The Secret Life of Bees

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Deborah Fontanel Owens Character Analysis

Deborah Owens is T. Ray Owens’s wife and Lily Owens’s mother. She’s arguably the most complex character in the novel: because she died years before the time when the novel is set, she’s available to the other characters only through memories and old possessions. For most of the book, Lily regards her mother as a kind, loving woman. Toward the end, however, we learn that the truth is more complicated: while Deborah loved Lily dearly, she abandoned Lily for three months to live with August in Tiburon, South Carolina. When Deborah returned to her family, intending to take Lily with her and away from T. Ray, there was a horrible accident, resulting in Lily accidentally shooting her mother. Overall, Deborah is a woman of contradictions: loving yet shockingly neglectful. As such, she’s a perfect example of August’s wise statement, “We all have flaws.”

Deborah Fontanel Owens Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees

The The Secret Life of Bees quotes below are all either spoken by Deborah Fontanel Owens or refer to Deborah Fontanel Owens . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of The Secret Life of Bees published in 2003.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around, The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us. This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Lily Owens, the novel's protagonist, recalls an episode from her childhood that's haunted her ever since. As a young girl, Lily witnessed her parents fighting. Lily's father, T. Ray Owens (who still takes care of her) yelled at Lily's mother, Deborah, and Deborah waves gun at T. Ray. Lily can't really recall what happens next, but she believes that she picked up the gun and accidentally fired it at Deborah.

Lily has spent most of her life living in guilt for killing her mother. She can't recall exactly what happened (she was only a small child), but she doesn't especially try to recall—she's afraid of what she'll learn. It seems unhealthy for anyone to feel guilty for what they did at the age of four. But because Lily has no one to talk to--T. Ray seems to despise her--her guilt and anxiety accumulates over the years. Lily's guilt at killing her mother might also represent a kind of "original sin." Sue Monk Kidd fills her novels with Christian themes, and Lily's "sin"--the murder of her mother, for which, as we'll see, she both is and isn't guilty--symbolizes the state of sin that (at least according to Christianity) all human beings are born into.

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Chapter 12 Quotes

“Every person on the face of the earth makes mistakes, Lily. Every last one. We’re all so human. Your mother made a terrible mistake, but she tried to fix it.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of Chapter 12, Lily learns that her mother, Deborah, tried to run out on Lily when Lily was only a baby. Lily is at first angry with herself--she believes that she's unlovable. Then, Lily becomes angry with her mother: she's furious that a member of her own family could treat her so badly. August tries to encourage Lily to forgive her mother for her mistakes, pointing out that everybody makes mistakes.

As simple as August's words may be, they're true--there's no such thing as a perfect human being. By the same token, there's no point in Lily continuing to be angry with her mother. Just as her mother tried to undo her sins by returning to take Lily with her, Lily should move past her anger and forgive Deborah for the "mistake" she made.

Chapter 14 Quotes

In a weird way I must have loved my little collection of hurts and wounds. They provided me with some real nice sympathy, with the feeling I was exceptional. I was the girl abandoned by her mother. I was the girl who kneeled on grits. What a special case I was.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens , T. Ray Owens
Page Number: 278
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lily thinks about her mother, Deborah, and her father, T. Ray. She also considers the way her feelings have changed with regard to her parents. Lily comes to the surprising conclusion that she partly enjoyed her own guilt and suffering--after a certain point, she came to relish feeling sorry for herself, because doing so made her feel special.

Lily's epiphany suggests that her pain and guilt regarding her parents is mostly self-imposed. Lily could feel happier if she really wanted to--but on some level she prefers to feel miserable about T. Ray hurting her and Deborah abandoning her. For Lily to realize that her pain is self-imposed is, by definition, the first step in escaping her own pain.

