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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Key Quotes Establishing Setting and Themes in "The Secret Life of Bees"


Key quotes in "The Secret Life of Bees" that establish setting and themes include: "People can start out one way, and by the time life gets through with them they end up completely different," highlighting transformation, and "The world will give you that once in a while, a brief time out; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life," illustrating moments of respite in hardship.

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What quotes establish the setting of The Secret Life of Bees?

When 14-year-old Lily Owens runs away from home and her abusive father, she finds solace in small town Tiburon, South Carolina where her deceased mother had ties. The moment she steps up to the pink house, her transformation begins through the strong relationships she builds with the Boatwright sisters.

In chapter three, author Sue Monk Kidd compares Lily’s home town of Sylvan, South Carolina to Tiburon, South Carolina:

Tiburon was a place like Sylvan, minus the peaches. In front of the domed courthouse someone had stuck a Confederate flag in the mouth of their public cannon. South Carolina was Dixie first, America second. You could not get the pride of Fort Sumter out of us if you tried.

As the story unfolds in the deep South during the Civil Rights Movement of 1964 and racial unrest, Monk Kidd reveals how the setting influences Lily’s underling beliefs regarding the darker color of August’s skin:

Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured, and I was surprised by this. That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me.

During her time at the Boatwright’s house, she begins to understand herself, both the good and bad. Through the compassion and support of the Boatwright sisters, she learns that she has value and finds the strength to stand up to her father.

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What quotes establish the setting of The Secret Life of Bees?

One of the most important settings in the novel is of course the house of August and her sisters, which Lily finally reaches at the beginning of Chapter Four of this novel. This is of course the central setting of the novel, because once she reaches this house, Lily does not travel any further, and the major revelations that she experiences about her own identity and her relationship with her mother happen at this location, in addition to other important plot elements such as the suicide of May. Consider how the house is presented to us at the beginning of this chapter:

The woman moved along a row of white boxes that bordered the woods beside the pink house, a house so pink it remained a scorched shock on the back of my eyelids after I looked away. She was tall, dressed in white, wearing a pith helmet with veils that floated across her face, settled around her shoulders, and trailed down her back. She looked like an African princess.

We have already been given the location of the house in the previous chapter, when Lily sees the Black Madonna on the jars of honey, and is told by the store owner that it is on the corner of Main Street and the highway to Florence. The strong, vivid pink of the house made it incredibly easy to find.

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How do the quotes at the beginning of each chapter of The Secret Life of Bees relate to the corresponding chapter?

Excellent question. The quotes that introduce each chapter take the form of non-fiction quotes relating to the scientific study of bees and their lives. Bees are of course an ever-present reality in the novel, but what is interesting is how the quotes relate bees and their activity to the lives of the characters. For example, the quote introducing Chapter Eight refers to the necessity of bees having companionship and how honeybees "soon die" if they are isolated from other bees and lack companionship and support. This chapter includes Lily's first introduction to the bees and the way that August tells her to "send them love."

The resulting swarm of bees that crowd around Lily triggers a kind of spiritual reverie. As she reflects back on it, note how Lily thinks about what happens:

I knew that these bees were not a plague at all. It felt like the queen's attendants were out her in a frenzy of love, caressing me in a thousand places. Look whose here, it's Lily. She is so weary and lost. Come on, bee sisters. I was the stamen in the middle of a twirling flower. The center of all their comforting.

Lily, in spite of her attempts to run away from companionship, is forced to realise that she needs the same companionship and support that bees themselves need, and finds it in this chapter through a mystical union with the bees, just as she is finding it in a more practical nature through her friendship with August and the love that August shows her. Thus we can see from this example that the quotes that begin each chapter implicitly relate to the action of that chapter and the characters in it.

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In The Secret Life of Bees, what are some significant quotes that I should pay attention to?

When reading and analyzing a novel, almost anything can be considered significant (or important), it just depends on the context you are exploring.

Instead of giving you a list of random quotes and page numbers, let me give you some guidelines for determining "significant quotes" when it comes to any novel.  First, you can study novels for certain themes, analyze different characters, or explore different elements of the author's style.  In order to find specific quotes to fit any of these things, you must read with them in mind.

Another way to explore significant quotes is through a more personal approach.  While reading, if a sentence or paragraph sticks out to you, write it down and explain why.  Perhaps you find yourself personally connecting to it for one reason or another.  Or, perhaps it reminds you of something you've seen or read before.  Many teachers will consider "significance" in the form of personal connections to be valid in the classroom.

