“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks is a short poem with only 11 lines. The poetic devices that Brooks uses in “The Bean Eaters” shed light on poverty and give the reader a brief guided tour of an elderly couple’s humble life.
Imagery and Symbolism
Instead of filling the lines of “The Bean Eaters” with descriptions of despair and isolation, Brooks offers enough imagery to paint a picture of an old couple living in the back room of a home and their socioeconomic situation. She talks about the couple eating off chipped plates, using cheap flatware made of tin and dinner being a “casual affair.” Brooks writes that the couple spend their time putting things -- like dolls, beads, receipts, cloth and vases – away, giving the reader a sense of being in a small, crowded room filled with knickknacks. In addition to being a food that a reader may associate with poverty, the beans in the poem allude to the things that the couple do not have, like a bigger home, a bigger family, finer possessions and perhaps friends. The poet shares with the reader that the couple is old and yellow. However, she doesn’t explain if “yellow,” for example, is a racial reference, implies cowardice, describes the color of their clothes or is a health condition.
Rhyme and Meter
Just as the dinner in “The Bean Eaters” is casual, so is the rhyme scheme: AABA BCDC EFDF. While the poem resembles common meter because the second and fourth lines rhyme, it doesn’t have a formal, organized meter or even a metrical pattern. The lack of meter reflects the simplicity of the couple in the poem and their straightforward, familiar lives.
Use of Repetition
The first and 11th lines in “The Bean Eaters” talk about the old couple eating beans. The repetition implies that beans are a staple in the couple’s diet because of their financial circumstances, not necessarily choice. Brooks uses the word “two” twice in a row, in the first lines of the second stanza. The repetition of the number tells the reader that the couple are a party of two and that they are the only members of their social circle. Brooks also repeats the word “remembering” twice in the last stanza, giving the reader the impression that the couple’s entertainment comes from reminiscing about their past “with twinklings and twinges.”
Allusion to ‘The Potato Eaters’
In the late 1800s, Vincent Van Gogh created a painting called “The Potato Eaters.” The painting depicts a family eating potatoes for dinner in a small, dark and crowded room. Van Gogh based the painting on a poor family of miners that he knew who had skin that resembled a dry, dusty potato after a day of work. (See Reference 4) The EMC Paradigm website notes that Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” was the inspiration behind Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters.” Both works portray the hardships endured by minorities and the working poor.