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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The Secret Life of Bees Themes

The three main themes in The Secret Life of Bees are race relations, the search for the mother, and the importance of ritual.

  • Race Relations: The novel is set in the months following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and much of the action is seen through the prism of race.
  • Search for the Mother: Lily creates an elaborate fantasy about her mother, whom she imagines she will see one day in heaven.
  • The Importance of Ritual: The characters use rituals to stay connected with others as well as with the past.

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Race Relations

In South Carolina in 1964, people of different races lived in strictly separate worlds. The Secret Life of Bees is set in the months following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July of that year; appropriately for that summer, much of the novel is seen through the prism of race. Rosaleen's troubles begin when she is harassed by racists on her way to register to vote, and social conventions of the segregated community keep Zach and Lily from acting on their affection for each other. Our Lady of Chains gets her name because the chains of slavery were unable to hold her. Lily initially is too self-conscious of her whiteness to touch the statue of Our Lady and feels she can only do so secretly. Sue Monk Kidd offers a range of responses to issues of race among her characters. Lily decides that "everybody being colorless together" would be the ideal situation. Zach, on the other hand, after he is arbitrarily arrested and held for days by the racist local police, becomes more dedicated to fighting racial injustice. April Boatwright killed herself after years of depression that began when she was not allowed to eat ice cream in a whites-only establishment, and her twin sister, May, kills herself in the wake of Zach's racially motivated arrest. By the end of the novel, race relations are changing in positive, individual ways. Rosaleen eventually registers to vote, and Zach leads the way in integrating Tiburon's formerly segregated high school.

Search for the Mother

For a child, the loss of a mother is one of the most profound of traumas. If that child has an uncaring father and no other maternal figures, the damage is compounded. In the novel, Lily's solution is creating an elaborate fantasy about her mother, whom she imagines she will see one day in heaven. She runs away to Tiburon and finds August Boatwright because of the need to fill an emptiness within her—a "motherless place." August and her sisters are part of a small group of worshipers called the Daughters of Mary, who consider their spiritual mother to be Our Lady of Chains. As a kind of controlling maternal presence, she is also symbolized in the novel by the queen bee, mother of the entire hive, who gives the hive purpose. Lily blossoms under the maternal care of August, who also teaches her that the divine mother, the Virgin Mary, is accessible everywhere, most especially inside her own heart.

The Natural World

The natural world holds much symbolic and actual importance for the characters in Kidd's novel. Rosaleen and Lily bathe in a river and sleep under the stars before they reach the Boatwright household, where August's beekeeping has made her especially acute to the rhythms and secrets of nature. Each chapter of the novel begins with a quotation from a nonfiction work on bees and beekeeping that comments on the action that follows. The honey the bees produce is a vital part of life for the Boatwrights, who use it for its healthful properties, sell it for their livelihood, and include it in the religious rituals of the Daughters of Mary. The bees also provide August and Lily with life lessons about the roles people play in society and how, as a queen bee gives life to her hive, so motherhood brings life and purpose to society. Even the names of the Boatwright sisters, May, June, and August, seem to suggest a connection to the natural world and its seasonal changes as well as a love for the fertility of nature associated with warm weather.

Community of Women

Through the Daughters of Mary, Kidd depicts a feminist, matriarchal alternative to the racist white male religious and civil authorities who otherwise dominate the town of Tiburon. The Boatwrights and the other Daughters worship a divine feminine presence, the Virgin Mary. The Virrgin's nurturing qualities stand in sharp contrast to Brother Gerald, the Baptist preacher at the church in Sylvan. The Daughters' worship revolves around shared meals and communally treasured rituals. By the end of the novel, Rosaleen and Lily both have found a place for themselves in this mostly female community, which is guided by principles of strength and grace—as when August and the Daughters stand up to T. Ray when he comes to claim Lily, firmly but without threats or violence.

The Importance of Ritual

The characters in Kidd's novel use rituals to stay connected with others as well as with the past. Early in the novel, Lily attaches ritual importance to the few items of her mother's that she possesses. She keeps them buried in a particular spot outside and looks at them only in secret. She has a pair of gloves that she wears to imagine what her mother must have been like. May Boatwright has developed her own ritual to cope with the anxiety she feels over the misfortunes of others. She writes a prayer for the suffering party on a slip of paper and inserts the paper in a wailing wall she constructed behind the Boatwright house. After May dies, Lily takes over maintaining the wall.

The most important rituals in the novel are those pertaining to Our Lady of Chains. When August tells the story of Our Lady, it is clear that the other Daughters have heard the story many times. On their annual celebration of Mary Day, they follow a ritual of chaining the statue, then anointing it with honey. They also share a Communion using honey cakes. The rituals of Our Lady connect the Daughters to the first slaves who drew strength from her, as well as the generations who have passed before them. For August, particularly, they connect her to the mother and grandmother from whom she learned the rituals.

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Chapter Summaries