein 69). Women are still considered the nurturing force and at the same time expected to be intimate. Feminism and changing family structures reflect the social themes and historical events of the 1980's.
The book's narrator starts by describing events that took place in her adolescence. This was the time when she lived in Pittman County in rural Kentucky. She was then commonly known as Missy and since then has changed her name to Taylor. She recounts to us the story of Newt Hardbine's father, who one day had his tractor's tire explode, throwing him to the top of a chevron sign. This accident unfortunately left the man deaf. The narrator explains to us that she and Hardbine were perceived as brother and sister even though they were not related. Just like Mr. Hardbines' family, Taylor and her mother were equally poor and no one could guess who between her and Newt would be the one to get away.
As Taylor continues with school, and Newt drops out so as to work in his father's tobacco plantation, Newt impregnates a young girl known as Jolene Shanks whom he ends up marrying. During this time, many girls are seen dropping out to have babies unlike Taylor who decides to avoid pregnancy. All this is because of her science teacher whom she credits for changing her life in a great way. The teacher informed her class of some job opportunities at Pittman County Hospital where Taylor applied and got a job. One day, Newt and her wife are brought into the emergency hospital as Taylor was on her shift. Jolene was bleeding in the shoulder from a bullet wound as her husband was already dead. From evidences and hints, one can conclude that, it is the many years of abuse and neglect that Newt suffered from his father that led him to shoot himself and his wife.
At some point, Taylor decides to use the money she earns from her job to buy a car and makes the decision to live Pittman. She shows deep interests of living an independent life free from the control and beliefs of feminist men (Fisher 43). This is the point where she actually decides to change her name from Missy to Taylor, a name that comes about because she ran out of gas at Taylorville. Her car breaks down in Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma where she is permitted to live if she chooses simply because she has head rights. Taylor decides stop over at a bar for some coffee and as she leaves, a woman follows her and sets a baby on her passenger's sit telling her that the little thing was her sister's who had passed away and that she should have it.
Taylor stops at a motel when she realizes that the baby has wet itself and persuades the gentle lady working at the front desk to allow them spend the night there. She finds out the baby is a girl when washing it and also the saddening truth that she had been sexually abused. She then lays the baby to bed in while still in shock, and calls her mother telling her that she found her head rights and that they are coming with her. The writer exposes to us the changing family structures of the 1980s whereby women were starting feminism movements to advocate for gender equal rights (Fisher 43). This is even evident when Taylor's mother allows her to move away and have her own life as she perceives.
Looking at these incidences, one is introduced to the strong eccentric voice of the narrator, Taylor. She narrates her story in a gentle sarcastic tone and establishes the readers' trust in her dependable narration style. The opening chapter of the novel exposes one to the novel's fundamental concepts i.e. the importance of motherhood. The writer of the book clearly contrasts Taylor's mother's good parenting with that of Newt's father, suggesting to her readers that parents determine their kid's destinies. Simply because Alice, Taylor's mother tells her daughter of how wonderful and smart she is, Taylor ends up wonderful and smart unlike Newt who kills himself after long years of being abused by his father (Kingsolver 44). Elsewhere, one can also see that Jolene, Newt's wife, ends up pregnant before getting married simply because her father consistently called her a slut. Jolene herself even acknowledges this fact when she mentions that her dad had been calling her a slut practically since she was at a tender age of thirteen.
Taylor feels homeless when she leaves the place she knew as home and her mother behind and reaches Cherokee Nation in Kentucky. She had thought this new place would be her new homeland, but to her consternation, she ends up finding her new place quite depressing. This even makes her break her own promise when she decides to spend her savings to fix her car so she can leave Oklahoma instead of settling where she had landed. Towards the end of the chapter, she starts to cogitate her own understanding of how home looks like. She had earlier associated with a physical place. Later on when she writes to her mother and tells her that she was going to take her head rights or rather the baby with her, one gets the feeling that, she is starting to perceive home as a connection with people and not a physical place (Kingsolver 53).
The writer of the book portrays women as an oppressed and mistreated bunch in a feminist world. In Kentucky, the narrator's hometown, pregnancy is viewed as a disease that spreads to most girls and one that can only be avoided with determination and luck. When Taylor finds out the baby has been sexually abused, she observes that the sex of the baby has already weighed down her future and afflicted her short life. The fact that Taylor characterizes the specific case as a global women experience after realizing the kid's sex, rather than a secluded parody suggests that, the narrator and the writer herself regard women as beleaguered. In fact, Taylor's commitment to the young child is enforced completely immediately after seeing proof of sexual abuse. At first she was not even sure of what to do with the child but at last sees this as a gift and an inalienable part of her life.
