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In The Secret Life of Bees, there are fourteen chapters, and in each, the beginning quote tells us about an important theme in the chapter, a way of using bees as a metaphor for the themes in the book that the characters are exemplifying. Let's look at the beginning quote in one chapter to see how that works.
At the beginning of Chapter Nine, we have this:
The whole fabric of honey bee society depends on communication - on an innate ability to send and receive messages, to encode and decode information. - The Honey Bee (165).
This quote is telling us that the chapter is going to focus on communication between and among the characters and how that communication is encoded and decoded. In the chapter, some examples of how this theme is borne out are in a scene that takes place with Lily and June, in a scene that takes place between Lily and May, in the communication that does not take place between Lily and August, in the communication among the townsmen and Zach and his friends, and in the communication that leads May to her death.
The relationship between Lily and June has been an uneasy one. June is hostile toward Lily because she is white, since all of June's experiences (and the times) have led her to distrust white people and make her decode improperly everything Lily has to say. When Lily turns the garden hose on June and June turns the garden hose back on her, they are communicating their hostility like little children, but like little children, they find that the humor of the situation overcomes the hostility and breaks the barrier down the barriers between them, leading to good communication and friendship. Notice that as bees do not communicate with speech, but with various physical movements, the change in communication between Lily and June begins with a physical gesture, not with speech.
In the same vein, it is May's physical gestures that communicate to Lily in another important scene in the chapter. Because May cannot bring herself to kill any creature, she spreads graham crackers and marshmallows to lure roaches out of the house. Lily knows that her mother did the same thing, and she "decodes" May's gestures, understanding that her mother had learned this from May, which means that her mother had been with the Boatwright sisters. Like two bees, Lily and May have communicated.
It is this interpretation of May's actions that makes Lily realize that she must talk to August, to find out the truth about her mother. She intends to do this immediately, but the events that take place in the rest of the chapter prevent this from taking place, putting off one of the most important pieces of communication in the book, the solving of the mystery of Lily's mother.
In the scene in the town that results in Zach being taken to jail, we have white and black men and boys communicating with gestures that are hostile. The black young men were "glaring over at the men (178). When Zach and Lily pull up in the truck, Zach's black friends come over to the truck. A white man approaches all of them and
[He] stared at the boys with that same half smile, half sneer...conjured from power without benefit of love (178).
One of Zach's friends, Jackson, "bites down, causing a tiny ripple across his jaw" (178). He then throws a soda bottle at the man, and the man is injured. None of the black young men will admit who threw the bottle, and as a result, all of them are jailed. There are words exchanged in this scene, but it is the physical gestures and facial expressions that are being decoded for the most part. And it is the black young men's refusal to communicate, to snitch, that lands them all in jail.
In the chapter's final scenes, there is communication and a lack of communication that have profound effects upon the story. Everyone agrees that it would be best to protect May from the knowledge that Zach has been jailed, and they manage to conceal this for a while. But when Zach's mother calls and May answers the phone, she learns the truth. She becomes nearly catatonic at first, and after August pulls May to her and presses a cold towel to May's head, she seems to rally a bit and says, "I'll be okay" (187). She tells everyone she must go to her Wailing Wall and refuses to allow anyone to go with her. Everyone reluctantly decides to take this communication on its face, taking this to mean that May will be all right, but they really know better, deep down.
These examples demonstrate the importance of communication and its coding and decoding in the chapter, and there are other examples, as well. This quote sets the stage for these events in the story, as the quotes in the beginnings of the other chapters do, too.
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