Study Guide

The Bean Eaters Quotes

By Gwendolyn Brooks

  • Poverty

    They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair. (line 1)

    We've said it before and we'll say it again: beans aren't that great. They just happen to be the cheapest food you can buy. Our guess? This couple isn't exactly rolling in the dough.

    Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
    Tin flatware. (lines 3-4)

    Just about everything in this description points to a family that never had too much money in the good times – and the present day sure isn't part of the good times. Everything is cracked and chipped and, well, generally falling apart.

    Two who have lived their day, (line 6)

    The poverty that this couple is living in might be made worse by the fact that they're both elderly – perhaps even too old to work.

    As they lean over the beans in their rented back room (line 11)

    Brooks takes care to emphasize that there's absolutely no area of this couple's life that is well-off. It's not like they're eating beans on their yacht – or even in their suburban home. Nope, these people live in a tiny room behind someone else's house. Oh, and they're eating beans.

  • Old Age

    They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair. (line 1)

    Yup, you guessed it: this couple is old. Brooks says so – right in the first line. Like her description of their skin color, this mention of their age immediately colors how we learn about the circumstances of their lives.

    Two who are Mostly Good.
    Two who have lived their day, (lines 5-6)

    Brooks's speaker switches away from general description here to channel others' opinions of this couple. Sure, they're good people – but they're done doing any of the important things in their lives. It's a rather devastating assessment, isn't it? We're guessing that this poem functions as a refutation of that opinion: its very existence asserts that there's something worth writing about in these people's lives.

    And remembering ...
    Remembering, with twinklings and twinges, (lines 9-10)

    Sure, people with more years behind them have more to remember. It's pretty clear, though, that remembering is the most active and alive part of this couple's life. Their happy times are behind them. The present is more grim – a small room with leftover mementos of a past life.

    As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and doll and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes. (line 11)

    Sure, old people aren't the only packrats in the world – but it does seem that grandma's house has waaaay more stuff in it than other people's, doesn't it? All of these things are testaments to what's gone on in their life. And because other people seem to have moved on, these things are all that are left as mementos of important times.

  • The Home

    As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes. (line 11)

    Imagine how this line would look if it spread out to its full length: it would dominate the page, grabbing attention away from all of the rest of the poem. It's almost as if the things that crowd into the small rented room have become this couple's entire world – and the poem works to make sure we notice that first.

    […] their rented back room that is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes. (line 11)

    Yes, we do realize we're double dipping here. But we just wanted to point out that there's actually something pretty interesting going on in the last line of this poem: notice the last word? It functions as part of the list of stuff that clutters up this couple's room – but it also does a nifty job of summing up their life in general. See, they're pretty much on the fringes of society, part of a group that no one usually pays any attention to.

    Dinner is a casual affair. (line 2)

    When we first read this line, it seems like this couple has created a set of customs that structure their lives. It's only later that we realize dinner is casual because they can't afford it to be otherwise.

    Remembering, with twinklings and twinges, (line 10)

    When we hear that this couple spends most of their time in their room, remembering the past, it becomes clear that their surroundings are the way they're able to conjure up this beloved past. Their home is both the place they live right now and their clearest link to the days they want to remember.

  • Race

    They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair. (line 1)

    Brooks starts her poem off by signaling that this couple is "yellow," suggesting that they're either black (with fair skin) or Asian. Placing such a description in the first line makes it one of the framing points of the entire poem.

    As they lean over the beans in their rented back room (line 11)

    It's not explicit, but this couple's financial circumstances are in some ways directly related to their race. After all, "equality" wasn't exactly a perfect system back in the '60s (or even today). Check out what we have to say in "Setting" for more discussion on this!