Analysis: The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks
The Bean Eaters
They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.
And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
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.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, "The Bean Eaters" exudes amicable union, gentility, and wise comfort in repetitive simplicity. In this analysis I will focus on the simple but beautiful word constructions that allow the reading of the poem as such.
Let us start with the title: An image that comes to mind when one hears the phrase bean eater is that of the vegetarian or vegan. These words promote a nonviolent and peaceful image; one may even go as far as imagining a kind soul. The title of the poem also highlights eating as provision of nourishment for the body. Beans is an economical yet excellent source of nutrition and its expression at the opening of the poem to define its main subjects as ones who "eat beans mostly" wraps them in the same economical simplicity which is the characteristic of that which they consume. There is the saying, after all, that one is what one consumes.
A repetitive theme in Brooks’ poem is the union of the "the bean eaters." In the first verse it is clarified that they are an "old yellow pair." Expressing them as two that belong together, thus a two that works as one. The second verse merely strings along this definition of the union of the couple by never representing them separately but as one. Thus the poem speaks of them as "Two who are Mostly Good. / Two who have lived their day." Hence what can be said for one can be said for the other. There is the insinuation that "Mostly Good" is the account of two rather than one of the two, and the same is applicable to "lived their day." One may deduce than that the pair are inseparable and have been so for a significant amount of their life.
As the second verse classifies the moral of the "old yellow pair" as "Mostly Good." One wonders about their gender and the classification of their relationship. For instance, are they an old married couple or siblings? Relatives or friends? The other visible puzzle is the capitalization of the moral classification of the couple in "Mostly Good." Perhaps the capitalization connects with the first "mostly" in the first verse in which the couple "eat beans mostly," which defines and supports the title of the poem as, "The Bean Eaters." Is the speaker then insinuating that "Mostly Good" is rich enough for its own context? And since "The Bean Eaters" translates to "eat beans mostly," one may argue that "Mostly Good" translates to good people. The "old yellow pair" are therefore good people.
The second to third lines of the second verse considers the past, present, and future of the "old yellow pair" in simple loaded words. It defines them as, "Two who have lived their day." The phrase "lived their day" insinuates two things: 1) the pair are no longer young; 2) the pair made the most of their youth. By such a simple phrasing both the past and present are linked together. Brooks does even more beautifully in the rich simple wording of the following line, "keep on putting on their clothes." Emphasizing further the responsibility of the living to care for the body on a daily basis. Thus the body is fed and clothed. And what is hinted at is the work required, furthermore the discipline necessarily to keep life winding. In presenting the present the speaker alludes also to the future, or its expectation so cleverly and simply as, "And putting things away." What is put away? That which is useful is put away: that which can bring pleasure again is put away; and that which can be of help to one is put away. Thus to put away is to save, and this is often done in the hope of a future.
The third verse brings to life the richness of the old pair’s "casual [dinner] affair" in their recollections. Again like the "mostly" good of the second stanza and the "beans mostly" of the first stanza we are not told what the "old yellow pair" recall. But that their recallings are accompanied "with twinklings and twinges / as they lean over the beans in their rented back room." Although exactly what they remember is not shared one may read into the description of the event of their "remembering" as favorable tides of life. This can be done in reference to their harmonized present and a close reading of the the stanza above which states that they "lived their day." And it seems these "lived" days breathe again at their dinner table making more festive the simplicity of their reality. Thus the sparkles of the past mix with the "twinges" of their present bodies.
Finally the third verse teasingly answers the questions the first and second stanza raised, especially the question of how these "old yellow pair" can be categorized. Of their environs the final stanza says: "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." The details here suggest our "old yellow pair" perhaps work with dolls; perhaps they make doll clothes. They are perhaps seamstresses who live at the back room of their shop and the poem acknowledges this private life at the end of their work days. If so the room also serves as a sort of storage and office which then explains the materials and receipts. And if so, the reference of putting on clothes in the second stanza may also refer to their work of making doll clothes and putting them on their dolls.
By not revealing too much and refraining from being very specific with some aspects of the subjects of the poem, Brooks allow one to imagine the poem as they so desire, and yet she sprinkles enough details within the poem to show also what she sees or imagines for it.