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This is definitely a coming of age novel, and all through The Secret Life of Bees we see growth in Lily. One of the most important ways in which Lily grows is in empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of others. Let's look at some ways in which Lily has been lacking in empathy and a few quotes that show her growth.
As the story opens, Lily, a white girl living in the rural South, accepts segregation unquestioningly and while the book does not say this explicitly, seems to assume that white people are superior to black people. While she loves Rosaleen, she also looks down upon her in many ways, an attitude that she has by virtue of her upbringing. She never stops to think, really, about the way Rosaleen is treated in town, or wonders much why Rosaleen has not been voting all these years, or questions the fact that Rosaleen must be hospitalized in a black ward in the hospital. When she and Rosaleen arrive at the Boatwright sisters' house and she overhears June and August talking about her, she comes to understand that June does not want her there because she is white. She is angry and stunned by this, her first inkling that African-Americans might judge her by the color of her skin. But as time goes on and the Boatwright sisters, particularly August and May, accept her, love her, and exert their healing powers, we can see the beginnings of her empathy for others, her understanding that she is not the center of the universe, and that other people of other races have feelings just like hers.
In one scene, August is telling Lily a story about August's mother, and Lily sees "the mix of sorrow and amusement and longing across her face" (143). Lily thinks, "She is missing her mother" (143). Lily is beginning to have insight into other people's feelings, and perhaps more particularly, she is coming to understand that black people are people just like her. Both she and August have lost their mothers and miss them.
At the point at which Zach has been incarcerated, Lily is on the verge of confiding in August about her (Lily's) mother, so she can find out more about her , since she clearly spent some time with the Boatwrights. She understands that August is sick about what has happened to Zach, and she make a conscious decision to wait, not wanting to burden August further right now, setting aside,
...all the things I'd planned to say to August about my mother. But how could I do that now, with this terrible thing happening to Zach? Everything I wanted to say would have to wait, and I'd go back to the same suspended animation I'd been in before (182).
Lily is growing up. She understands how August feels, and she is willing to forgo her own satisfaction for the moment, to help someone else.
There are many examples of Lily's growth as an empathetic person. At the beginning of the book, she has little or no insight into the feelings or situations of others, particularly those of another race. But with the healing love of the Boatwright sisters, she manages to transform her own hurts and grievances in a way that makes her a more mature and better human being.
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