illustration of the back of main character Lily Owens's head with a honeycomb background

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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Charles Brower

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Brower is an editor and freelance writer. In this essay, he discusses the importance of mysteries in the characters' lives in The Secret Life of Bees.

As suggested even in its title, the driving forces behind the characters' actions in Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees are mysteries. They may be mysteries that characters cherish—as with the kind represented by the supernatural events of the story of Our Lady of Chains recited ritually by her worshippers, the Daughters of Mary—or ones that they want desperately to resolve, as with Lily Owens's pursuit of answers about her mother's life and death. Characters keep secrets even from those they love, and nature seems to withhold its secrets from all except those who know how to look for them.

Lily's relationship with her mother, Deborah, whom Lily accidentally shot and killed when she was four years old, exists only in the imagination of the now fourteen-year-old teenager. Her abusive father, T. Ray, does not discuss his dead wife. Other than her memories of the day of Deborah's death, Lily has only a few mementos of her mother—a photograph, a pair of white gloves, and, most significantly, an icon of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary—which she keeps buried in her father's peach orchard. She digs them up occasionally and uses them to spin elaborate fantasies about the sort of woman Deborah was. The significance of the Black Madonna icon is a complete mystery to Lily, and the inscription on the back in her mother's hand, "Tiburon, S.C.," is what draws her to that small Southern town and the Boatwright sisters.

Lily learns who the Black Madonna is almost immediately upon arriving in Tiburon, but this knowledge only involves her in greater mysteries. The figure of Mary that August Boatwright and her sisters call Our Lady of Chains was originally a masthead, washed up, according to their legend, from an unknown ship near a plantation on the South Carolina coast in the days of slavery. It communicated in secret with the slaves of the plantation, exhorting them to furtive acts of flight and resistance. Amazingly, under its own power it repeatedly escaped the chains the plantation owner used to lock it in the barn. Shrouded in myth, Our Lady of Chains comes to represent, over the course of the novel, the mysteries Kidd portrays as the most powerful of all: those of the human heart.

The person who initiates Lily into these mysteries is August, beekeeper and apparent leader of the Daughters of Mary. As Lily keeps secrets from August—the truth about her life and especially the reason she has come to Tiburon—so August keeps from Lily the fact that she recognized her almost immediately from her resemblance to her mother, for whose family she served as housekeeper when Deborah was a child. Only when Lily is willing to be honest with August—and, more importantly, with herself—does August tell her about her mother.

Mysteries, indeed, are a vital part of life to August. As a beekeeper, she appreciates that the life of the hive is mostly hidden within the wooden bee boxes she has spread throughout the area. Taking Lily on as a sort of apprentice, she explains to her the inner workings of the hive, "the secret life we don't know anything about." Lily imagines that she loves "the idea of bees having a secret life, just like the one I was living," but her glimpse at this hidden life seems to have an overwhelming effect on her. Lost in a cloud of bees after August opens a bee box, Lily drifts into a trance in which her anguish about the "motherless place" within her is soothed by the queen bee, "the mother of thousands," as August tells her. Other secret aspects of nature are cherished by August, for whom the advances of scientific knowledge can also mean "the end of something." After watching a news report about the imminent launch of the unmanned rocket Ranger 7 to the moon, August remarks:

[A]s long as people have been on this earth, the moon has been a mystery to us. Think about it. She is strong enough to pull the oceans, and when she dies away, she always comes back again. My mama used to tell me Our Lady lived on the moon and that I should dance when her face was bright and hibernate when it was dark…. Now it won't ever be the same, not after they've landed up there and walked around on her. She'll be just one more big science project.

As August's mother's story suggests, the mysteries of nature and those of the Black Madonna are inextricably intertwined. The origins of the story of Our Lady of Chains that the Daughters of Mary listen to August recite on their annual celebration of "Mary Day" (the Feast of the Assumption) are unclear. August says of their worship of Our Lady of Chains that she and her sisters "take our mother's Catholicism and mix in our own ingredients." August learned the story from her grandmother, as it had been passed along through generations along with the black wooden statue. The Daughters become entranced when August tells the story, chanting at the climactic, supernatural explanation of the statue's name—and as she does later when surrounded by bees, Lily is overwhelmed by the experience and faints.

The emotional, religious, and nature themes of The Secret Life of Bees all appropriately come to a climax around the same point of the novel. Having been prevented from talking to August by her and June's period of mourning after sister May's suicide, Lily finds the courage finally to come clean during the Daughters' celebration of Mary Day, when the story of Our Lady's unsuccessful imprisonment is reenacted, the black statue wrapped in chains overnight and then anointed in honey the next day. Lily has to share her sleeping space in the honey house with the chained effigy the night after learning that her mother had abandoned Lily, at least temporarily, to her father; she lashes out violently, shattering the glass jars stored there, seething with anger over her mother's betrayal:

I felt a powerful sadness, not because of what I'd done, as bad as that was, but because everything seemed emptied out—the feelings I'd had for her, the things I'd believed, all those stories about her I'd lived off of like they were food and water and air. Because I was the girl she'd left behind. That's what it came down to.

