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THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES BY SUE MONK KIDD
THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS
The major theme of this novel is expressed in its title, which comes from a statement made by August: Most people dont have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we dont know anything about (148). Throughout the novel, the reader learns how most characters are not what they seem on the surface. Peoples lives are usually much more complex and complicated than they appear.
Throughout the novel, Kidd builds on the hive and bees as a metaphor of life. Bees represent people working together in a society, which is represented by the hive. The beehive has been known in history to represent the soul, death, and rebirth. The hive is presided over by the queen, or mother-figure. In explaining that bees have secret lives that are not immediately perceptible, August speaks metaphorically of people. As the plot progresses, we learn that almost every character has an explanation for his or her actions that cannot be seen immediately.
We know that Lily is pretending to be someone that she is not in order to find out about her mother. We learn that May is so emotional because of her twins suicide. August tells Lily that T. Ray was not always the cruel man he is now. He was once tender and sweet and become embittered when Deborah died. Lily also finds out that her mother was not the perfect women she imagined. Throughout this story, Lily learns people, like the bees, are often motivated by forces that cannot be understood immediately.
Fortunate Coincidences and Signs
Throughout the novel, Lily seeks and finds signs and is propelled by a series of fortunate coincidences. Lily frequently asks for signs and often believes things that come to her are signs. Lily believes it was a sign that her room was infested with bees and now she is at the home of a beekeeper. Lily believes it was a fortunate coincidence that Augusts mother met her father because she had a toothache. Lily believes it is a fortunate coincidence that she went to a store that sells Augusts honey, which leads her to August, the person with whom her mother stayed when she left. Lily believes the picture August gives her of Deborah feeding Lily as a child is an answer to her request for a sign that she was loved.
Each of these signs and fortunate coincidences suggest that perhaps there is some order to what seems to be a chaotic existence. This notion is affirmed by the bee hive metaphor which weaves its way throughout the story. Although the activity in bee hives--which symbolize society--appears nonsensical and disorganized, we learn the bees lead a highly organized and orderly existence.
Lily is driven by her need to know about her mother so that she may learn more about herself. In seeking her mother, Lily finds mother substitutes. Rosaleen, August, and the other women step into Lilys life and provide the mothering that she needs so desperately.
The Black Madonna/ Virgin Mary demonstrate each womans need to be mothered. The womens devotion to the Blessed Mother shows the power and importance of a mother in the life of a woman.
This novel treats the contentious issue of race in the 1960s south as well as in the everyday relations between individuals. The plot demonstrates two encounters between whites and blacks in which the black person is treated unjustly. Rosaleen is sent to jail for defending herself and Zach goes to jail for not admitting which of his friends broke a bottle on a white mans nose.
On another level, Lily must personally navigate the delicacy of the racial difference between herself and the African-Americans she comes to love in Tiburon. White people criticize Lily for living with the black women, who treat her better than anyone else ever has. Lily develops romantic feelings for Zach, who tells her that he could get killed for even looking at a white girl. Finally, for the first time Lily experiences what it is like to be judged based solely on her skin color when June complains to August that she does not want Lily in the house because she is white.
Death Gives Way to Life
Throughout the novel there is the theme of death giving way to life. The resultant life is sometimes good, but it is also sometimes bad. In the very beginning of the novel Lily tells us People who think dying is the worst thing dont know a thing about life. Here, we see how Lilys life has been profoundly affected by her mothers death. This statement suggests that living with someone elses death can be more painful than dying. In this case, Deborahs death has given way to Lilys miserable life.
However, death also can be a positive force in the lives of the living that remain. Following Mays death August tells Lily: Putting black cloths on the hives is for us. I do it to remind us that life gives way into death, and then death turns around and gives way into life.
Death as giving way to life is seen twice in this novel as a positive force. The first instance is the way that Mays death propels June to marry Neil, thus establishing their new life together. The second time is when Lily finally reconciles with her mothers death and is set free to truly begin her own life.
Life also gives way to death. Literally--everyone who is born must die. But on a symbolic level, life can kill too. May kills herself because life is too much for her to bear. When Deborah learns she is pregnant with Lily she decides to marry
T.Ray. Lilys life leads to Deborahs symbolic death on the peach farm, where she has a nervous break down because she cannot bear to live there. This new life (Lily) also leads to Deborahs literal death when Lily accidentally drops the gun and Deborah is hit with a bullet.
POINT OF VIEW
First-person, limited. The narrator of this story is Lily. We have access to her thoughts, but not to the thoughts of the other characters.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version
Free Study Guide-The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd-Book Summary
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.
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