The Secret Life of Bees

by: Sue Monk Kidd

Study Questions

1

Describe Lily’s relationship with her mother, Deborah. What makes their relationship so complicated?

Lily has a very complicated relationship with her dead mother. On one hand, she loves her mother dearly and misses her constantly throughout the novel, especially when she is alone at night. Lily fantasizes about Deborah such that Deborah becomes a larger-than-life, perfect person in Lily’s mind. When she learns that her mother had left her with T. Ray before she died, she resents her mother a great deal. She is angry with her mother for not loving her, for not being there for her, and for being a flawed person. But even while she is filled with anger, Lily still loves her mother dearly and looks for proof everywhere that her mother cared for her. The fact that she has trouble forgiving her mother disturbs Lily and leaves her feeling ugly inside. However, Lily eventually realizes that Deborah was a real person, just as she is, and that even if Deborah had lived, she would have had flaws and problems. Once Lily realizes her mother was a real, complex person, she takes time out of her life to mourn the loss of this very real mother. Through this mourning, Lily discovers the ability to forgive her mother for her faults—and for leaving her behind. This process is difficult for Lily for many reasons, especially because Lily also feels guilty for her role in killing her mother. After coming to terms with her mother’s life, Lily must come to terms separately with her death. Lily relies on the rhythms of the river to guide her through the trauma. In mourning like the river moves, she lets the pain, anger, guilt, and frustration flow downhill and out of her life.

2

What is the significance of the female communities in the novel? How do they help Lily grow up?

When the novel begins, Lily has only one female companion: Rosaleen. However, in Tiburon, she comes upon a few large, active female communities. The first is “the calendar sisters”: August, June, and May. These sisters support each other in a way that Lily has never experienced. Not only do they love each other unconditionally, but they also accept and compensate for one another’s faults; act sensitively toward one another’s needs; and willingly, as well as unconditionally, give one another help and love. For example, August develops the wailing wall to help May deal with her depression. Whenever May is upset, August or June always encourage her to reduce her pain by going out to the wall. From this community, Lily learns about being a member of a supportive family. In just a short time, Lily too encourages May to head to the wall. Being around the Boatwrights teaches Lily learns how to be a supportive sister to other women.

For much of the novel, Lily struggles to ask August or the black Mary statue for help or guidance. She learns that asking for help and guidance is a sign of maturity—and she begins to understand that asking for help and guidance makes a person stronger. In addition to the lessons Lily learns from the sisters, Lily matures a great deal by being around the Daughters of Mary. This boisterous religious community at first seems closed-off to Lily: they are all black ladies, and she is a young white girl. But their community is really based on pooling their feminine powers and in praying to their female divinity. Once Lily realizes the community is based around tenets of support and mutual love, she soon is able to derive support from the ladies and to love them as they love her. By the end of the novel, she is an active member in their support group, and she is stronger, more self-reliant and more mature for it. This female community teaches her how to seek the support of other women when she is in need.

3

In what ways does Sue Monk Kidd root The Secret Life of Bees in a specific time and place? How does this tie into Lily’s experience of coming-of-age?

Just as the novel is about Lily’s personal experiences as a young girl discovering her femininity and searching for love, so is it a novel about a specific time and a place: the American South during the 1960s. Lily shares a birthday with the United States, a fact that inextricably binds Lily’s experiences to her country’s experiences. At one point, Lily watches a man walk on the moon, and at another she walks by banners that say “Goldwater for President” and “Affirmation Vietnam.” With these and other details, Kidd carefully reminds readers that her novel takes place during a particular time.

Early in the novel, we learn that the Civil Rights Act has just been signed, and events influenced by the signing of this act seep into Lily’s experience as a fourteen-year-old girl in many ways. The Civil Rights Act left many white southerners anxious that their way of life would be threatened if increased rights were granted to African Americans. This fear, in turn, appears in the novel as the ever-present racial tension. More specifically, this fear leads Franklin Posey to bully Rosaleen when she sets out to vote, and it leads the white police to patrol the movie theater in Tiburon. This second example of the fear leads to Zach’s arrest and ultimately to May’s suicide. Lily’s maturity and development begin in earnest only after she has removed herself from the white community and gone to live in a black community. The changing social situation for African Americans directly leads to Rosaleen’s arrest, which leads Lily to leave T. Ray, to find August Boatwright, and to grow up.