Study Guide

The Bean Eaters Themes

By Gwendolyn Brooks

  • Poverty

    Gwendolyn Brooks delves into the conditions of real people's lives, exposing the tiny details that demonstrate that their everyday routine is strained by the lack of money. Without any resources, though, the couple in "The Bean Eaters" manages to collect a room full of memories – scraps and "fringes" of all of the things which remind them of days when their lives were happier (and maybe just a little bit more well-off).

    Questions About Poverty

    1. What details does Brooks give us to let her readers know that these characters are poor?
    2. Brooks doesn't tell us why her characters are living in poverty. How does this affect the way you think about them?
    3. Does this couple seem to mind that they're poor? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    The couple does not mind being poor, because they are rich in love and in memories.

    The couple does not consider themselves to be poor; they are surrounded by life's possessions and they have memories of both triumphant and abysmal times.

  • Old Age

    Popular opinion says that once you reach a certain age, your life might as well be over. After all, what do old people have to contribute to society? They don't work. They don't produce children anymore. What do they do? That's precisely the sort of logic that allows society to forget an elderly couple, leaving them all on their own in a tiny rented room. Even though they may once have been mothers and fathers, friends and family, they're now abandoned. It's not too pretty, we have to say.

    Questions About Old Age

    1. Do you think that the couple's standard of living has changed much over the years? How might this alter how you think of them?
    2. Does age make their situation better or worse? What in the text allows you to form your answer?
    3. Why do you think Brooks chose to focus her poem on people who are so old? Can you relate to them? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In their old age, this couple focuses mostly on the moment. They no longer have dreams or hopes of the future.

    The couple may be old, but their actions are so ordinary that we can't help but relate to them.

  • The Home

    Sure, a rented room in the back of a house isn't exactly what comes to mind when we think of homes in America. After all, isn't owning your own home part of the American Dream? From what we can tell, this bean-eating couple missed out on that particular part of the dream a long time ago. Despite the fact that they have little money and are left on their own, though, this couple has constructed a routine that seems to fill their lives – even though the entire scope of their lives is contained within one tiny room.

    Questions About The Home

    1. How would you describe the place in which the old couple lives?
    2. Do they seem to mind that they're living in a small rented room?
    3. There's an old saying, "Home is where the heart is." Could this be a motto for this poem? Why or why not?
    4. Do you think this poem presents its setting as a good place or not? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    The "home" in this poem is a sanctuary, a haven for the couple.

    The home in this poem represents the broken dreams of the couple.

  • Race

    We must say, it's a little presumptuous for us to decide that race is one of the central topics of "The Bean Eaters." After all, the couples' skin color is only mentioned once – and even then, it's part of a larger description. Gwendolyn Brooks's work, however, is known for its deft exposure of the ways that a person's race or class can affect his or her social standing. When she was writing in the 1960s, poverty rates among blacks were ridiculously higher than the poverty rate among whites. So even if this poem isn't explicitly about race, it's completely shadowed by America's racial history.

    Questions About Race

    1. What race is this "old yellow pair"?
    2. Why do you think Brooks signals the couple's skin color in the first line of the poem? Is the placement of this information important?
    3. How does your reading of the couple's race color your reading of the poem? Use specific textual examples to describe your reaction.
    4. Do you think Brooks is writing a poem about race? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    This poem is not about race; it is about an old couple's humanity and everyday actions.

    This poem is about the broken dreams of a couple who have lived in an unjust society.