Themes and Symbols of The Secret Life of Bees
In the very first chapter of The Secret Life of Bees, Lily describes her mother, beginning what will be an overarching theme throughout the novel. Lily suffers tremendous guilt for killing her mother, and at night she dreams of dying, meeting her mother in heaven, and asking for her forgiveness. Lily has little doubt that her mother will kiss her and forgive her for 10,000 years.
Later in the novel, when August tells Lily about Deborah, Lily becomes irate about her mother's abandonment. Lily can't grasp the concept of a nervous breakdown; all she hears is that her mother left her to come to August's house. She isn't ready to let her mother off the hook, forgiving her for seeking her own health first and leaving Lily with T. Ray.
Lily goes back to the honey house and throws jars of honey against the wall, making a huge mess but letting out her anger. She doesn't want to forgive her mother because Lily has been wallowing in her victimhood. She also doesn't want to let go of the romantic pictures she has created of her mother.
In Chapter 14, Lily is mulling over what August has told her about her mother. She vacillates between being angry at her mother for leaving on the one hand, and better understanding her mother's motives on the other. Lily ponders the idea of why it is so difficult for people to forgive.
There is someone else Lily must forgive: herself. Lily's first reaction, when August tells her Deborah married T. Ray because she was pregnant with Lily, is that it was all her fault that Deborah was saddled with such a terrible husband. Then, when Lily tells August her story about how she happened to come to the Boatright house, she explains with tears and sorrow that she loathes herself and is a worthless person who isn't worthy of love. Before she can become whole and love herself, Lily must forgive herself for killing her mother, and she must understand that this was an accident that she can't go back and fix. She has to go on, realizing she is a human being worthy of love.
Lily comes close to forgiving her father at the end of the novel, when she chooses to stay with the Boatrights. She sees what an unhappy man he is and how his pride has been broken by her mother's abandonment. She understands how much he loved her mother, and although she chooses to stay with the Boatrights, her understanding of her father is a first step toward forgiveness.
The nature of prejudice is thoroughly discussed throughout Lily's story. It's important to understand that she grew up in the South, where races were separated by both law and attitudes. The hospital has a separate wing for African Americans, and Christian churches are separated, too. Blacks are not allowed to vote, and are kept from doing so even after a law is passed to specifically allow it. The police routinely allow black citizens, like Rosaleen, to be beaten by their white neighbors. Even Lily understands and believes that African Americans are neither beautiful nor intelligent. Lily has been brought up to believe blacks are second-class citizens, and the world is logically structured this way.
Interestingly enough, Lily does not attempt to reconcile her love for Rosaleen with her understanding that blacks are inferior to whites. But when Rosaleen's life is threatened by a system that Lily doesn't understand, she knows only that she must save Rosaleen's life, even if it means leaving home and breaking the law.
Lily's attitude begins to change when she meets the Boatright sisters — strong black women with a profession, an education, and a religious community that is strong and positive. When June reacts to Lily's whiteness with disdain, it occurs to Lily that prejudice can work both ways. Finding out how prejudice feels, Lily begins to understand that character is more important than skin color.
Zach is another character who helps her education about race. Zach is gorgeous, intelligent, ambitious, sexy, and compassionate. He wants to be a lawyer even though he will find barriers in the way of his dream. But Zach cautions Lily that their love can't happen in the present world and, in fact, it is dangerous for both of them. When he is unjustly imprisoned, Lily finds out firsthand the horror of racial prejudice. It changes Zach and hardens him, although it does make him even more determined to fight it as a lawyer. And Zach promises Lily that if they can imagine a world in which there will be no prejudice, they can be together.
All around her, Lily receives strong messages about prejudice. The policeman who comes to the Boatright house and the receptionist at the lawyer's office both disapprove of her living there. On television every night, Lily sees stories of people beaten and killed because of their race.
By the end of the novel, Lily has grown into a person who understands the terrible nature of prejudice. When students at her school call her a "nigger lover," she can withstand it with pride. When Zach says that some day they will be together because they love each other, she believes him and wants that day to come. And, finally, Lily chooses to stay at the Boatright house, realizing that it is a community she loves and that it does not matter that her "family" members are black and she is white.
Black Mary/Female Power
Lily's father has no respect for women (or children), and he regularly teaches Lily to be a victim. This leaves her with few role models. Lily's teacher tries to encourage Lily in becoming a teacher, a profession open to women, and Rosaleen shows her love. But Lily's guilt over her mother's death, combined with a culture that has little regard for women, leaves her with scant understanding of what she might be able to do with her life. All that changes when she reaches the Boatright household.
