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The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a novel set primarily in South Carolina in the 1960s, during the fraught process of desegregation. It is a novel deeply concerned with questions of race, women's rights, and morality. It is, to a great degree, a bildungsroman, or novel of the maturation and moral development of the protagonist, Lily Owens, in terms of her position in a racially divided society.
A key event in Lily's life was her abandonment by her mother when she was a baby. Her father, T. Ray, is violent and abusive. When Lily's mother, Deborah, returns to reclaim Lily, she is assaulted by T. Ray, and tries to defend herself with a gun. The gun drops to the floor and four-year old Lily grabs it, accidentally pulling the trigger and killing her own mother. Thus the first major ethical issue in the novel is that of whether a child can be morally responsible for such an accidental death.
The next major issue occurs when Rosaleen, Lily's caretaker, becomes a victim of a racist attack when she registers to vote and is arrested. Lily disobeys the law by helping Rosaleen escape. Thus the second moral dilemma is whether it is legitimate to disobey the law for a good cause.
The next moral conflict occurs when some of the Boatwright family are uncomfortable with Lily because she is white. This raises the ethical question of whether their history of oppression justifies their attitude, although the narrative resolves the conflict by having the initial suspicions resolve into friendship by the end of the novel.
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