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

The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Book Clubs and Inspirational Literature

Book clubs have grown in popularity in the twenty-first century thanks to high-profile reading projects such as Oprah Winfrey's televised monthly club and promotion by publishers and bookstores. Previously unknown authors have found themselves propelled up the bestseller lists through book-club promotion. The Secret Life of Bees received a similar boost after its publication in 2002 when it was selected as the Good Morning America "Read This!" book for October of that year. In 2003, the Penguin paperback edition of the novel was published in a format friendly to book clubs, with an author interview and questions for discussion appended to the end.

Sue Monk Kidd's novel was well poised for success as a book-club favorite because of its focus on issues of interest to women readers, the majority of book-club participants. Its predominantly female cast of characters, small-town setting, and themes of motherhood and female friendship link it to other novels popular with reading groups, by authors such as Toni Morrison and Rebecca Wells. The book deals with race, a perennial subject of interest, but through the eyes of its white protagonist, perhaps making the issue more accessible to a broader audience.

The Secret Life of Bees also appeared at a time when literature explicitly about spiritual matters was viewed with renewed interest—four months after September 11, 2001, as Laura T. Ryan points out in her article on Kidd in the Syracuse Post-Standard. Kidd's novel is very much in the spirit of her earlier inspirational writing, with her main character learning to reconnect her soul to an inner feminine presence. Its success among book clubs and its inspirational message seemingly combined to give the novel enormous mainstream appeal.

Civil Rights–Era South

The South in the 1960s is the setting for a large number of plays, movies, novels, and stories. Southern writers who are old enough to have lived through that era have frequently attempted to come to terms with their experiences of racism and the progress and disappointments of the civil rights movement from both sides of the color line. The Secret Life of Bees is set specifically during the immediate aftermath of the signing of Civil Rights Act in July 1964, a time marked by often brutal, racially motivated violence in the South, which is also alluded to in the novel. Lily finds in May Boatwright's wailing wall a slip of paper that says "Birmingham, Sept 15, four little angels dead," a reference to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama the previous year, in which four girls were killed.

The Civil Rights Act put the force of federal law behind the constitutional rights of African Americans, particularly with respect to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and hotels. Voter-registration rallies such as the one Rosaleen plans to attend in the novel were common after state laws set up to make it difficult for black people to vote were struck down. Tens of thousands of black South Carolinians registered to vote in the first half of the 1960s.

Still, for some African Americans, social progress did not come quickly enough. Young black men such as Zach Taylor in Kidd's novel were increasingly drawn to more-militant groups such as Malcolm X's Organization of Afro-American Unity, which he founded in 1964. Zach becomes preoccupied with the activities of such groups after his arrest.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

Religious Symbolism

In The Secret Life of Bees , Lily Owens is introduced to a group of women who formed a religious faith founded on the perseverance of their slave ancestors and a black wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. The symbols of their religion—not just...

(This entire section contains 915 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

the Madonna, but the honey from August's hives and the chains that represent a resistance to slavery—are important to them and to the novel as a whole. Lily has actually been aware of the Black Madonna since her childhood. One of the few possessions she has to associate with her mother, who died when Lily was four years old, is an icon—a picture of a dark-skinned Mary glued to a small wooden plaque. As she comes to learn from August Boatwright, that image of Mary is only one of many dark-skinned representations of her around the world. Late in the novel, Lily looks at a book filled with these Black Madonnas and sees that the Archangel Gabriel is frequently pictured as presenting a lily to Mary to symbolize the coming birth of Jesus. Lily's name is a religious symbol itself. This realization on her part goes along with her growing sense of self-worth.

Nature Symbolism

Nature symbolism is an important feature of The Secret Life of Bees, most obviously in the form of the bees August Boatwright keeps. Much of August's understanding of life comes from the years she has spent tending to and observing the bees. She shows Lily that the bees have a "secret life," that each bee has a purpose in the functioning of the hive, and that without a queen bee—the "mother of thousands," as August says—the rest of the hive loses its purpose. Lily understands that what she learns about the bees can be applied to her own life. The honey the bees produce is also vital to the Boatwright household. They take it medicinally, shampoo and bathe in it, and use it for their religious rituals. The nature symbolism and religious imagery in the novel are inseparable. The bees, August explains, represent death and rebirth. Early Christians used drawings of bees to communicate in code with each other. The names of the Boatwright sisters themselves—August, May, and June—symbolize their closeness to nature and love of life, associated as they are with the warm, fertile months of the year (another sister, April, died as a teenager).