Lily first begins to recognize her power when she hears the voice of her mother saying "her jar is open." Later, she comes to realize that this is not her mother, but the voice of self-confidence within her. August defines it as the voice of Mary that is inside everyone. August's religion — the Daughters of Mary — parallels her ideas about the power of women. The Daughters of Mary believe in the power that Mary can give them, and also in the idea that women can be free.
Until meeting August, Lily does not consider a life without men or marriage. But August explains that she had that choice and decided it was not for her. She wanted her freedom, a life with no one telling her what to do. August is an intelligent, educated, problem-solving, sensitive businesswoman, and Lily learns from her to appreciate the strength and power of women.
August also shows Lily how women can sensitively mourn and lay the dead away, explaining that death is a part of life and a normal part of life's cycle. This is so different than the violent death of Lily's mother. Lily learns an amazing lesson from a powerful woman.
The Daughters of Mary also influence Lily in her understanding of powerful women. They help each other, have fun together, worship together, and powerfully stand shoulder-to-shoulder. In the last chapter of the novel, they are a potent symbol to T. Ray. They will not allow him to ever hurt Lily again, and they will raise her themselves in a much more empowering environment.
By the end of the novel, Lily has learned how powerful women can be, and she joyfully tells Rosaleen how proud she is of her voter registration. She doesn't let other students tell her with whom she can spend her time or how she can act. She has come into her own power as a human being, and the fact that she is female is now a plus.
The novel is a story about the powerful, magnetic pull of children to their mothers. From the very first chapter, Lily is looking for her mother — or at least to know her mother. Throughout the story, she discovers surrogate mothers, and finally reconnects with her own mother's story.
Her first yearning, however, is for her real mother, Deborah. When Lily finds her mother's things, she makes up all kinds of stories about what her mother would have been like. Lily harbors romantic ideas about her mother and how she would have treated Lily if she were still alive. Brushing Lily's hair, helping her pick out her first bra, and teaching her about dating and boys are all the kinds of events Lily pictures a mother doing. She feels bereft as a result of her position as a social pariah, often directly because she doesn't have a mother. Lily seeks her mother's forgiveness for killing her, but she also misses her mother's presence and wisdom.
Lily loves Rosaleen like a mother, but Rosaleen is not as cultivated or soft as Lily imagines her own mother to be. Rosaleen's lack of manners sometimes bothers Lily, but Rosaleen is the one who cleans Lily up when she has hurt herself after throwing the honey jars against the wall of the honey house; Rosaleen is the one who sometimes intercedes with Lily's father. And in the long run, Rosaleen is the one Lily applauds for having the courage and strength to register to vote.
August is Lily's second surrogate mother, and she gives Lily wisdom. She instinctively knows what Lily needs and realizes right away whose daughter Lily is. She waits patiently until Lily comes to her with the story of her real mother, and she holds Lily while she lets out all her pain and anger. August waits until the right moment to give Lily her mother's things, and she allows Lily to deal with her father in the climax of the story. She also teaches Lily about beekeeping, a skill handed down from mother to daughter. Finally, August gives Lily the courage to listen to herself, the power of her spirituality with Mary, and the understanding that a woman can be a powerful person who does good in the world.
The Daughters of Mary also act as surrogate mothers to Lily. They take her into their circle, teach her about sisterhood and community, and allow her to become part of their religious service. In the end of the novel, they stand shoulder to shoulder when Lily's father attempts to take her away.
Deborah is the mother that Lily lost, and yet finds again at the end of the novel. It is from August that Lily learns that her mother truly loved her and was not going to abandon her. From August's stories about Deborah, Lily learns that no one is perfect and even mothers who love their daughters sometimes need help to find the strength to carry on. Lily also learns that her mother loves her even from beyond this life.
Bees operate on many levels in this story: The epigrams at the beginning of each chapter concern bees; the bees in Lily's room reach out to her and show her she must leave; and the bees at the Boatright house are instrumental in teaching about community, life, and death.
Each chapter begins with an epigram (short saying) from a book about bees, and each foreshadows what will happen in the chapter. Sometimes the quote is about Lily, sometimes about her mother, and other times about the community at the Boatright house. Despite the character described, the epigram gives the reader a feeling of whether the chapter will be factual or mournful. For example, in Chapter 1, the queenless hive is Lily's home, and the restlessness is the unhappiness of T. Ray, the abuse of Lily, and the loss of her mother's love and influence. In Chapter 14, however, the epigram describes a dying, queenless colony in this way: "But introduce a new queen and the most extravagant change takes place."