At some point in the story, the narrative voice changes from that of Taylor to that of a shadowy narrator. She introduces us to Lou Ann Ruiz who is of a Kentuckian origin, living in Tucson, Arizona. She is pregnant and married to Angel who lost half of his leg in a tragic road accident. When she becomes pregnant, this woman stops having sex with her husband. Convinced that his amputation repulsed her wife, he accuses her of no longer wanting to get intimate with her anymore. The wife feels that Angel does not like her or anyone else for that matter anymore. For this reason Angel decides to live her wife. This shows how men continue to appreciate the kind of feministic society that grants them the right to expect women to do to them as they feel and want. At some point again, we see angel agreeing to move back in when Lou's paternal grandmother Logan and mother, Ivy come to visit her and her baby. This is supposed to be only until the granny and the grandmother leave, so as to keep an appearance of marital happiness (Kingsolver 189).
Lou Ann's desire to live in familiar surroundings with her family as well as the absent husband is quite visible (Michael 147). Her mother and grandmother often annoy her, but surprisingly, she feels sad to see them leave. With the absence of her husband Lou Ann feels tempted to fall back on her familiar comfortable childhood. However, she comprehends the fact that she has become more sophisticated than her relatives, who recognize her husband as a heathen simply because the man is Mexican and shows no interest in seeing Arizona. Lou Ann's grandmother and mother's presence comforts her but she knows that she can not live with them again. She therefore decides to settle in Tucson, a decision that depicts her commitment to experiencing the world and living independently. This decision also represents one of the many similarities that she shares with Taylor. Still, just like Taylor, she finds herself alone with a child, making a commitment to settle in Kentucky and at the same time, sentimental about the mother she is so affectionate about.
The writer in chapter four emphasizes the solidity of the bonds between women. Lou Ann is often annoyed and mugged by her grandmother and mother, but they still seem to be a more reliable presence in her life as compared to her husband. The two female characters i.e. Taylor and Lou Ann continue to think badly about men. Taylor in fact, presumes the worst about Lou Ann's husband. On her part, Taylor believes that, no man can ever completely appreciate her. Lou Ann on her part expresses confidence in men; however the writer depicts this confidence as misguided and naïve, unlike Taylor's intelligent cynicism (Michael 149). Taylor takes time to explain to Lou the theory of male inadequacy, and she ends up admitting that her husband at no point would have stayed up late with her, either having a chat or even to share a meal. The writer therefore, depicts this willingness to value female interaction over male and female as a step towards the right direction as far as Lou Ann is concerned. All this takes place has Taylor and Lou Ann continue getting close and fond of each other. This shows how women are ready to turn to each other when they feel unappreciated by men. They seem to be in a kind of feminism movements aimed at establishing respect and defending equal rights for women (Michael 149).
Lou Ann and Taylor can be seen to be unwilling to stop thinking of men in different ways. In fact, Lou Ann accuses Taylor of perceiving men as if they were only created to keep urinals from going to waste. Taylor on her part can not think of a man she would respect apart from her fiancé Estevan. Lou Ann on her part has a different opinion and continues to show her traditional mindset concerning men and marriage life. She shows admirable excitement when she thinks of Taylor's mother's upcoming marriage to Esperanza. Funny enough, she reveals that, she could even take Angel back simply because she believes she is still married to him. Women's soft and tenderness is exposed at some point in the novel when Taylor is seen to be softening her stand concerning men, and begins to think about them less cynically. She admits being attracted to Estevan and expresses a longing for unadventurous nuclear family. She recounts her family of dolls and sees herself on the couch sitting next to a man and a child, and feels as if the idea of a traditional family fascinates her.
The common western family structure for a long time has been commonly the nuclear type whereby the households less frequently have more than one married couple with children. The traditional family was mainly structured in a way that, the women's role was mainly centered on childcare and taking care of the husbands. Kingsolver in her novel, replaces this kind of traditional family by a mixed family system that comprises of adults and kids from different households; lacking a male figure; with shared responsibilities, inclusive of those for childcare, and of course with a couple of individuals in one household who are not related in any way. The fact that women are still considered the nurturing force and at the same time expected to be intimate is evident of the fact that feminism and the changing family structures in the novel reflect the social themes and historical events of the 1980's.