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The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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How is the theme of forgiveness portrayed in The Secret Life of Bees?

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Lily struggles with forgiveness throughout the book, but in the end, she realizes that she has been able to be loved and forgiven by the Daughters and August. In turn, she learns to forgive herself for her mother's death, T. Ray for his abusive nature, her mother for abandoning her, and everyone else in her life who has hurt or disappointed her.

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Forgiveness is a theme that runs deep in The Secret Life of Bees as Lily struggles to forgive herself, her father, and her mother.

From the opening pages, Lily is tormented with a memory of her mother that involves a gun. She is haunted by a nagging feeling that somehow her mother's death on this night is her fault, but since she was only four when her mother died, she has little information to go on. At the end of the book, T. Ray finally levels with her:

I could tell you I did it. That's what you wanna hear. I could tell you she did it to herself, but both ways I'd be lying. It was you who did it, Lily. You didn't mean it, but it was you. (chapter 14)

This is a heavy burden for a young girl to carry around, but by this point in the novel, the truth serves as a means of spiritual freedom instead of bondage. Lily realizes that in the place of her mother, she has been gifted with "more mothers than any eight girls off the street." She begins moving forward by both remembering her mother and forgiving herself for the accident.

Lily also struggles with her abusive father who both verbally and physically takes out his anger on her. She calls him T. Ray instead of any term of endearment because she notes that he's never acted like a "daddy" to her. T. Ray invents forms of torture for her to suffer for infractions (such as being outside after dark). In the final pages of the novel, Lily realizes that T. Ray has been struggling with his wife's death. When Lily tells him that her mother had stayed with August, he responds:

I looked for her everywhere I could think. And she was right here...she was right here. (chapter 14)

T. Ray then begins to transfer his feelings of loss and grief onto Lily, thinking that she is Deborah and telling her that she isn't going to leave him again. Lily begins to see the depth of pain that her mom's death has caused T. Ray and how she caused him much pain even before she died. She helps bring T. Ray back to reality in the present, and her feelings about all the loss he's suffered heals her feelings of resentment toward him. She hopes that when he leaves her with August, his intentions are to give her a better life, and she even notes that sometimes there is great power in imagination.

Lily also has to forgive her mother. Though she seeks a connection with her in various ways, both tangibly and intangibly, Lily must come to terms with the fact that her mother abandoned her before she died. She left Lily with T. Ray and went to live with August and her sisters, and Lily is greatly pained that her mother would leave her with her abusive father. The truth behind her mother's abandonment causes Lily great pain:

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. (chapter 12)

Yet Lily does find a way to both love her mother and accept her painful past. She finds a way to honor her mother's memory and spirit in living with August, and she forgives her for the pain she caused their family. Lily has lived much of her life devoid of love, and when she finds it with August and her sisters, she finds the strength of forgiveness as well.

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Lily's ability to forgive herself makes it easier for her to forgive others. It's telling that when T. Ray comes to the Boatwright house to take Lily back home with him, Lily actually apologizes to her father for running away. Given everything that's happened between them we might expect Lily to castigate T. Ray for his numerous shortcomings as a father.

But by this stage in the story, Lily has learned the power of forgiveness. She's looked deep into her own soul and recognized her own sinful nature; and she forgives herself for her sins. In turn, this has given her the ability to forgive the sins of others, no matter how unpleasant they may be. Lily's new-found capacity to forgive is a sign of strength, a sign of emotional maturity, and of just how far she's come in her own journey of self-discovery.

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A huge way in which forgiveness is a theme in Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees is that Lily, the main character, must forgive herself for accidentally killing her own mother when she was a small child. Her mother, Deborah, had left her abusive husband T. Ray, but she had come back for Lily. In a fight between Deborah and T. Ray, a gun somehow ended up on the floor near Lily, who was only four years old at the time. Lily does not exactly remember how things happened, but she accidentally pulled the trigger, and Deborah was shot.  

Lily carries a heavy guilt with her, as well as a deep longing for some sort of connection to her mother. It is Lily's box full of her mother's possessions that helps her and Rosaleen find the Boatwright sisters, who help her create a new life for herself and learn more about who her mother was. 

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In The Secret Life of Bees how are the issues of responsibility and forgiveness explored? 

Hello, this is a great question. 

The issue of responsibility is explored in the relationships between the characters in the story.  Who is responsible for whom in this story? How about Lily and Rosaleen? How does Lily show she is responsible for Rosaleen? How does the story show how Rosaleen is responsible for Lily? What about August and her responsibilities for her sisters or for Lily and Rosaleen? Did Deborah fulfill her responsibilities to her family?  Why or why not? Were the sisters of Mary responsible for one another? You could probably pick any two characters in the book to discuss the issue of responsibility. 

On a larger scale, there is the idea that white people might have some responsibility for what had been done to African-American people in the past.  Do any of the African-Americans in the story have any responibility for their behavior toward white people?  What is June's response to Lily? 

The issue of forgiveness is important in the book in many ways.  You might notice that no one in the story can really heal or move on until he or she forgives.  As with responsibility, you can pair many sets of characters and discuss forgiveness. Lily and her mother are one example.  Who does June have to forgive before she can marry Neil?  Does Rosaleen carry some resentments?  T. Ray is someone who may not have forgiven his wife, and this prevents him from being a fully realized human being.

As you can see, these are important themes in this story, and if you can think about just a few of the questions I have posed, you will be off to a good start. 

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In the novel The Secret Life of Bees, how are the issues of responsibility and forgiving explored?

Clearly these two issues are explored through the central character of Lily and her relationship with her mother, though clearly they are issues that impact a number of other characters as well. Lily throughout the novel struggles with the guilt of having killed her mother and trying to accept responsibility for that. At the same time, Lily's mother showed herself to be subject to a moment of irresponsibility when she ran away without her daughter. As a result fo these two acts, Lily in the novel has to journey towards forgiving herself and forgiving her mother. It is interesting when August gives her her mother's hairbrush with her mother's hair still in it that Lily recognises that in spite of her feelings of hate towards her mother, she cannot dispense with her entirely:

It had grown out of her head and now perched there like a thought she had left behind on the brush. I knew then that no matter how hard you tried, no matter how many jars of honey you threw, no matter how much you thought you could leave your mother behind, she would never disappear from the tender places in you.

We see here that Lily is moving towards acceptance of responsibility and forgiveness in terms of her own act and her mother's act of abandoning her. Lastly, of course Lily is able to achieve forgiveness, both managing to forgive herself and her mother, as she herself comes to realise at the end of the story:

In the photograph by my bed my mother is perpetually smiling at me. I guess I have forgiven us both, although sometimes in the night my dreams will take me back to the sadness, and I have to wake up and forgive us again.

The novel thus points towards forgiveness and responsibility as being part of the journey of life. It is interesting that this quote indicates that forgiveness is something that needs to be re-enacted again and again, indicating the continual struggles of emotions and feelings that need to be resolved.

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