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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What is Lily's quest about her mother in "The Secret Life of Bees"?

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In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily Owens transforms from a self-conscious, lost girl to a strong, capable young woman during her journey to learn the truth about her mother who died when she was four years old. At the beginning of her journey, she lives with her abusive...

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father and remembers very little of her mother. She clings to the belief that her mom loved her and had no intention of abandoning her, even though her father tells her differently. At the age of 14 she runs away in search for answers.

There is nothing but mystery in the world ... and we don't even know it.

Her journey takes her to the doorstep of the house where her mom’s childhood maid, August Boatwright, lives. August invites her to stay and Lily slowly begins to open up. Eventually, she learns that her mom did stay with August for a time after she was born; however, she did not bring Lily with her. The realization that her mom left her behind is very painful and challenges her to grow and mature as she faces a new truth.

Knowing can be a curse on a person's life. I'd traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn't know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can't ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier or not, the truth is yours now.

With a better understanding of her relationship with her mother, Lily can accept this loss and move on. As her journey comes to an end, she discovers in August the love and support she so desperately needed from her mom. August steps in to become a mother-figure in Lily’s life.

You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do.

Lily’s quest does not end as she originally hoped, but through the process she finds exactly what she has been searching for.

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Lily has lived her life never knowing her mother or having a motherly influence. This has made her feel a huge hole in her life, not knowing or understanding what happened to her mother, and if her mother even loved her. She keeps a tin box of her mother’s possessions, and grieves by holding the objects and dreaming about her mother. Her one hope is that her mother loved her. T. Ray, however, does what he can to crush that thought, and it devastates Lily. Eventually, the search for her mother leads her to another mother figure in August and, more figuratively, in the Mary of Chains. Being loved and loving others in return eventually remedies Lily’s internal conflict.

Once Lily learns the truth about her mother from August, she could never go back,“Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier” (255). It is hard for Lily to know the truth, which isn’t a perfect picture. Lily’s mother had her problems, and even left Lily for a time, but the one saving grace is that Deborah did return for Lily, which allows Lily to believe that she did love her. Lily learns, with August’s help, that even though she doesn’t have a mother, she can look inside herself to find the mother inside herself. Lily feels unlovable and broken, but August tells her that the idea of Mother, Our Lady, is not a statue, she’s something that is inside every person,

“She’s something inside of you…You have to find the mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside…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” (288).

Everyone has the power inside themselves to be a strong person and survive life, that love is the driving force inside your heart, that even if you don’t have children or don’t have a mother, you have the power to be your own mother or be a mother to others. It’s really all about love,

“Whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the one purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love – but to persist in love” (page 289).

Lily’s quest to find her mother results in her finding not only about her own biological mother, Deborah, but also finding other mother figures – August, the Virgin Mary, and even the strength inside of herself. 

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Lily's quest to find out about her mother is really what makes this book "take off," isn't it?  As we begin the book, we see that there is some mystery about Lily's mother, and none of the people around Lily will tell her much of anything about Deborah. All Lily knows is that she is responsible for her mother's death.

Now, imagine what it would be like to not know anything about your mother except that you had killed her.  Wouldn't you want to know what kind of person she was, what kind of songs she sang to you, what kind of clothes she wore? Lily is like everyone else in the world, needing a mother's love, and her quest is really to rediscover her mother's love. 

Of course, no matter what Lily discovers in the story, her mother will still be gone.  So another aspect of Lily's quest is to find someone else to mother her. Rosaleen tries to do this, and then, as they go on their journey together, they both discover August, who seems pretty good at mothering everyone. The queen bee acts a symbol of the mother we all need, and so does the "Black Mary" figurehead. 

There is so much to say about this quest, and I know there are many sections in the book that you can use to support some good ideas on this subject. 

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How does Lily try to find out information about her mother in The Secret Life of Bees? 

All that Lily had to remind her of her mother was a picture of her, a pair of white gloves, and a wooden framed picture. In that picture there was a dark-skinned woman who was labelled the Black Madonna. Beneath the picture was the location, Tiburion, SC. When Rosaleen and Lily escaped from the jail, Lily had a notion to go there and try to find out about her mother. When they arrive in the small town, Lily goes into a small store to buy food and drink. There she sees jars of honey with the Black Madonna label. The storekeeper directs her to the Boatwrights' home, where the honey is made. As Lily and Rosaleen settle into the Boatwright household, Lily learns from bits and pieces of information that her mother had once stayed there herself.

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How does Lily's quest to find out about her mother turn into a quest to discover her inner self in The Secret Life of Bees?

Lily's mother died when Lily was only four or five. She has flashbacks to the night her mother was shot, and, at times, she sees herself holding the gun. Other times, either her mother or her father is holding the gun. As Lily enters adolescence with no close motherly figure in her life, her inner turmoil reaches a turning point. Her father will not speak to Lily of the events surrounding her mom's death. As a matter of fact, her father speaks to her rarely, and only then to threaten punishment or criticize. After Lily runs away with Rosaleen, her father's housekeeper, she seeks to find the source of Black Madonna honey, the only reference she has to her mother's past. After finding the beekeepers the honey refers to, Lily lives in a household of women, each with their own personal secrets. Lily learns to understand the sorrows of others and begins to reconcile the different perspectives the night her mother died. She learns to love Zach, and begins to have insights into her father's persona, learning to forgive and accept other's short-comings.

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