Finally, in The Secret Life of Bees, each chapter opens with a quote.  These chapter headings are significant in themselves in many ways.  Not only do they serve to foreshadow events in the chapter but they provide parallel connections between the plot and the scientific order of the life of bees.  These are a style devise used by the author to give a deeper sense of purpose to the book as a whole.

The link provided below will explain various themes of the novel, which would be a great place to start when searching for significant/relevant quotes.

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What quotes establish the setting of The Secret Life of Bees?

The climax of this great novel for me comes in Chapter 12, which is when Lily and August finally have a long-overdue conversation about Lily's mother, Deborah, and how August knew her. Of course, looking at the novel as a whole, it is clear that Lily has been on a journey throughout the novel, looking for a mother-figure, escape and a confessor. In August, she has found all fo these things and now finally Lily is ready to hear about the truth regarding her mother and what she did. August in the conversation that she has with Lily both listens and tells her the painful truth. The way that this is the climax of the novel is indicated by a number of statements. First of all, when she walks up to August's room, she ignores the Daughters, telling the reader that:

I hated to be rude, but I found I couldn't answer, couldn't speak a word of idle talk. I wanted to know about my mother. I didn't care about anything else.

The climax is indicated by Lily's burning desire for knowledge about her mother. Having spent so long in the novel avoiding the truth and knowledge concerning Deborah, the climax is indicated by Lily's willingness to discover the truth.

Secondly, the climax is indicated by Lily's feelings when August enters her room. Her initial response foreshadows the way that the truth will hurt Lily:

I had a desire to bolt past her through the door, dive out the window. You don't have to do this, I told myself, but the wanting rose up. I had to know.

Again, the desire to find out once and for all is evident, but at the same time this is coupled with the fear of what this discovery might bring with it. These two quotes serve to signal to the reader that the climax is about to occur.

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What quotes from "The Secret Life of Bees" indicate the effect of the setting?

In order to choose quotations to "answer" the prompt, you must complete that sentence.  What kind of effects do you see in the setting of the story?  Remember, setting is time and place, so you can explore the effects of the story happening in that particular time and that particular place. Once you do that, you can support the completed statement with a quote or two from the book.

Let me give you an example.  In Chapter Four, Lily describes her first time in the honey house, big room filled with strange honey-making machines - big tanks, gas burners, troughs, levers, white boxes, and racks piled with waxy honeycombs.  My nostrils nearly drowned in the scent of sweetness (75).

The effect of the setting on me is that the people in this household are like the worker bees, laboring industriously, and finding sweetness in what they do.  That's always how the honey house strikes me.

What kind of effects do you see in the time and places described in the book?  There is that wonderful description of the Boatwrights' "parlor" when Lily first enters the house. There is May's wall.  There is T. Ray's house. What effect does that have on the reader?  Decide what setting you wish to use to complete the prompt, and then add some quotations that support the effect.

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What quotes reveal the main themes in The Secret Life of Bees from chapters 1-5?

The first five chapters introduce themes that are carried throughout the book. Themes such as love and belonging, importance of a mother, sense of identity/self, and racism are prevalent throughout the novel. The first five chapters focus on Lily’s life at home with T. Ray, in an abusive and emotionally neglectful household. T. Ray punishes Lily by making her kneel on grits, which cut into her knees, but mostly, it is his lack of affection that hurts her most:

It was the sorrow for the sound of his fork scraping the plate, the way it swelled in the distance between us, how I was not even in the room (pg 22).

Lily is motherless, having lost her mother at a young age in an accident with a handgun. Lily remembers holding the gun as a toddler, and it going off. She believes that she was responsible for her mother’s death, and her death left behind such a huge gaping hole in Lily’s life, saying,

“This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away” (pg 8).

Lily is also discovering herself throughout the novel. In the first five chapters, Lily is lost. She doesn’t know who she is or who she wants to be, she only knows that she yearns for her mother and is scared of her father. Lily doesn’t know how she feels about herself, she says, “I loved myself and I hated myself” (71).  

There is also the prevailing theme of racism, as evidenced by the scene in the town of Sylvan. Lily and Rosaleen are accosted by white men giving Rosaleen a hard time by insulting her and harassing her for wanting to register to vote. This results in Rosaleen’s arrest after she pours her snuff juice on the men’s shoes. Lily herself is racist, without even meaning to be. Rosaleen calls her on it, saying,

“…I’m supposed to follow you like a pet dog. You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb n****r you gonna save” (53).

Lily at times acts superior to Rosaleen, bossing her around and taking charge, even though Rosaleen is the adult. 

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