Drifting off to sleep, I thought about her. How nobody is perfect. How you just have to close your eyes and breathe out and let the puzzle of the human heart be what it is.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel reaches a conclusion, Lily seems to have reached peace with her parents. Although Lily is now fully aware that Deborah abandoned her when she was only a baby, she seems to have forgiven Deborah for her negligence, as August encouraged her to do. In the quotation, Lily is "sleeping easy"--a sign that she's moved past her own feelings of resentment and found inner peace. Lily echoes the advice August offered her in the previous chapter: "Nobody is perfect." Instead of choosing to be angry with Deborah for the rest of her life, Lily accepts that Deborah made a horrible mistake--abandoning her only child. By accepting the truth, Lily is refusing to allow Deborah's sin to cause any more damage than it already has: Lily accepts her mother's actions with grace, and forgives her.

He stood over me. “Deborah,” I heard him mumble. “You’re not leaving me again.” His eyes looked frantic, scared. I wondered if I’d heard him right.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), T. Ray Owens (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens
Page Number: 294
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, T. Ray arrives at the Boatwrights' house and tries to forcibly take his daughter, Lily, back to his home, miles away. As T. Ray and Lily wrestle with each other, he speaks Deborah's name and insists that she'll never leave him again. Lily is confused--T. Ray knows perfectly well that Deborah, his wife, is dead and gone.

As Lily comes to realize, T. Ray sees Deborah's "spirit" in Lily--he 's already been abandoned by his wife, and therefore can't stand to be abandoned by his daughter, too. Lily's abrupt departure from T. Ray's life (she ran away) has reminded T. Ray of the feelings of abandonment he had to deal with when Deborah walked out on him. He tracks down Lily and tries to drag her home in a desperate attempt to alleviate his own suffering.

Surprisingly, T. Ray comes across as a sympathetic character in this quotation. He's certainly not a kind, loving man, but he's clearly been going through a lot of sadness--perhaps his anger at Deborah's departure helps explain why he was always so mean to Lily (without excusing his actions). Moreover, T. Ray's behavior shows how dangerous sin can be. T. Ray has allowed Deborah's sin to twist him into a bitter old man. Lily, fortunately has now refused to allow the same thing to happen to her--instead of remaining angry with her mother, Lily forgives her. In an equal act of forgiveness, she forgives T. Ray for his own cruelty, too.

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Deborah Fontanel Owens Character Timeline in The Secret Life of Bees

