As a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, The Secret Life of Bees presents the development and maturation of one central character, Lily Owens. Lily’s voice makes up the central consciousness of the novel. Because she narrates the work, readers use Lily’s perceptions to develop their own interpretations. Through Lily, we learn about the racism, love, and community within the worlds of Tiburon and Sylvan, South Carolina; through her, we learn about strong women, such as August Boatwright and Rosaleen, and the importance of developing female-centric communities. Developing an understanding of Lily is central to understanding The Secret Life of Bees, because Lily’s story is the story of the novel: told by her and about her. Thus, Lily is both the protagonist and the narrator, the focus of the novel and the one who does the focusing. For these reasons, readers must be conscious of how Lily performs in her own account and of what she chooses to reveal about herself.
As a character, Lily’s two most important traits are her determination and her longing for maternal love. Lily finds a mysterious font of confidence after her fourteenth birthday and after she sees Rosaleen confront a group of racist men in Sylvan. This confidence allows Lily to escape an abusive, unpleasant home life and go searching for her mother’s past. Lily has a deep human need to be loved, so much so, in fact, that she risks her life and freedom by breaking Rosaleen out of jail. Similarly, she goes off to Tiburon, South Carolina, on the slim chance that there she will find a link to her dead mother. She has no idea when, where, or why Deborah once passed through Tiburon, only that she was once there. For all Lily knows, Tiburon could be a town her mother stopped in for lunch one day and never returned to again. However, her determination forces her to suss out any remaining traces of her mother—and she is rewarded for these character traits at the end of the novel, when she gains August Boatwright as a surrogate mother and comes to terms with her own past.
Over the course of the novel, Lily matures into a young woman. At the Boatwright house, surrounded by the Boatwright sisters, associated with the Daughters of Mary, attended to by Rosaleen and interacting with Zach, Lily at long last becomes a part of a supportive community. She thrives in this environment, learning things about herself and developing a more positive character in general. August inspires her to be more introspective, Zach inspires her to be more sensitive, and the bees inspire her to be more hardworking. By the time she learns the truth about her mother abandoning her, Lily is strong enough in character to understand that it is not her fault. She is mature enough to process the feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion, and she is mature enough to love her flawed, complex mother. This ability to love without guilt or blame is the most important indication of Lily’s maturation. When Lily learns about her mother, she does not run away seeking a new source of maternal support, because she has already found such support in August and August’s community. With this strength and support behind her, Lily confronts her father, the final sign of how thoroughly she has changed and developed. When Lily stands up to T. Ray, she stands up to the world she left behind, the world in which she was a beaten down as an immature girl—and she rejects this world and this old sense of self. At the novel’s end, Lily has taken a proactive role in her own life, on her way to coming of age and to becoming a woman.