With her worst fears about Deborah confirmed, Lily looks even more desperately to Our Lady and to August to fill the motherless place within her. As she is the keeper of the secrets of life inside her beehives, so August seems to be, more than any of the other Daughters, keeper to the secrets of Our Lady of Chains. Thus, the most important lesson she has to teach Lily about Mary is that the nurturing power of her divine motherhood—to Lily she is, like the queen bee, "mother to thousands"—is actually located within:

You don't have to put your hand on Mary's heart to get strength and consolation and rescue, and all the other things we need to get through life…. You can place it right here on your own heart. Your own heart.

Lily's recognition of this symbolic importance of the Mary statue enables her to begin to forgive herself for killing her mother, as well as forgiving her mother for abandoning her (an abandonment that became permanent when Deborah came back to collect Lily and, in the ensuing scuffle with her enraged husband, was accidentally shot by her daughter). Even so, in this healing process there is the acceptance of mystery:

Drifting off to sleep, I thought about her. How nobody is perfect. How you just have to close your eyes and breathe out and let the puzzle of the human heart be what it is.

Lily's spiritual development to some extent mirrors Kidd's own embrace of a feminist spirituality, as described in her 1996 spiritual memoir The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that she wrote immediately preceding beginning work on The Secret Life of Bees. Kidd was a practicing Southern Baptist for most of the first forty years of her life but had a spiritual awakening that led her to reconnect with her feminine soul, as she terms it—"a woman's inner repository of the Divine Feminine." Lily is nominally a Baptist in Kidd's novel, but the leader of her Baptist church, Brother Gerald, is mean and cowardly. As Lily has her own spiritual awakening, she finds nourishment in the mysteries of Our Lady and the secrets of nature, as opposed to the tyranny of white authority, represented by corrupt police, an un-Christian minister, and her abusive father. Thus the novel ends with an abundance of mothering for Lily, with her summer of discovery turning into an "autumn of wonders." Lily's last line of the novel—"They are the moons shining over me"—explicitly calls to mind her and August's conversation earlier in the novel about the mysteries of the moon and the Virgin Mary's presence in it. With the acceptance of mystery comes a measure of serenity in Lily's life.

Source: Charles Brower, Critical Essay on The Secret Life of Bees, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Anne-Janine Morey

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In the following essay, Morey discusses how Kidd mingles historical realism and fairy-tale elements in the novel.

Ten years ago Sue Monk Kidd was a traditionally grounded Christian writer. But like her engaging narrator Lily Owens, Kidd is on a spiritual journey, heralded by her 1996 nonfiction work The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and confirmed in this captivating first novel about love and forgiveness. Guided by bees and a group of women devoted to a black Madonna, 14-year-old Lily Owens embarks upon a spiritual quest that carries her through the shadow of racism and her own spiritual suffering and brings her to adulthood.

The context for her quest is South Carolina in 1964, a transformative year for civil rights. America had survived the fury and sorrow of 1963: the murder of Medgar Evers, the Birmingham church bombing and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The next year brought the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the murder of three civil rights workers. Against this backdrop and often in conversation with these events, Lily and Rosaleen, a black woman who acts as her stand-in mother, flee the dubious charms of Sylvan, South Carolina.

Lily is running away from her father, T-Ray, who seems to care more for his dog than his daughter. She is an articulate, socially awkward teenager whose memory of her mother comes from her fourth year, when her mother was killed in a domestic dispute. Lily suspects she may be partially responsible for her mother's death, and her guilty hunger for parental love is the emotional axis of the novel.

When Rosaleen gets arrested during her attempt to register to vote, Lily liberates her from the hospital where she has been incarcerated, and the fugitives make their way to Tiburon, South Carolina. There a trio of beekeeping sisters, May, June and August, whose self-sufficient business produces Black Madonna honey and a remarkable alternative religious community, takes them in. In the sitting room of the house is a wooden statue of a black Madonna, rescued from an old ship prow. A faded red heart is painted on her breast, and she extends her fisted arm "like she could straighten you out if necessary." Every evening the sisters kneel and pray before this figure, whom they call "Our Lady of Chains," creating their own liturgy and rituals from a blend of Catholicism, slave stories, African traditions, Judaism and any number of meditative traditions. Every year the household observes "Mary Day," and the legend of the chains is reenacted with music, dance and food.

