The Secret Life of Bees
Lying on her bed, Lily waits for the return of the bees that have begun to live in the walls of her bedroom. The year is 1964; Lily is about to turn fourteen. She lives alone with her father, Terrance Ray, and their black housekeeper and nanny, Rosaleen. Lily cannot bring herself to call her cruel, aloof father “Daddy,” so she calls him T. Ray instead. Rosaleen warns her to watch out, because “bees swarm before death.” Lily insists on telling T. Ray about the bees, so she wakes him up, even though she suspects it will only anger him. It does. Lily reminisces about her mother, who died when she was four years old. Lily intimates that she had a significant, albeit accidental, role in her mother’s death. Then Lily recounts the last memory she has of her mother: December 3, 1954—the last day her mother was alive.
In the memory, her mother begins to fight with T. Ray as she cleans out a closet. Lily distinctly remembers her mother’s smell and the overpowering feeling of wanting only to be with her. Her mother responds to T. Ray’s yelling by pulling out a gun. They tussle, and it falls to the floor. Lily remembers bending to pick up the gun and then hearing a loud noise. She goes on to explain that, without a mother, she has had a hard time making friends at school. T. Ray and Lily live just outside Sylvan, South Carolina—a town of 3,100 people. There, T. Ray owns and runs a peach farm, and Lily helps out by selling peaches at a roadside stand (a job she detests). However, T. Ray prohibits Lily from taking part in any social activities, including school-related ones, and she wears only the clothes she manages to sew herself.
The next morning, Lily catches a bee in a jar. Rosaleen disapproves, but Lily knows that Rosaleen loves her. She realized this love one Easter, when Rosaleen brought her a chick, then stood up to T. Ray when he demanded Lily get rid of it. Lily often daydreams that Rosaleen becomes her mother and that they run away together. Her father rarely talks about her real mother, Deborah. Lily keeps everything she has of Deborah’s in a small tin buried in the orchards: a photograph of her mother in front of an old car, a pair of white cotton gloves, and a small wooden picture of a black Mary with the words “Tiburon, S.C.” written on the back. She digs up this box when she is feeling lonely or sad.
Lily spends that day selling peaches out by the highway. T. Ray forbids her from reading while on the job. She likes reading and hopes to go to college, on scholarship, someday. In the peach stand, years ago, T. Ray told Lily about her mother’s death—he told her that Lily killed Deborah. Back in the present, Lily returns home to find Rosaleen watching TV. A man announces the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which makes Rosaleen happy. Afterward, Lily tries to talk to T. Ray about her upcoming birthday, but he ignores her. That night, she heads out to dig up the tin box and falls asleep in the orchard. T. Ray wakes her. He thinks she was out there with a boy. For punishment, he forces her to kneel on dried grits until her knees bleed. Afterward, Lily decides to free the bees from the jar in her room, but even when she lifts the lid, the bees do not escape.
The next morning, Lily accompanies Rosaleen into town, where Rosaleen intends to register to vote. On the way, they run into three white men. The men taunt Rosaleen, who angrily spills chewing-tobacco juice on their shoes. The men accost Rosaleen and call the police, who take Rosaleen and Lily to jail.
Significantly, The Secret Life of Bees begins with Lily’s discovery of bees in her bedroom. Bees and bee-related objects, as the title suggests, function as central symbols and motifs in the novel. They signify guides and guidance and demonstrate the power of a female community. Rosaleen warns Lily to watch out for the insects, but Lily disregards Rosaleen’s warning and continues to try to capture them. These actions demonstrate Lily’s determination, strong character, and willingness to expose herself to danger. She recognizes that her happiness ultimately depends on her—her characteristics, her abilities, her personality. What she wants, she must work for, as T. Ray treats her coolly and she does not have a mother on whom to rely. This chapter also demonstrates that bees deserve to be noticed and noted, as well as handled with care. The bees hang around Lily—and refuse to leave the jar—as if they have some type of business with her. They even land on the state map she has tacked up to the wall. In this way, the bees foreshadow the later action of the novel, in which Lily will literally earn her keep by beekeeping.
The first chapter also introduces the tension between history and literature that recurs throughout the novel. As Lily watches the signing of the Civil Rights Act on television with Rosaleen, she wonders whether to be happy, because Rosaleen is happy, or anxious, because Lily realizes that the equality suggested by the act might, in fact, make life more difficult for Rosaleen. Kidd carefully reminds us of dates so that we might bring our sense of history to bear on our reading: we know that in 1964 racism plagued America, particularly in the South; we know that the Civil Rights Act helped decrease but did not eradicate racism or discrimination. This knowledge of real historical circumstance makes the fictional, complicated relationship between Lily, a white girl, with Rosaleen, a black woman, more understandable. On the one hand, Lily feels a lot of love for Rosaleen and looks to her for guidance. On the other, Lily evidences both subtle prejudice and a teenager’s sarcasm, as when she ignores or rolls her eyes at Rosaleen. Throughout the novel, Kidd will tie an actual historical event to a fictional one, as when Lily mentions Martin Luther King’s arrest in chapter 1 or when Lily tells readers that she shares her birthday with the United States (July 4). This mixing of history and literature implies that the two disciplines compliment one another: history gives us facts, but literature helps us understand and relate to those facts by placing them within the context of a story.
Another important theme from chapter 1 concerns the importance of motherly love. Since Deborah is dead, Lily has come to rely on Rosaleen for some maternal care, and, to some degree, Lily considers Rosaleen to be a surrogate mother. Without a real mother, and plagued with guilt about her role in Deborah’s death, Lily has developed many self-image and self-esteem issues. She lacks friends and feels extremely unfeminine. To some degree, these feelings plague most young women in all situations. As a bildungsroman, The Secret Life of Bees will chronicle the ups and downs of Lily’s coming-of-age. Because Lily lacks the support of a maternal guide, she has nowhere to turn to express these insecurities. She cannot turn to T. Ray; he is a void, an echo of her insecurities, a man lost in his own bitterness. He fails to offer her love, understanding, or even a safe place to express her fears and frustrations. From this early point in the novel, Lily’s main personal struggle is with coming to terms with her missing mother and of developing as an independent woman regardless of this lack. This struggle becomes the dramatic background of the book, the essential struggle behind Lily’s entire experience of growing up.
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