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“The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks

The subject of the Poem

The poem The bean eaters deals with a seemingly simple subject, which is a scene of two old people having dinner and eating beans. However, a closer look at the narrative will show that it addresses an array of social issues, poverty being the main one. In the poem, noodles serve as the metaphor and embodiment of poverty and the trials and tribulations that are typically associated with it: “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair” (Brooks, 1960, line 1). Therefore, poverty, family, and old age can be deemed as the key themes of the poem. The themes of poverty and the challenges that it entails are not stated explicitly but, instead, are hinted at in the poem, thus, making the revelation thereof all the more dramatic. For example, the details such as the old tableware that the couple uses: “Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood” (Brooks, 1960, line 3) paint a very vivid picture.

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Similar to other poems that Brooks wrote, The bean eaters were inspired by the difficult social and financial conditions in which the residents of Chicago, in general, and its African American population, in particular, lived in the 1960s (Armstrong, 2015). Herein lies the reason for incorporating an array of themes that might seem as far too distanced from each other (i.e., poverty, family, and old age) in a single poem. The focus on the issue of irrefutable rights, such as the right for dignity, which shines through the lines of the poem, must have been inspired by the civil rights movement that the United States was witnessing at the time (Armstrong, 2015). Therefore, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the following confrontations between its citizens can be considered the primary reason for the poem to exist.


Although The bean eaters address some of the social issues linked to the Civil Rights Movement and, therefore, can be deemed as the attempt to draw the attention of all American citizens to the problem, it may also be interpreted as the poem that addresses family values and the significance of family relationships: “And remembering…/Remembering, with twinklings and twinges” (Brooks, 1960, lines 9-10). Therefore, a wide range of audiences can be viewed as the target population for the poem. For example, it sheds light on social concerns to middle- and upper-class readers, therefore, educating them. However, it also appeals to the readers that have experienced similar issues. Moreover, the poem is very relatable to people of a range of ages, from young adults to older audiences since it appeals to family issues just as much as it focuses on the social ones.


Brooks attempts at drawing the readers’ attention to some of the social issues that the United States was facing at the time. Particularly, the problems of poverty and social conflicts, as well as the significance of family support, ware addressed in The bean eaters. With its memorable images and powerful metaphor, the poem serves its purpose perfectly.


The narrator is not mentioned in the poem; instead, the author steps into the background, therefore, allowing the described scene to become all the more memorable and touching. The presence of the narrator is tangible in the poem, yet it does not prevent the reader from experiencing the poem and being engulfed by its atmosphere. The bean eaters might seem simple, yet its message is very poignant and strong; it leaves a significant impact and encourages one to address the issues of social justice and family relationships.


Armstrong, J. (2015). The Cambridge companion to American civil rights literature. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Brooks, G. (1960). The bean eaters. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, February 13). “The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

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