The timeline below shows where the character Deborah Fontanel Owens appears in The Secret Life of Bees. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lily’s only memory of her mother (Deborah, as we learn later) concerns the day of her death, December 3, 1954. Her mother... (full context)
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Lily’s mother was named Deborah, she recalls. Deborah—whose name T. Ray refuses to say anymore—was born in Virginia. Growing up... (full context)
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...surprise, T. Ray didn’t punish her. Instead, he sat her down and told her about Deborah. Lily vividly remembers the day her mother died—she even blames herself for the death, since... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
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...it up. As he told the police, it was a horrible accident that led to Deborah’s death: Lily accidently aimed the gun at her mother. With this, T. Ray leaves Lily... (full context)
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...the tin box that contains her mother’s possessions. She looks at the photograph and strokes Deborah’s gloves. Suddenly Lily hears T. Ray running toward her with a flashlight, and she quickly... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...“You think that goddamn woman gave a shit about you?” T. Ray tells Lily that Deborah was planning to leave both of them on the day she died—she’d come back to... (full context)
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...for her father, in which she tells him to “rot in hell” for lying about Deborah. (full context)
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...Rosaleen, and then go to Tiburon, South Carolina, the town scribbled on the back of Deborah’s picture of the Virgin Mary. As she reaches this decision, Brother Gerald drives by. When... (full context)
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Lily tells Rosaleen what T. Ray told her about Deborah. Rosaleen agrees with Lily that it’s possible that T. Ray lied. Nevertheless, she’s disappointed that... (full context)
Chapter 3
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...life. Because Rosaleen is still sleeping, Lily passes the time by imagining a reason why Deborah owned a picture of a black Virgin Mary. Lily remembers that only Catholics carry pictures... (full context)
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...tells Rosaleen that they have to go to August’s house. Rosaleen is skeptical—it’s possible that Deborah never met August, she says—but she agrees to walk to the house, anyway. (full context)
Chapter 5
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...well, asks Lily if she’s all right. When Lily doesn’t reply, Rosaleen tells her that Deborah is dead, and is never coming back. She adds that she doesn’t want to see... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...will lose its mystery. Later that night, Lily decides to show August the picture of Deborah soon. (full context)
Chapter 8
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...card that he ignored. She ends the letter by saying that she doesn’t believe that Deborah was going to leave her. After writing the letter, Lily rips it to pieces. She... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...the trick from her mother. Lily asks May if she ever knew a woman named Deborah Fontanel (Deborah’s maiden name). May immediately replies, “She stayed out there in the honey house.”... (full context)
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...off with Lily, but Lily refuses to explain herself. She wants to ask August about Deborah and demand to know why August didn’t tell Lily she knew Deborah. In the end,... (full context)
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...afternoon, Lily takes the photograph of her mother and goes to talk to August about Deborah. As she’s about to walk into the house, Zach calls her—apparently, August is in the... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...really is to August, but keeps this secret hidden for now. She imagines May greeting Deborah in Heaven, and prays that May will convince Deborah to send Lily a sign that... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Lily sits in August’s room, waiting to ask her about Deborah. She’s only been here once before: this time, she notices that everything is blue. She... (full context)
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...remembers. Lily shows August the photograph of her mother, and August replies, “Your mother was Deborah Fontanel Owens.” August explains that she knew that Lily was Deborah’s daughter as soon as... (full context)
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...tries to tell Lily everything. Years ago, she says, she worked as a maid in Deborah’s house in Richmond. Deborah was a lively child, though a bad student. Before August says... (full context)
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August comforts Lily, telling her that everyone loves her—even June, who resented Deborah. Confused, Lily asks August what she means. August explains that June, who also worked as... (full context)
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...gives August the “missing piece” of the story: the picture of the Virgin Mary that Deborah carried around. August explains that she gave Deborah the picture shortly before her death—Deborah must... (full context)
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August explains her relationship with Deborah. She worked for Deborah’s mother beginning in 1931. Deborah had an active imagination, and even... (full context)
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When August moved to South Carolina to work as a teacher, August explains, Deborah cried like a child, even though she was 19 years old: she loved August dearly.... (full context)
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August tells Lily that Deborah visited her in Tiburon shortly before her death. Deborah told August that she was planning... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...herself not to be angry, but of course this doesn’t work: she’s still angry with Deborah for leaving her as a small child. Furious, Lily throws a tin bucket against the... (full context)
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...Band-Aid. As Rosaleen treats the wound, Lily tells her what she’s learned about August and Deborah. Rosaleen nods—she didn’t know for sure that Deborah was leaving the family on the day... (full context)
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...of the Assumption celebration. At the Daughters’ potluck, Lily asks August to tell Zach about Deborah as soon as she can—August agrees. For the rest of the afternoon, everyone celebrates the... (full context)
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...the blue hat she’s promised Lily. She also gives Lily a box containing some of Deborah’s old things. There’s a mirror, along with an old whale pin and a brush that... (full context)
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The final item August gives Lily is a photograph of Lily—as a baby—with Deborah. Lily is awestruck by this image, because it lets her know that her mother loved... (full context)
Chapter 14
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...mother, forget her mother, etc.—but nothing works: she keeps coming back to the fact that Deborah abandoned her to go to Tiburon. (full context)
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...story of the runaway nun. The point of the story, August claims, was that in Deborah’s absence, the Lady of Chains could be a mother for Lily. She adds that Mary... (full context)
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Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
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...T. Ray notices the whale pin Lily is wearing. Lily, seeing his surprise, explains that Deborah used to stay in this house. T. Ray is furious, and he hits Lily. She... (full context)
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T. Ray starts to drag Lily toward the door, calling her Deborah, much to Lily’s confusion. Instead of fighting back, Lily calls T. Ray, “Daddy,” and says... (full context)
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...happened the day her mother died. T. Ray replies that it was Lily who shot Deborah. It was an accident, he knows, but Lily shot her. With these words, T. Ray... (full context)