Lily, a sometime Baptist, is captivated by the woman-centered practices of the "calendar sisters." She learns that traditionally the Madonna is sometimes associated with honey and beekeeping, and she discovers how the creative life of the hive becomes a symbol of the living heart of the great Mother. The hum of the hive is the "oldest sound there was. Souls flying away." Once August's mother heard the bees "singing the words to the Christmas story right out of the gospel of Luke." Indeed, the hidden throb of the hive swells from the place where "everything is sung to life." Like the life-force of bee-hum, Mary's spirit is "hidden everywhere. Her heart a cup of fierceness tucked among ordinary things," observes Lily.

Imperfectly integrated with her spiritual journey is Lily's account of racism, as Rosaleen prepares again to register to vote, and a neighbor is arrested on trumped-up assault charges during an altercation with local racists. Because Lily is so absorbed in her own emotional deprivation, these events finally take on secondary importance, and there is a tidiness to the novel's conclusion that does not do justice to the powerful forces that have been invoked. It's understandable why sister June might have been suspicious of this white girl who wants to listen into their lives and finally take up residence. It's still all about her at the end.

Despite the historical realism of the novel, there is a fairy-tale quality to it. Three wise black women rule a magical universe of sweetness and organic communion and offer their healing to weary travelers. Lily is an appealing narrator, but sometimes she seems much younger than 14 and sometimes much older. August is given to speeches telling us wise things we might better have seen than heard, and I found Mary's identity as the mother of sorrows unconvincing.

But these are minor criticisms. Though adults will find The Secret Life of Bees a satisfying read, the clarity of the novel's prose will make it appealing to a younger audience as well. I'll be passing it on to my middle-school daughter for its warm invitation to think about mother love and forgiveness.

Source: Anne-Janine Morey, "The Secret Life of Bees," in Christian Century, Vol. 120, No. 4, February 22, 2003, pp. 68-70.

Heidi Schlumpf

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Heide Schlumpf

In the following excerpt, Kidd discusses the religious symbolism of the Black Madonna and the theme of racism in the novel.

Sue Monk Kidd was happily writing inspirational essays for Christian magazines, driving carpool for her two kids, and generally being a good Southern Baptist wife and mother when she found herself in the midst of a feminist awakening.

That spiritual journey led her to join the Episcopal Church and affected nearly every aspect of her life, including her writing. But she could have never imagined where she would end up—on the bestseller list.

After chronicling her transformation in two spiritual memoirs—When the Heart Waits (1990) and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996), both by HarpersSanFrancisco—she turned to her first love: fiction.

Her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, published last year by Viking, has sold more than 1 million copies and been on the bestseller list for the better part of a year. Although ostensibly about a young girl's coming of age in the South in the 1960s, it also has been called "one of the more interesting books about Mary" by Publishers Weekly.

So do you believe God is a woman?

My understanding of the divine is that God is neither male nor female. I believe that God is beyond gender. As theologian Sallie McFague says, "God is she, he, and neither." I really believe that is true.

There is no image that creates an adequate picture of God, but we have to have a way to speak about God, and in order to do that, we have to use images and forms and symbols and metaphor and language. The crux of it is we want these images and forms and symbols to be inclusive. Religion has mostly told us that there was only one form or one image, and that is male, so we've had a rather limited picture of God.

It's very important, as August pointed out, for us to understand that the image of God can be in a feminine form, too, or a feminine symbol. When that happens, women are able to wake up in profound ways to their own spiritual depths.

It's a pivotal thing for a woman, psychologically and spiritually. They often are able to break free of a lot of silence, dependence, even self-hating. I have seen this, and it is true in my own life. It has profound and pervasive implications for women and for little girls.

As a Protestant, how did you become so close to Mary?

Mary had been left out of my experience completely. When Lily in the novel says, "We didn't allow Mary in our church except Christmas," that was really Sue speaking, and that was true of my experience. I had no relationship really with Mary other than this sort of Christmas figure that appeared now and then.

When I had my own feminist spiritual awakening, as I describe in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I went on a quest for images of the divine feminine. Mary wasn't one of the first images I found. But then I began to wonder about the Christian tradition, because my roots there are deep and important. So I looked at the threads of the sacred feminine in our tradition. Sometimes I wish they were stronger, but they're there.

I first discovered icons of the Black Madonna at a Greek Orthodox convent in Greece, and later at a Benedictine monastery in Switzerland, where this very dark-skinned Black Madonna was enthroned and they sang "Salve Regina" to her. I saw in their faces how this symbol functioned within the Catholic Church, how it kept alive this enormously important feminine aspect within religion.

Then I began to cultivate my own relationship with the Black Madonna and with Mary in general. I began to read about her, put icons of Mary in my study, in my prayer room. I bought a rosary. As a Protestant, it was really quite new. I was sort of a blank slate, because I didn't have all this background with Mary. I saw her as carrying such a fierce independence, almost a dissidence, about her.