The bees in Lily's room illustrate who she is and what she must do. When Lily captures them in a jar, they do not leave the opened jar because they have become desensitized to their predicament. This is what has happened to Lily in her loveless home. Eventually, however, a bee she has captured does fly away, and Lily realizes she, too, must leave, save Rosaleen, and get away from her abusive father.
Interestingly, T. Ray can't see the bees; when Lily tries to show them to him they disappear. Perhaps she is more in tune with nature and the natural laws than he is.
The label on a honey jar leads her to the Boatright home, almost as if the bees are leading her to clues about her mother. At the Boatright house, the bees and their hives are both a way of life and a means of sustenance for the family. But the Boatrights also respect the bees and care for them because they realize all of nature is in harmony with mankind when treated this way. August uses the bees and their hives to illustrate to Lily how societies operate, explaining that they are a powerful symbol of women as leaders of the village. August explains to Lily that bees have secret lives, so much so that humans seldom realize how complicated a bee hive is. Lily sees the parallel between the bees and her own secret life. As the bees have a mother to care for them and provide sustenance, so Lily has a mother for whom she yearns. Each of the bees has a job to do, and Lily is learning her own job at the Boatright house.
The scene in which Lily is engulfed by bees and feels their mystery is a powerful picture of how all the Earth is inclusive. The bees have accepted her as a keeper, and she feels both a kinship with nature and the power of Mary within her. August explains that bees have always been powerful symbols of life and death, as far back as Biblical times.
Later, August uses the beehives to teach Lily that life is a cycle, one in which death and rebirth are an important part. Draping the beehives, tending to their needs, and getting another queen for a queenless hive are all part of taking care of nature, the needs of the bees, and the circle of life. Symbolically, the night of May's burial, the bees return in Lily's head and she hears their hum.
Appearances vs. Reality
The theme of appearances versus reality occurs in many places throughout the novel and plays a part in Lily's lying, her romantic illusions about her mother, and her dreams of what a happy home is like.
Early in the novel, Lily is an outsider and realizes she does not appear to be "respectable." Respectable means having two parents who love you, especially a mother who can take you to the women's club, girls who invite you to sleepovers, and pretty clothes and jewelry. Because Lily does not have any of these things, she faces a bleak social reality. But she knows what her appearance should be in order to win the "respectable" label.
Lily knows that lies are necessary to give people what they believe to be true. They are also necessary, in some cases, just to help Lily survive. She lies to the owner of the grocery store near Tilburon, having him believe she is a young girl visiting her grandmother. He will accept that because it makes her "respectable." She lies to August about her history and about Rosaleen's bruises, because she knows she must appear a certain way for August to take them in. Each time she tells a lie to help them survive, she is playing on people's understanding of how she appears to them.
The photo of Mr. Forrest and his daughter is a powerful example of appearance versus reality. Lily is so struck by the photo, in fact, that momentarily she believes her own family could be like this. After all, that photo is how parental love appears to the world. Lily calls her father in an attempt to reconnect and possibly discover that he does love her the way Mr. Forrest loves his daughter. But T. Ray undermines Lily's longing for the appearance of family love by telling her that he does not love her and that he plans to punish her when he finds her. There will be no future photograph of T. Ray and Lily, announcing to the world that they are a loving family.
May's death is a symbol of what happens when one can't deal with reality. For May's sake, everything had to appear happy at the Boatright house. The sisters knew that if anything sad or difficult disturbed that happy picture, May would not be able to deal with that reality. In the end, because she couldn't deal with the reality of life's sadness, she killed herself. Lily is saved from a similar fate because she is tougher and has weathered many storms already. August is wise enough to force Lily to face the ugly realities, and then build her back up and allow her to have both the knowledge of what it is like to be loved and dreams for the future.
The Whale Pin and Photograph
The whale pin and photograph of Deborah and Lily are symbols that Lily's mother truly did exist, that she lived at the Boatright house, and that she loved her daughter. The whale pin later becomes a hated object for T. Ray, who had given it to his wife when she turned twenty-two. The photograph of Lily and her mother symbolizes her mother's love and the certain belief that she would have returned not only for her clothes, but also for her daughter she loved.