illustration of the back of main character Lily Owens's head with a honeycomb background

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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In the novel The Secret Life of Bees, how are the issues of responsibility and forgiving explored?

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Clearly these two issues are explored through the central character of Lily and her relationship with her mother, though clearly they are issues that impact a number of other characters as well. Lily throughout the novel struggles with the guilt of having killed her mother and trying to accept responsibility for that. At the same time, Lily's mother showed herself to be subject to a moment of irresponsibility when she ran away without her daughter. As a result fo these two acts, Lily in the novel has to journey towards forgiving herself and forgiving her mother. It is interesting when August gives her her mother's hairbrush with her mother's hair still in it that Lily recognises that in spite of her feelings of hate towards her mother, she cannot dispense with her entirely:

It had grown out of her head and now perched there like a thought she had left behind on the brush. I knew then that no matter how hard you tried, no matter how many jars of honey you threw, no matter how much you thought you could leave your mother behind, she would never disappear from the tender places in you.

We see here that Lily is moving towards acceptance of responsibility and forgiveness in terms of her own act and her mother's act of abandoning her. Lastly, of course Lily is able to achieve forgiveness, both managing to forgive herself and her mother, as she herself comes to realise at the end of the story:

In the photograph by my bed my mother is perpetually smiling at me. I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.

The novel thus points towards forgiveness and responsibility as being part of the journey of life. It is interesting that this quote indicates that forgiveness is something that needs to be re-enacted again and again, indicating the continual struggles of emotions and feelings that need to be resolved.

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