What is the search for identity through mother and motherly figures in The Secret Life of Bees?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In The Secret Life of Bees, one of the themes certainly is the quest for a mother figure, for Lily, for Rosaleen, and for other characters in the story.  This theme is reflected in multiple ways. Lily seeks knowledge and understanding of the mother she has lost and also seeks a new mother figure, Rosaleen, who not only stands in to some degree as a mother figure for Lily, but also seeks a mother figure for herself. The Daughters of Mary create a heavenly mother for themselves in Our Lady of Chains. 

Lily's mother, Deborah, died when Lily was four years old. Lily's memory and understanding of how she died are confused, and much of Deborah's life is a mystery to her, since no one will tell her much of anything about her mother.  So, as Lily and Rosaleen set out on their journey, Lily is seeking to learn about the mother she lost and fill in what is merely an outline of a mother to her.  This is her conscious quest, with nothing to suggest initially that she seeks a mother replacement.

Rosaleen has been chosen by Lily's father, T. Ray, to act as her "stand-in mother" (3). A black woman pulled from the fields for this task, Rosaleen takes care of Lily and is a loving substitute.  Lily has fantasies of somehow overcoming the racial discrepancies in some way that would allow Rosaleen to adopt her and she says, 

"...[H]er heart was more tender than a flower skin and she loved me beyond reason" (11).

So as the book opens, Lily, while seeking to solve the mystery of her mother, does have a mother figure in her life. 

Rosaleen, while not obviously searching for a mother figure, does have a kind of shrine to her mother:

"...[H]er special shelf with a stub of a candle, creek rocks, a reddish feather, and a piece of John the Conqueror root, and right in the center a picture of a woman, propped up without a frame" (29). 

The woman is Rosaleen's mother, and clearly she revered her, since the finish on the photo's sides was actually worn off because she held it so frequently.  While Rosaleen never says how much she misses her mother, her actions do show this. 

In a similar vein, Lily has a kind of "shrine" to Deborah, a small collection of objects, including a pair of gloves, a picture of a black Mary on wood, and a photo of Deborah.  Lily kept this collection in a tin box that she buried and visited frequently as a way of being close to her mother. 

As Lily and Mary set forth, they are both missing their mothers in some way. The one clue that Lily has about her mother, the name of a town on the wood picture of Mary, leads them to the Boatwright sisters, August, May, and June, an African-American family in Tiburon, South Carolina.  They are taken in by the Boatwrights, and August is clearly the mother figure in the family, mothering her sisters and Lily and Rosaleen as time goes on.  Here, Lily solves the mysteries of her mother's life and death, and both Lily and Rosaleen are folded into the family. 

But, as all humans long for a deity that is in their own image, the Boatwright sisters and their community create a "religion" in which a statue, a ship figurehead, actually, a black Mary, represents a heavenly mother with whom these females can identify, a black goddess, rather than a representation of a white God.  This statue is called "Our Lady of Chains," and it represents freedom from the slavery that the women's ancestors endured, and the mother figure that is a universal need for all of us. 

Perhaps the most powerful message that this story delivers is that a mother need not be a biological mother.  In moving and powerful ways, these characters mother one another.  And Our Lady of the Chains watches over all. 

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iamkaori's profile picture

iamkaori | Student, Grade 9 | (Level 2) Salutatorian

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In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Lily goes through a search for who her mother really was. She wants to know who her mother really was, and thus wants to know her identity as such a woman's daughter. She encounters the motherly-figures at the Boatwrights. Their culture helps get a sense of who her mother was, and it helps her to create her own identity and who she really is. It also builds her personality through the love and nurturing of the Boatwrights, for at home with T-Ray, she does not receive love or care.

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