Of course, that is not how most Catholics see Mary. They have experienced a very white madonna.

Yes, a lot of Mary's independence has been whitewashed in the white Mary. She got herself tamed, and that was not particularly helpful for a lot of women in the church. The Black Madonna is a whole other story.

Her darkness has great power in it. She becomes a flashpoint for independent spirit, for women conjuring up their own strength and their own power, being their own authority. Which is why in the novel the masthead Black Madonna has her fist balled up. I didn't mean that as an image or symbol of aggression; I meant it as an image that could reflect this great sense of dignity and empowerment and authority that the Black Madonna has.

She also has a subversive streak in her, which I resonate with. Yes, I'm a Christian, but I'm pretty much a dissident sort of Christian in a lot of ways. The Black Madonna is not submissive. You rarely will see her with the dipped chin, the lowered eyes, that kind of handmaiden look. In most other images she looks directly at you with a stare that rattles your bones. She has that powerful, fierce look about her. In many cases she was the Madonna of oppressed people.

I think we have a large frontier here, ways to begin to develop and understand powerful divine feminine images that come right out of our Christian tradition and see how they can begin to reflect what is missing to us.

You often describe yourself as a dissident. What does that mean to you?

In some ways I'm not particularly dissident at all. I was always the "good girl." But then I began to wake up to all kinds of things about Christianity, things that had been left out, the lack of inclusion. I was on the threshold of entering my 40s, and I began a long process of looking at my life as a woman and what it meant to be spiritual as a woman.

It was a profound awakening, and initially very tumultuous, as I describe in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. It was not a comfortable place for me to find myself, and yet I was compelled to follow my own truth. The journey can be long and painful but ultimately very freeing. Often we have to let go of so many things, and at the time it feels like loss. But in essence we're really stepping into our destiny.

I think dissidents and mystics are kind of like first cousins. A mystic is one who encounters and follows the divine voice within him or herself, even when it veers from tradition or the convention. I think a dissident does the same thing. Dissidents listen to the dictates of their own conscience. A dissident is one who must come to know what his or her truth is, which is really difficult, and then have the courage to stand by that truth and voice that truth, sometimes even in the face of enormous backlash.

Do you think things have improved since the '60s?

We have come a long way since 1964. At the same time, we have so much farther to go. We still have not figured this out the way we need to, but we have made strides. One thing we need are new images, images of unity and inclusion. As a human family we have to expand our hearts.

That's why I put the heart on the Black Madonna in the novel and had the characters come and touch it. What I was suggesting is that there is a wisdom in the heart of the Black Madonna and we must make contact with this or we are not going to survive. I think it's urgent that we begin to widen out our hearts and become more compassionate.

You have written two books of spiritual memoir. Now that you're written a novel, how do you feel about memoir?

I want to write another memoir. In my spiritual journey I need to give voice to what's going on in my soul. Sometimes I wish that wasn't so because it makes me feel very vulnerable and exposed, and that's not exactly comfortable. I'm an introverted, contemplative person who loves her solitude, but I have this really strong soulful compulsion to write about my spiritual experience. So many things I've experienced become somehow finished for me when I'm able to write them in a memoir.

It sounds so selfish to be focusing on your own experiences in writing, poring over them and dissecting them. But I found it so freeing. It helps us transcend our experience; it frees us from the ego in a strange way. I guess it is a paradox.

Is that why spiritual memoir has become such a popular genre these days?

Yes. People really respond to it. We want to read other people's experience in order to understand our own. And writers are writing it to understand it in order to step beyond it.

There are common themes in both your fiction and your nonfiction. Is that intentional?

I think I really am at heart a fiction writer who took a side trip with my non-fiction writing for a while. I'm sure I will write other nonfiction books, but at my core I'm a fiction writer. And as a fiction writer, I must tell a true story that comes out of my own depths, my own unconscious. It won't be factually true, but true to life, true to the deep human pathos we all experience and also the kind of overcoming and healing that we can experience.

I didn't set out to include themes from my nonfiction in my fiction. I don't think we should set up a social agenda for fiction writing and then try to write a story to make a point. That was never in my mind. But if you write your most authentic story—what you're put here to tell—it does weave together your own experiences and ideas. It's just a natural process.

I'm a spiritual person. My orientation to the world is very spiritual. So if I write authentically it's going to reflect my own spiritual orientation and view. As a person with a spiritual slant, I don't just want to mirror a society or culture that is lost and filled with hopelessness. There are enough books about that. I think writers can reflect the reality of the world we live in, but we can go beyond that and also say there is hope, and there is transformation, and there is this transcendent power of love that can change our lives.

Source: Heidi Schlumpf, "All Abuzz about the Black Madonna: An Interview with Sue Monk Kidd," in U.S. Catholic, Vol. 68, No. 11, November 2003, pp. 26-30.

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Critical Overview