The Secret Life of Bees
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
The Irrationality of Racism
The Secret Life of Bees demonstrates the irrationality of racism by not only portraying black and white characters with dignity and humanity but by also demonstrating how Lily struggles with—and ultimately overcomes—her own racism. Kidd moves beyond stereotypes to portray whites and blacks with the multifaceted personalities that we find in real life. Lily is not a racist in the same way that the group of men that harass Rosaleen are racist, but she does evidence some prejudice and stereotypes at the start of the novel. She assumes that all African Americans are like Rosaleen, an uneducated laborer-turned-housekeeper. Lily imagines that all African Americans are likewise coarse and uneducated. But when Lily encounters unique, educated, thoughtful August Boatwright, she must change her assumptions and combat her prejudice. At first, Lily feels shocked that a black person could be as smart, sensitive, and creative as August. Recognizing and combating her shock allows Lily to realize the truth about the arbitrariness and irrationality of racism. Like Lily, June must also learn to overcome racial stereotypes. As individuals, humans can display a complex array of personality traits and characteristics, regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
Later, when she begins to develop romantic feelings for Zach, Lily once again encounters her own subtle prejudice. Zach is a charming, handsome, African American young man. As a child in Sylvan, Lily learned racism from other schoolchildren: she was taught that black boys could not possibly be handsome, because the features of their faces were so different from those of white boys. When she realizes that this is not the case with Zach, she feels self-righteous, as if she has discovered something that the ignorant kids at her old school had missed. But she also realizes that her thought processes had been irrational and racist. As if to combat these tendencies, Lily naively ignores the social problems that her love for Zach might cause, even as Zach realizes that they probably can never be together in the racist South of that time. For different reasons, both Lily and Zach understand that racism, while irrational, has actual harmful effects. Nevertheless, both will work together to combat the irrationality of racism through feelings and deeds.
The Power of Female Community
Motherless Lily finds at the Boatwright house several surrogate mothers and learns the power of female community. At the beginning of The Secret Life of Bees, Lily longs for her mother and cherishes the few possessions Deborah left behind. She demonstrates an awareness of her femininity and laments that she has missed out on certain female lessons because her mother is dead. For example, she clings to a pair of white gloves that used to belong to Deborah. But although Lily lacks a mother, she does have female companionship. Rosaleen has raised Lily, and Lily looks to Rosaleen for love and support. Rosaleen’s arrest serves as a catalyst for Lily’s journey toward a much larger and more fulfilling female community: the one she finds at the Boatwright house. There, Lily sees how strong women support, tend to, comfort, encourage, and love one another by witnessing the bonds between the Daughters of Mary. Through their examples, and by being included in their group, Lily begins to feel empowered as a woman.
The Importance of Storytelling
Lily loves to read, and she recognizes the importance of storytelling as a way to escape or transcend one’s circumstances. Early in the novel, Lily recounts two memories relating to reading: in one, T. Ray makes fun of her for reading, calling her “Julius Shakespeare.” In another, a teacher praises Lily for being so intelligent and lends her books. Lily recalls books that have meant something to her during times of stress, as when she compares herself to Thoreau’s experiences at Walden Pond on her way to Tiburon. She rightly recognizes that books allow readers to escape into a fantasy world, and she makes up stories about why she and Rosaleen have come to Tiburon. More abstractly, Lily’s adventure with Rosaleen echoes Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: like Huck, Lily sneaks off with an African American friend into nature and to unknown worlds. Lily longs to someday become a writer, and, to this end, Zach gives Lily a notebook in which she can record her thoughts and stories. August tells Lily stories to help her learn to love and trust. Through books and stories, Lily sees the possibilities for her own life.
Bees serve as Lily’s unspoken guides throughout the novel. In the beginning, they come to her room to relay the message that she should head out on her own and leave T. Ray’s house. Likewise, Lily follows the trail of the honey label to Tiburon—and to the truth about her mother. In Tiburon, she lives in the honey house, and tending bees becomes her occupation. Early on, when August asks Lily what she loves, she lists bees near the top of her list. Bees suggest rebirth, exploration, sexual maturation, and personal growth. They guide Lily, accompany her, and drive her forward. For every important action Lily takes in the novel, bees and their products play a role: from realizing she is in love with Zach (when she licks honey off his finger) to realizing she loves August (when she lets the bees rest on her body). Lily even finds the “secret life of bees” similar to her own life. Their industrious care for their mother, their continuous ability to keep going in work, and their ability to survive inspire Lily. Finally, their reliance on an all-female community resembles her own reliance, and the bees’ community helps Lily understand the power of the human community. For these reasons, bees are the central motif of The Secret Life of Bees.
