The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, is a realistic-fiction novel set in the 1960s American South, where temperatures were high and racial tensions were higher. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 may have granted equal rights for all, but the long-standing divide between blacks and whites remained stubbornly in place, which is thoroughly apparent throughout this tale. Narrated by its protagonist Lily Owens who recalls the time when she was fourteen years old, it is a first-person bildungsroman (coming-of-age story), with undertones of feminism, religion, and death’s tragic influence. Above all, it expresses the beauty and wonder of bees, which in some ways act as the glue (or in this case, the honey) that holds the story together.
Each chapter begins with a different quote about bees from various informative works, and these foreshadow the series of events set to take place in the upcoming section. A quote about the short lifespan of a bee (like “a bee’s life is but short”) implies the upcoming death of a character. A quote about a bee swarm abandoning its nest and searching for a new home (“Scout bees look for a suitable place to start the new colony”) surely relates to how the protagonist prepares to run away from home and set forth on a quest. It is one of the many clever devices the author uses to enhance her story. Kidd also utilizes good imagery, like “the sky had whited over with clouds, and shine spilled across the surfaces”, and figurative language, like the simile “water beaded across her shoulders, shining like drops of milk,” to add more detail and depth to her descriptions. It very much sets the tone and mood of a narration from an adolescent girl observing the southern, summertime world around her.
As a protagonist, Lily Owens leads a less-than-desirable life. She lives on a peach farm in Sylvan, South Carolina (which, as far as rustic southern towns go, is no better than the lot of them). Her family consists of her irritable father, T. Ray, and her African-American nanny Rosaleen. She has no other next of kin, because her mother died in 1954 when she was 4 years old, and this acts as the source of the novel’s main conflict. Lily is not a typical heroine, for she is neither beautiful, courageous, or overly kind; she considers herself physically unattractive and unpopular at school, with her safety-pinned clothes and unassertive personality. However, like any young teen, she still has her hopes and dreams. After discovering her love for English literature and being told by a teacher that she “could be a professor or a writer with actual books to [her] credit” if she tried, she decides she wants to become a writer and/or professor in the future. All of these details make her relatable, evoking empathy from the readers to help connect to her journey.
This journey begins on her 14th birthday, which takes place on Independence Day: July 4th. Her quest, which is a common motif in many coming-of-age stories—The Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example—commences when she joins Rosaleen on her trip to town to register to vote. Even though the Civil Rights Act may have legally granted Rosaleen this liberty, the southern whites of Sylvan prove to be, as ever, resistant to change, and this leads to her being beaten and jailed. Eventually, when Lily rebelliously helps her escape, they become fugitives: a skinny white adolescent and a robust black adult on the run from the law, which is truly reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The parallels between these two novels end, however, when Lily finally finds the home of the Boatwright sisters, a pink house “painted like Pepto-Bismol” where the mystery surrounding her mother is unraveled, where she discovers the power of the Black Madonna, and where she learns all there is to know about bees and bee-keeping.
“The Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia” is especially important. She is a dark-skinned Virgin Mary who appears on the label of August Boatwright’s honey products (the very label Lily had among her mother’s belongings, which is what helped her find the home). Also referred to as “Our Lady in Chains,” the Black Madonna is their role model, their eternal mother, and the object of their worship, because, as August says, “everybody needs a God who looks like them.” The majority of Lily’s spiritual encounters in this story are because of a connection to the Black Madonna, so she is undoubtedly a key figure deserving of special recognition.
Overall, religion and spirituality play a key role in this novel, in both obvious and subtle ways. The South is full of Baptist and Methodist influences, but Lily commonly brings up discussions of Catholicism, which is what the Boatwright sisters more readily practice. With close analysis, one might see how the many eating scenes the characters participate in could be considered acts of communion. In almost every chapter, there is a meal described in detail, and when the characters partake in the food together, they bond much like Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. This idea that sharing a meal is an act of communion is a common one in literary analysis practices, and it certainly rings true in this novel.
