Study Guide

The Bean Eaters Analysis

By Gwendolyn Brooks

  • Sound Check

    We've got to say, this poem sounds a lot like a museum guide taking us through dioramas of modern life. Sure, it's full of imagery, but it uses easy language and no overt figurative language. It's almost as if Brooks doesn't want us to miss out on the starkness of this couple's life – and she's determined to make her language match that spareness. Instead of bemoaning their sad fate, the speaker contents herself with short remarks such as "they eat beans mostly." Seriously, no one is about to start sobbing as a result of such heart-wringing declarations, are they?

    We didn't think so. And it's precisely this museum-guide tone that forces us to think about this poem instead of immediately reacting emotionally.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Calling this poem "The Bean Eaters" allows it to work in two interesting (and very different) ways at the same time. Here's what we mean:

    1. We instantly know how to characterize the people that Brooks describes. They eat beans every day. That's pretty much the regular routine that describes their lives. Come to think of it, that's almost all we know about the specifics about their daily habits. They're not "the adventurers" or even "the lovers." Nope. They're "the bean eaters." Case closed.

    2. Then again, not offering too many specifics about the characteristics of the people allows us to imagine them as just about any elderly folks that we know. We're allowed to use our imaginations, filling in what we don't know about them with the bits and pieces we've gathered from people we do know. In other words, they're closer to our imagination precisely because they're so vague. Cool, huh?

  • Setting

    An old back room filled with clutter? That's not usually the stuff that poems are made of, is it? Well, if you happen to be cataloging the lives of two elderly people living in poverty, it turns out that this room is about all you've got to work with.

    If you read closely, you'll notice that the room is actually a rented room – which is pretty unfortunate. See, these people don't own anything other than the scraps and cigar ashes, which clutter their room. Even their room isn't actually their own. We're not sure, but we're guessing that Brooks is making a subtle reference here to one of the on-going social problems in America: blacks, the descendents of former slaves, have historically lacked the inherited wealth that whites passed on to each other through the generations. There just weren't all that many black families that had houses passed on to them from their parents – or anything at all passed on. Couple the lack of inherited wealth with pay inequity and overall social discrimination, and you've got a recipe for poverty. As depicted in a small rented back room.

    Of course, the poem itself doesn't say that explicitly. But then again, who would appreciate a poem that didn't require a little thinking on the part of the reader?

  • Speaker

    Our speaker manages to maintain a bit of distance from her subjects – she's not the sort to pry into their private lies, giving us all the juicy details of their scandals and sorrows in order to draw us into her poem. Nope, this speaker doesn't even give us her subjects' names.

    Instead, she creates something like a snapshot of the space in which these two people move and live, sketching out their forms as they sit down together to share a cheap dinner. Besides a few moments when the poem's speaker starts to channel society's general impressions of this couple, she remains pretty aloof. She'll describe the things that cluster around their room, that anyone can spot, but she won't enter into their hearts and minds.

    Why? Well, that's a good question. We're guessing that this level of anonymity allows the speaker to seem impartial, making it easier for Brooks to level some rather devastating social observations in a casual (and even off-handed) tone. Brooks was pretty careful to craft an utterly unavailable speaker – which turns out to be a rather good thing.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    Let's face it – this poem is pretty much a walk in the park. OK, it's not so full of balloons and ice cream as your normal park, but it's still pretty easy to wander through. Our speaker lays out a scene before our eyes, in simple language and without much elaborate imagery. It doesn't create a very happy space, but it's also not that hard to dwell in for a little while.

  • Calling Card

    Stark Reality

    Brooks doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to depicting the lives of underprivileged people. It's not all that pretty. Even though these two people have their memories to keep them company, we're allowed to see just what a threadbare life they lead. Sure, they're scraping by – but only just. And Brooks allows us to see it all.

  • Form and Meter

    Free

    You could think of this poem as an invitation to the dinner of this couple. And dinner is a casual affair, remember? Maybe that's why this poem doesn't have any organized meter.

    That's not to say that "The Bean Eaters" doesn't have any rhymes – it does. In fact, it's got enough of a rhyme scheme to make it seem as though it's formalized. (In case you're wondering, it's actually AABA BCDC EFDF.) Funnily enough, there is a form in which the second and fourth lines of a poem rhyme – it's called the "common meter." Common. Sort of like casual. Get it?

    Unlike common meter, however, this poem doesn't have a regular metrical pattern. It's not nearly as regular or formal as even common meter tends to be. That's probably because it describes people who aren't too concerned with preserving a formality in their lives. It's enough for them to get food on the table – why worry about speaking (or writing) in iambic tetrameter?

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Stacks of Things

    In case you missed it, this poem is chock-full of stuff. From plates to silverware to dolls and old clothes, objects seem to play a bigger role in the imagery of this poem than the people, the "bean eaters." Focusing on the stuff allows Brooks to create a more generalized social commentary instead of a poem that might allow us to sympathize with just two people. We're thinking big picture here, see?

    • Lines 3-4: The image of two people sitting down to eat off of chipped plates and cheap silverware gives us a good starting point for imagining their lives as people who are barely scraping by.
    • Lines 7-8: More images of stuff: in fact, our speaker makes the stuff-ness of this poem explicit when she says that they spend their time "putting things away."
    • Line 11: Stuff, stuff, and more stuff. In fact, our speaker seems intent on piling images of stuff on top of each other, giving us the sense that the poem is as crowded as this couple's room!

    Beans

    OK, you knew it was coming. After all, the title of this poem is "The Bean Eaters." It's like Brooks is pointing a big, symbolic finger at beans. In fact, beans become a stand-in for everything that this couple lacks: a good home, a network of friends, a big juicy steak… Instead, they're making do with the cheapest goods they can find. The point is, though, that this couple makes it work. They're survivors.

    • Line 1: Beans. They're not exactly a supper you dream about. In this case, they're a symbol of everything that this couple is lacking financially and even socially.
    • Line 11: Yup, you guessed it. The poem begins with a symbolic reference to beans, and it ends on the same note. The couple's meal together becomes a way for them to transcend their circumstances – they look past the beans and into their rich, interesting past.

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