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The Secret Life of Bees

by Sue Monk Kidd

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Can you provide examples of the theme of freedom in The Secret Life of Bees?

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In The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd presents a picture of the black woman that completely turns the stereotype upside down, displaying strong, independent, and united women in a time scarred with racial and gender inferiority on virtually all levels.

Contrary to the widely accepted belief that a woman needs a man to protect and provide for her in order to survive, Monk Kidd writes of sisters who are all unmarried for various reasons. August perhaps illustrates this the most because she doesn’t marry out of "necessity" and instead makes a conscious decision that only affects herself. She tells Lily,

I decided against marrying all together. There were enough restrictions in my life without someone expecting me to wait on him hand and foot. Not that I’m against marrying, Lily. I’m just against how it’s set up . . . I just love freedom more.

August recognizes the flaws within the marriage system, so instead of accepting her fate and falling into the cycle, she protests the institution by not participating at all and, in turn, keeping power over her own self, money, property, and thoughts.

June also resists the idea of marriage to Neil because she knows what it’s like to get her heart broken. However, Neil is described as chasing her diligently even though June refuses his proposal every time he asks. May tells Lily, “He has tried every which way to get June to marry him, but she won’t do it. Me and August can’t convince her either.” June's refusal is shocking and hard to understand for her peers because women aren't taught to marry for love; they are advised to marry for survival. June doesn't need Neil for survival, though. She is able to provide for herself outside the authority of a husband, so she feels no need to wed somebody she doesn't love.

August and the Boatwright sisters consistently demonstrate that perceptions of black women's worth and intelligence are shifting as time, people, and writers evolve. May and August are both college-educated and work as teachers, a respectable position for anybody to hold. They are independent of men and the government, something almost completely unheard of.

Not only are they autonomous black women running a business and household, but they are also women who employ men. August and her honey business even gain the respect of white men who sell her honey in their stores.

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Freedom is a theme that winds throughout Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. While some characters face a literal and physical imprisonment, others deal with a more figurative lack of freedom that stems from familial issues.

Both Rosaleen and Zach faced actual imprisonments; notably, since the novel is set in the Civil Rights era, both characters are also African American. Rosaleen, while only confined for a short period of time thanks to Lily's hospital jail-break, was also severely beaten. Zach on the other hand was physically unharmed but confined for a greater amount of time. The respective imprisonments each left significant and lasting impacts on the two characters. Rosaleen did not become afraid of registering to vote, the very act that led to her imprisonment in the first place, and persevered to proudly register towards the end of the novel. Zach also only grew stronger in his desire to become a lawyer; while the spark of injustice did create new darker, angry undertones to his personality, he did not lose his compassion and zeal.

Contrastingly, Lily faced a more figurative imprisonment both in her family life with T-Ray and the confines of her own mind with conflicting thoughts about her mother. The first kind imprisonment with T-Ray, while inarguably abusive and harmful, cannot fully be likened to Rosaleen's and Zach's lack of freedom because she was not actually locked away anywhere; she still went to school, worked, read, had hobbies, was regularly fed, etc. Even after her initial running away, she was still haunted by, and therefore confined by, the thought of T-Ray finding her. She was only "released" from his hold at the conclusion of the novel when he left her in peace with the Boatwrights. Lily's second lack of freedom existed in her own mind. At times she was consumed with a mixture of loathing, love, misunderstanding, and every emotion in between regarding her mother's abandonment of her. Through the healing of time and gentle support from those around her, Lily eventually overcame her emotional and immature reactions to fulfill the "coming of age" theme of the novel. She accepted what she could not change and understood that her mother loved her and would never have caused her intentional harm.

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