The Secret Life of Bees
Chapters 4 and 5
Lily and Rosaleen arrive at the Boatwright house, which is painted bright pink. August stands out front, wearing a beekeeper’s helmet and working with the beehives. June Boatwright answers the door, with May Boatwright behind her. Lily finds May to be not “altogether normal” and finds June to be a bit harsh, but August, who soon comes in, is very warm. Lily notices a three-foot-tall statue of a black Mary known as “Our Lady of Chains” in the corner of the living room. She senses its spiritual power. Lily tells August that she and Rosaleen have run away, because her father has died in a tractor accident. She claims that they are headed to Virginia to be with her aunt Bernie. Lily thinks that August has seen right through her lies and feels a twinge of guilt. However, she wants to be accepted into the house too badly to risk being honest. Rosaleen gets irritated at Lily not only for lying but also because Lily keeps speaking for Rosaleen, as if she were not there. August welcomes Rosaleen and Lily, even though June has reservations about letting them stay. Lily and Rosaleen are taken to the honey house, where they will be staying. A storm hits, and they stay inside. At dinner, August explains that she inherited the twenty-eight-acre bee farm from her grandfather. Outside, Lily finds a wall filled with mysterious slips of paper and walks to the stream nearby, where she wets her feet.
Rosaleen and Lily spend a week at the Boatwright house. Lily feels at ease; Rosaleen gets a new wardrobe. Lily feels very conscious of her white skin. She overhears June making comments about her skin color. She also learns that June plays cello for dying people, May sings “Oh! Susanna” whenever she gets upset, and August runs the bee farm with the help of someone named Zach. One night May has a breakdown and must be escorted to her special wall. Lily is told she will help August and Zach with the bees, while Rosaleen will help May with the household chores. The television reports constantly about the process of desegregation going on around the country, which makes Lily very self-conscious about her race. At night, they pray to the black Mary statue. August explains that their religion is partly Catholic, partly self-invented. Then August tells Lily a story about a nun named Beatrix who runs away but is replaced by a stand-in Mary while she is gone. Lily wonders if Mary is standing in for her back in Sylvan with T. Ray but doubts that something like that could be true.
On their first Friday together, August teaches Lily about honey farming. She urges her to send the bees love, saying that everything needs and wants to feel loved, and explains that females make up the bee community about 90 percent of the time. Lily longs to make Rosaleen love her. That night, August explains about May’s condition—that she feels the wrongs of the world as if they were her own—and the therapeutic purpose of May’s wailing wall, where she goes to cry. She then tells Lily the story of their fourth sister, April, and her early depression and suicide. In the honey house later that evening, Lily wonders if T. Ray misses her and she feels a bit of nostalgia for her home in Sylvan. However, her most intense sadness comes from missing her mother. Also, Rosaleen expresses some jealousy over all the time Lily is spending with August. Lily falls asleep hoping she can figure out a way to discover some information about her mother without revealing the truth—that is, that she and Rosaleen ran away.
August embodies the new, exotic lifestyles and relationships Lily discovers in Tiburon, at the bee farm. Upon first spotting August, Lily compares her to “an African bride,” something that Lily has never seen, of course, but nevertheless something that Lily associates with the far-away, the pure, and the magical. Maternal longing has driven Lily to the farm, and maternal longing keeps her there. Lily does not really question the structure or customs of the Boatwright sisters, even as they might shock her. For example, she overcomes the initial strangeness of praying to the black Mary statue, because she trusts August’s judgment. To capture August’s love, Lily willingly performs any tasks August asks her to do, such as taking care of the bees. Lily has never seen such a strong community of women, nor has she ever participated in a mystical, self-created religion such as the one practiced in August’s home. She has never witnessed outright displays of depression, nor has she ever felt discriminated against because of her skin color. As a character, August is the living symbol of these new feelings, sensations, and experiences for Lily.
Like Lily, August understands the power of storytelling to tell truths without pointing fingers or instigating direct confrontation. This ability to tell stories links August and Lily immediately and fundamentally. August uses narratives to understand the world around her. The story August tells Lily about Beatrix the nun has three purposes: First, August uses the story to entertain Lily and to make Lily like and trust her. Second, August uses the story to teach Lily a lesson about leaving—and returning—home. Third, August uses the story to impart to Lily some of her religious faith and trust in the divine. Of course, Lily tells her own story in The Secret Life of Bees, using her unique voice (note that the novel is told in the first person). Lily tells her story to the reader, much as August tells stories to Lily. Throughout the novel, many stories will be heard, told, and retold, a reminder not only of the importance of storytelling but also that the novel itself is a story.
In this section of the novel, Lily learns a lesson about racism and prejudice. Until this point, she has understood racism as an act whites committed against blacks. She reveals her racism to the reader when she thinks of herself as naturally smarter than Rosaleen, despite the fact that she is a child and Rosaleen is a grown woman with much life experience. A product of her environment, Lily believes that she, as a white person, will always be better or smarter than a black person. Nevertheless, Lily respects and feels devoted to August, and this respect and devotion begins to chip away at Lily’s innate racism and prejudice. Lily also learns that racism and prejudice can flow from blacks to whites when she overhears June protesting to August about Lily’s stay on the farm. Lily is totally shocked that June would not be able to see beyond her white skin and into the personality beneath—and she starts to see that people are people. June’s feelings toward Lily and Lily’s feelings toward August help Lily understand the irrationality of racism and help her begin to see beyond skin color to the beauty of individuals.
In addition to bees, the novel uses secrets as a motif. Lily keeps a special box away from T. Ray, and she tries to keep secret from Rosaleen the fact that she has gone to Tiburon to find evidence of Deborah. Both Lily and Rosaleen keep their true identities a secret from the Boatwright sisters. In turn, August keeps secret from Lily the fact that she believes Lily to be lying. August refuses to pressure or probe Lily about why she has arrived at the farm. Everybody tries to keep secrets about horrible events from May, who becomes distraught when she hears about suffering. The different types of secrets show that some secrets are necessary. August and Lily realize that trust takes time, so they let each other keep secrets. Similarly, using secrets to protect May is noble, rather than ridiculous, as the truth shall cause more damage than the lie as far as sensitive May is concerned.
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