Furthermore, there is the motif of bodies of water, whether it be a pond, river, or creek, and this connects to the concept of baptism. Near the beginning of the story, Lily states that, when she is on her quest to find out the truth about her mother, she submerged herself in a creek and “slide down till the water sealed over [her] head” and then “held [her] breath and listened to the scratch of river against [her] ears, sinking as far as [she] could into that shimmering, dark world.” It is the ending scene of that chapter, and in the next chapter the readers see her begin to change and grow. It sounds like the process of baptism—submerging oneself underwater to symbolize a cleansing, to show that they are a new creation. Later on, when Lily is reflecting on the suicide of one of the characters in the river, she says “you could die in a river, but maybe you could get reborn in it, too,” which is further proof that the motif of baptism is prevalent. Religion and spirituality are common thematic concerns in this book because they reinforce the purpose of the story, which is to show how a savior can be found in unique ways among unique people.
But what about the bees? Is this not what the novel is about?
First, let me clearly state that I love bees. I love honey a lot too. This is one of the many reasons why I enjoyed this book so much, because it focused so intently on these things and made me more informed about them and the honey-collecting process.
Bees are very important to the world we live in, and not just because of the honey they produce. While honey is truly “the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses,” bees are crucial because they are responsible for the pollination of over two-thirds of the world’s agricultural crops. Unfortunately, bee populations are declining at an alarming rate due to habitat loss, diseases, and pesticides, and honey bees have officially been declared endangered. No pollinators mean no vital crops such as almonds, berries, and apples, which is disastrous on many levels. Consequently, I greatly appreciated how this book focused intently on bees and taught the reader how to love them. August even told Lily to “send the bees love” because “every little thing wants to be loved.”
I must also point out that I relate to bees, which is something I did not realize until after I read this. It is said that “[bees] are hardworking to the point of killing themselves,” and upon reading that line, my love for bees grew because I now find them relatable. They literally work themselves to death, going unnoticed and unappreciated, but continue to work because it is their nature, and that is how I (and I’m sure many of us) feel all the time.
Nevertheless, bees do serve an important role to this story. When August explains how “Aristaeus was the first keeper of bees . . . and after that people believed that bees had power over death,” we see that bees connect to death, which is actually a quite prevalent matter in the novel. The death of Lily’s mother looms over her constantly, just as the death of April Boatwright looms over her living sisters, especially her twin May. It is peculiar to think the fat, bumbly bee could be symbolic for the nearness of death, but this seems to be true when one examines the facts. Symbolic or not, they still add to the story’s tone and plot, thus making it interesting and sweet (pun intended).
All in all, this novel truly is a summertime story, and I am very glad I had the opportunity to read it in the summer. Every time I discovered a particular quote I liked, I would underline it in pencil, and I found myself doing this every few pages. Some were simple yet impactful, like “You can be bad at something, Lily, but if you love doing it, that will be enough” which is a philosophy I try to remind myself of daily. Another is “Enough was enough. You cannot fix the whole world,” which is still applicable in the modern day. Other quotes were more insightful yet just as meaningful, like “women made the best beekeepers, ‘cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting.”
But my favorite quote from this entire book was this: “I couldn’t understand how it had turned out this way, how colored women had become the lowest ones on the totem pole. You only had to look at them to see how special they were, like hidden royalty among us.” I want to share it with the entire world. The older I get, the more I see how, even in our progressed society, black women remain at the bottom of the social ladder because of persisting racist and misogynistic influences. And while black women are human, no doubt, and each individual has their flaws, they are not the lowly creatures that I feel media and society depicts them as. I hope it is something others can see as well, so that in time, the long-standing racism and misogyny will finally be overcome, and equality will finally be achieved. It is perhaps the greatest lesson this book has to offer, which is why I wish everyone should read this book, and maybe they will appreciate it as much as I do.
© 2017 Obliquity of the Ecliptic