Coming-of-Age Novel

The coming-of-age novel has a rich history in Southern literature. The pains of adolescence and self-discovery that Lily undergoes are similar to those experienced by the young female main characters of other twentieth-century novels by Southern women, including Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and Carson McCullers's The Member of the Wedding (1946). (Those novels have other similarities to The Secret Life of Bees as well: To Kill a Mockingbird also explores racial intolerance in a small Southern town during the days of segregation, and the central relationship in The Member of the Wedding, between Frankie and her family's housekeeper, Berenice, is much like the relationship between Lily and Rosaleen.) In these coming-of-age novels, a girl makes the first awkward steps toward maturity and gains some wisdom about the world around her. Lily's path to maturity involves an acceptance of her conflicted feelings about the mother who abandoned her, and a spiritual awakening that allows her to discover the nurturing presence of the Black Madonna in herself. It also involves a tentative realization of her sexuality, in the form of her first romance with August's godson and beekeeping assistant, Zach Taylor. Zach's ambitions and the fact he is black and Lily is white lead them to promise each other that they will be together in a more tolerant future.


Storytelling is a vital part of Southern literature, dating back at least as far as Joel Chandler Harris's "Uncle Remus" stories and Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1883). For Southerners, storytelling can be a pastime, a folk art, and a way to pass down family histories. Kidd has said in interviews that one of her earliest inspirations as a writer growing up in Georgia was her father's knack for storytelling. In The Secret Life of Bees, August uses stories to teach Lily. In the story of Sister Beatrix, a nun who grows tired of the convent and runs away and returns years later, disappointed with life in the outside world, to find that the Virgin Mary has been filling in for her at the convent the entire time. August later tells Lily that she intended Sister Beatrix to represent Lily's mother, Deborah, and hoped Mary could fill in for her, providing Lily the mother figure she desperately desires. August also tells the story of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Chains, as a way of reaffirming the sense of community that the Daughters of Mary feel and reminding them of the courage of their slave ancestors. The statue, originally a ship's masthead discovered by a slave on a coastal plantation, became a source of comfort and strength to the other slaves, particularly when it shrugged off the chains the plantation owner attempts to use to lock it in the barn for fifty straight nights. August also tells Lily of the story of Aristaeus—the first beekeeper, according to Greek myth—whose bees were killed by the gods but then reborn in the body of a sacrificial bull. After that, August explains, people believed bees had the power over life and death.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

  • The Secret Life of Bees (2002) is available on audio cassette and audio CD in both abridged and unabridged versions. An audio version can also be downloaded from A movie adaptation of the book is forthcoming from Fox Searchlight.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on August 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308


Brown, Rosellen, "Honey Child," in the Women's Review of Books, Vol. 19, Issue 7, April 2002, p. 11.

Kidd, Sue Monk, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

――――――, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin, 2003.

Morey, Ann-Janine, "The Secret Life of Bees," in Christian Century, Vol. 120, Issue 4, pp. 68-70.

Ryan, Laura T., "A Dream No Longer Deferred," in the Syracuse Post-Standard, March 13, 2005, p. 4.

Simhon, Rachel, "Honey Is the Balm," Daily Telegraph (London), (February 23, 2002)

Zickefoose, Jarrod, "Alternate Worlds, Past Passions in These Coming-of-Age Stories," in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 17, 2001, p. J11.

Further Reading

Begg, Ean C. M., The Cult of the Black Virgin, Penguin, 1997.

Begg identifies some five hundred occurrences of Black Madonnas around the world. The author associates the dark-skinned Madonnas with paganism and Gnostic Christianity.

Flynn, Nick, Blind Huber, Greywolf, 2002.

Flynn's poetry collection is based around the life of Frenchman François Hubert, a seventeenth-century blind beekeeper, whose lifelong study of bees was responsible for much of the understanding of bees' behavior.

Johnson, Elizabeth A., She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Crossroad, 1992.

Johnson's collection is considered one of the best basic works on the subject. It explains many of the feminist underpinnings to Kidd's portrayal of Our Lady of Chains in the novel.

Moody, Anne, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Doubleday, 1968.

Moody's firsthand account of growing up as an African American in the segregated South and participating in civil-rights protests is a vivid depiction of events referred to in The Secret Life of Bees.

Tate, Linda, A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South, University of Georgia Press, 1994.

This survey of Southern women fiction writers since World War II helps put Kidd's novel into a context of the Southern novel in general.




Critical Essays