The Secret Life of Bees
Chapters 12 and 13
After her talk with Zach, Lily goes directly to August’s room and waits for her. She decides the time has come for them to talk about her mother. In her room, she feels comfortable and takes note of the décor, which is all blue and features a picture of the angel Gabriel offering a white lily to Mary. When August arrives, they begin to talk at once. Lily learns that August has known her identity for the entire time that Lily has lived in the house and that August once knew Deborah. August explains that she worked as a housekeeper in Deborah’s childhood home and helped raise Deborah from age 4 to age 19. August talks about Deborah as a child, and Lily eagerly listens to every detail. Lily tells August that her father is not really dead, but that he treated her very badly. After Lily explains to August what T. Ray had said—that her mother had left Lily behind when she ran away—Lily begins to cry uncontrollably. August urges her to cry as much as she needs, to let it all out, and Lily does. After she is done crying, Lily explains to August why she ran away with Rosaleen. Finally, she tells August about her role in the death of her mother. Hearing it all, August tells her that she loves her, and they move into the kitchen.
In the kitchen, August pours Lily some ice water, and they continue to talk. Lily shows August her mother’s black Mary picture, explaining how Lily ended up in Tiburon and at August’s house. August continues to tell Lily stories about her mother’s childhood, teenage years, and marriage to T. Ray. She explains that Deborah met T. Ray after moving to Sylvan and that he was very dedicated to her for the first few years of their marriage. After she was married to T. Ray for a while, however, she grew depressed. Eventually, she contacted August and asked if she could spend some time at the honey farm with her. August tells Lily that when she agreed, she expected Deborah would come visit with the baby—the young Lily. When she arrived, however, August explains, she was alone. Lily is very disturbed by the idea that her mother left her behind. Lily says that she hates her mother, which upsets August. She feels very disappointed in her mother and tells August the story of her mother’s death. As their conversation ends, all Lily can think about is how her mother left her behind. “Left you, left you,” Lily repeats to herself.
Lily lies in bed trying to sleep. She is very upset about her conversation with August. She goes to visit the black Mary statue, hoping to be able to pray. Instead, she grabs a bunch of honey jars and smashes them against the wall. When she wakes the next morning, Rosaleen is there. She helps her clean the honey and glass and consoles her, bandaging her wounds. Lily explains to Rosaleen what she did and why. Rosaleen is very sensitive but admits she knew things and never told Lily because she did not want to hurt her. At noon, the Daughters of Mary arrive with food for the second day of the Mary Day ritual. Lily asks August to tell Zach her true story. Everybody bathes the statue in honey, a preservative, to keep it safe. After the ceremony, August brings Lily a box of her mother’s belongings. Included are a mirror, a comb with Deborah’s hair still in it, and a book of poetry. There is also a picture of Lily as a child with her mother as a young woman. Looking at the picture, Lily comes to realize that maybe her mother did love her after all, although in a more complicated way than Lily originally imagined.
Lily’s talk with August serves as one of the novel’s central climactic moments. Lily has been on a long journey throughout the course of the novel. Not only has she been searching for an escape from her oppressive upbringing, for a maternal influence, and for the truth about her mother, she has also been searching for a confidant and a friend, someone to whom to tell the truth about her life. In August, she finds all of these things, plus a mother figure. August’s sensitivity to Lily’s needs is part of the reason why this conversation has been so long in coming. When Lily first arrived, August sensed that Lily was not ready to learn the truth about her mother. August let Lily find her own way to asking about her mother. And, when this time finally comes, August provides Lily with a sensitive ear—and with the pure truth. But the climatic conversation also answers important questions for readers. Much tension has been building around the mysteries of Lily’s mother: Was T. Ray lying? Did Lily’s mother really leave her? Away from T. Ray, developing a strong sense of self, and feeling love and loved, Lily is now ready to hear the truth about Deborah. As the novel’s emotional climax, the conversation between Lily and August fundamentally alters Lily: after learning the truth about Deborah, Lily will never feel the same way about her mother again.
Although Deborah never appears in the novel, she is nevertheless an important character, perhaps the most important person in Lily’s life. The novel begins with Lily’s memories of her mother: her mother’s smell, the feelings Lily experienced while around her, her mother’s last actions. In every chapter, Lily thinks about her mother; during every occasion, Lily finds a reason to consider her mother. However, Lily’s mother has been dead for ten years when the novel begins. Deborah exists as a character only to the extent that Lily keeps her alive in her imagination. As Lily begins to think less about Deborah, Deborah becomes less important to the novel and to Lily’s life. Kidd uses many literary techniques to bring Lily’s mother to life, including flashbacks, storytelling, and dreams. During her conversation with August, Lily learns that Deborah essentially abandoned her, and Lily must now learn to live with that knowledge. Her mother is not the perfect, magnificent person Lily imagined her to be. Instead, as August reminds Lily, Deborah was a human being, and like all humans, Deborah made mistakes.
Lily’s violent reaction to the truth about Deborah exposes readers to a different side of Lily. When Lily smashes the honey jars against the wall, she reveals aspects of her personality that resemble her despised, violent father, T. Ray. Angry at her mother, Lily reacts violently, much as T. Ray did throughout her childhood. But her reaction also indicates great grief: at various points in the novel, Lily has fantasized, cried, run away, and tried to talk through her feelings, but she has never before destroyed someone else’s property or acted in a physically violent manner. The severity of her reaction speaks to the intensity of her hurt over her mother’s actions. Her violence signifies the hollowness of any action. Her mother is long dead, so Lily will never be able to confront Deborah about what she did. All Lily can do is accept the truth and move on.
Lily’s violent reaction contrasts with the loving, healing activities performed on the Our Lady of Chains statue. Along with the Daughters of Mary, Lily rubs honey all over the statue to polish and preserve it. Lily wonders what it would be like to cover herself with honey, not in a sexual way but in a healing, restorative way. What Lily fails to realize is that the bees and the honey she has found at the Boatwright house have already symbolically been rubbed all over her body. Through her experiences with beekeeping, Lily has been able to confront her anger toward her mother. The bees teach Lily to love and be loved, to surrender, to feel the power of religion or spirituality, and, as when she smashes the jars, to express her feelings, rather than bottling them up inside. At the Boatwright house, surrounded by bees, Lily grows into the intelligent, sensitive, well-adjusted person she is at the end of chapter 13.
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