What does the epigraph in the first chapter of The Secret Life of Bees mean?  

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This novel contains fourteen chapters, each preceded by an epigraph that previews a thematic topic in the chapter to come. Lily is fourteen when the novel begins and when she embarks on her coming-of-age journey. This first epigraph concerns queen bees and the emptiness other bees feel when the queen...

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This novel contains fourteen chapters, each preceded by an epigraph that previews a thematic topic in the chapter to come. Lily is fourteen when the novel begins and when she embarks on her coming-of-age journey. This first epigraph concerns queen bees and the emptiness other bees feel when the queen leaves or dies. Each subsequent epigraph marks a stage in Lily's maturation.

Lily begins her story confused and in search of a connection to her dead mother. She begins recounting interrelated events and characters: the arrival of bees to her house, memories of killing her mother when she was four and being frustrated by others who do not want to talk about her, and Rosaline, a black woman who worked as Lily's nanny. Allusions to the Virgin Mary (who will become significant in August's religion regarding the Black Mary) and angels (which bees resemble) draw the realism of the novel into a symbolic realm as well.

Lily and the novel begin in a state of queenlessness, as the epigraph mentions:

The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness.

Nothing is yet unifying a community at the start of the novel, nor does Lily even have a community where she feels she can belong. When she leaves her father and finds a home with the Boatwright sisters, she engages in the unifying force of community. What Lily needs as she begins her story, she discovers under the guidance of the novel's "queen," August Boatwright, who heals Lily by teaching her about the Black Mary and the Daughers of Mary, about love, and about storytelling. The Boatwright sisters offer a warm and nurturing community where each sister, and Lily, has a specific role and purpose.

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Let's start with the definition of an epigraph. It's a quote at the beginning of a chapter that offers insight into the chapter's message.

For The Secret Life of Bees, the epigraph is:

"The queen, for her part, is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence. After a few hours, or even less, they show unmistakable signs of queenlessness."

It's important at this point to gain deeper understanding into how a bee colony works. You have the queen, the drones, and the workers. The queen's job is to reproduce, or have children in a way. The drones must mate with the queen to ensure reproduction happens. The workers do everything else. They build the honeycomb, guard the hive, and gather food from outside the hive. If the queen dies or goes away, the drones and workers have no queen to support, so there is no reason for them to stay.

In the novel, Lily runs away from home. Why does she feel the need to run away? Her mother's dead, and she's desperate to become closer to her. Think of Lily's mom as the queen bee. Without her to run the household, the household falls apart, and there's no reason to stay.

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