An epigraph, or quotation, from a book about bees precedes each of the novel’s fourteen chapters, thereby stitching together the chapters of the novel and relating them back to the overarching motif of bees. These epigraphs give readers a preview of the chapter’s contents. For example, the epigraph to chapter 1 describes the importance of a queen bee to a community, and chapter 1 of the novel introduces readers to Lily, a determined young girl in search of a mother’s love. Similarly, the epigraph to chapter 7 wonders how bees became linked to sex, and chapter 7 of the novel deals with Lily’s burgeoning sexual desire and relationship to Zach. Significantly, the novel contains fourteen epigraphs and fourteen chapters; as the novel opens, Lily has just turned fourteen.
The lack of mothers, the search for mothers, and the importance of mothers appear throughout the novel and demonstrate the significance of mothers to adequate human development. Everyone, regardless of circumstance or color, needs a mother. As Lily discovers, a person does not need to share a biological connection with a mother figure. Ever since her mother died, she has longed for a maternal touch. Although Rosaleen loves Lily, Rosaleen’s somewhat insensitive, boisterous personality prevents her from providing Lily with the kind of compassion that Lily thinks a mother should provide. August, however, can and does provide Lily with what she considers to be “mother’s love”: total and complete understanding, firm guidance, and the ability to gently criticize. But August believes in a different kind of motherly love: that supplied by the mother of God, the Virgin Mary. For much of the novel, August teaches Lily about the kind of undying, universal, hidden love that exists everywhere in the world but which is actually manufactured by the Virgin Mary. According to August, in order to feel the completeness stolen from her when her mother died, Lily must realize that she is loved by this Great Universal Mother.
In the novel, beehives serves as a symbolic parallel to the community August has created in the pink house. Bees live, work, and produce honey in beehives. As in August’s community, female bees dominate the beehive, and the queen bee rules over everything. The queen bee is the mother of every single other bee, just as, according to August, the Virgin Mary is the mother of all the women she is close to, whom she calls the Daughters of Mary. Because the beehive is a very sensitive organism, the bees have developed many mechanisms to protect their home. Likewise, August and her community have certain rituals—including prayer, celebration, and mourning—that help keep the members healthy. These rituals become especially important when something bad happens in the community, as when May kills herself. The beehive has a symbolic function in the novel because as Lily learns about August’s community, and is welcomed into it, she also learns about the mechanics of the beehive and becomes familiar with it. By the end of the novel, Lily has become an accomplished beekeeper.
Photographs symbolize the power of relationships in The Secret Life of Bees. Lily only has one photograph of her mother, but when she looks at this photograph she sees her mother’s lost potential and her own possible potential, which may or may not be fulfilled over the course of her life. Lily assumes that she will inherit the beauty of her mother. And when she looks at the future, she also sees her beautiful future. In addition, she handles the photograph carefully, as carefully as one would handle a baby; in this way, the photograph represents the hope and desire that she might someday find and feel maternal love. Lily also feels closer to Rosaleen when she discovers that Rosaleen also has a single photograph of her mother. Later, when August shows Lily other photographs of her mother, one of which is of her mother and Lily as a baby, Lily struggles to forgive her mother for being a flawed and complicated person. But, once again, seeing a photograph of her mother makes Lily feel tangibly closer to the deceased woman. In many ways, photographs are the only tangible manifestation of Lily’s powerful love for her mother. Deborah died when Lily was too young to have formed many memories of her, and thus the photograph stands as Lily’s only access to the woman she will never know.
The Black Mary
The black Mary serves several functions in the novel. As the picture, it symbolizes mothers and mother surrogates. Lily carries around a wooden picture of the black Mary, which she found among some objects that once belonged to her mother. This picture literally symbolizes Deborah to Lily, and eventually the picture leads Lily to August, a black woman who will become a surrogate mother. Through August, Lily will learn about Mary, whom August considers to be the mother of all of humanity. Significantly, Lily finds the wooden statue of Mary just seconds before she meets August, another instance of foreshadowing the relationship that will develop between August and Lily. August, along with the members of her group, the Daughters of Mary, worship at the statue every night. As a statue, the black Mary symbolizes the importance of having faith and believing in something larger than one’s self. The black Mary statue also reinforces the importance of storytelling: before meeting August, Lily learned stories from books. But August tells stories, including stories about the origin of the black Mary, to teach Lily important lessons about life.
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