The Secret Life of Bees

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The Black Virgin Mary Symbol Analysis

The Black Virgin Mary Symbol Icon

One of the most evocative symbols in The Secret Life of Bees is the picture (and later the statue) of the black Virgin Mary that the Boatwright family idolizes. As August Boatwright explains, there’s a long tradition of depicting the Virgin Mary as a black woman, despite the fact that most of the pictures Lily Owens has seen show Mary as white. August’s point is that it’s important to develop religious icons that “fit” their intended community, and thus a black community will naturally gravitate toward a Black Virgin Mary. The Black Virgin Mary takes on another meaning toward the end of the novel, when August reveals that the statue of Mary isn’t really a gift from God—on the contrary, it’s an old ship ornament, nothing more. August uses this fact to show that the value of the Virgin Mary imagery isn’t related to its literal appearance; rather, the statue and image are designed to instill a sense of dignity and religious passion within worshippers. In the end, then, the Black Virgin Mary is a symbol of the power of religious community, and of humans’ potential to find knowledge and peace within themselves.

The Black Virgin Mary Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees

The The Secret Life of Bees quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Black Virgin Mary. 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 2 Quotes

“Well, if you ain’t noticed, she’s colored,” said Rosaleen, and I could tell it was having an effect on her by the way she kept gazing at it with her mouth parted. I could read her thought: If Jesus’ mother is black, how come we only know about the white Mary?

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Rosaleen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary, The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily and Rosaleen are "on the run" from the police (Rosaleen has been unfairly arrested for defending herself from a group of racist white men). They decide to travel to the city of Tiburon, based on a picture of the Virgin Mary depicted as a black woman, which Lily finds among her dead mother's possessions. Rosaleen is reluctant to travel so far based on nothing but Lily's hunch, but she's also interested in tracking down the people who would depict such an important Biblical character as black.

In a way, Lily's quest to track down the "Virgin Mary" is a quest to find a maternal figure: without ever saying so, Lily seems to want to go to Tiburon to learn more about her mother, and perhaps even find solace in the religious mother-figure of Mary. Rosaleen's interest in going to Tiburon is a little different, as the passage makes clear. Rosaleen seems to be most curious about meeting people who share her religious convictions but don't exclude African Americans from religious practice (unlike the racist white preachers we've met in Chapter 1). In a nutshell, Lily seems most interested in the maternal implications of the Virgin Mary picture, while Rosaleen seems more interested in the racial implications. The picture speaks to both women, but in different ways.

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“Well, if you ain’t noticed, she’s colored,” said Rosaleen, and I could tell it was having an effect on her by the way she kept gazing at it with her mouth parted. I could read her thought: If Jesus’ mother is black, how come we only know about the white Mary?

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Rosaleen (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary, The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily and Rosaleen are "on the run" from the police (Rosaleen has been unfairly arrested for defending herself from a group of racist white men). They decide to travel to the city of Tiburon, based on a picture of the Virgin Mary depicted as a black woman, which Lily finds among her dead mother's possessions. Rosaleen is reluctant to travel so far based on nothing but Lily's hunch, but she's also interested in tracking down the people who would depict such an important Biblical character as black.

In a way, Lily's quest to track down the "Virgin Mary" is a quest to find a maternal figure: without ever saying so, Lily seems to want to go to Tiburon to learn more about her mother, and perhaps even find solace in the religious mother-figure of Mary. Rosaleen's interest in going to Tiburon is a little different, as the passage makes clear. Rosaleen seems to be most curious about meeting people who share her religious convictions but don't exclude African Americans from religious practice (unlike the racist white preachers we've met in Chapter 1). In a nutshell, Lily seems most interested in the maternal implications of the Virgin Mary picture, while Rosaleen seems more interested in the racial implications. The picture speaks to both women, but in different ways.

Chapter 4 Quotes

The lips on the statue had a beautiful, bossy half smile, the sight of which caused me to move both my hands up to my throat. Everything about that smile said, Lily Owens, I know you down to the core.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lily arrives in the Boatwrights' house, she's surprised to see a small black statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue makes an impression on her because--as the quote makes very clear--it seems to "understand" her; i.e., it seems to know all about her secret fears and anxieties (her guilt about her mother's death, for example).

The passage is an excellent example of how ceremony and ritual play an important part in religion. Lily knows nothing about the specific rituals associated with the statue. But the mere presence of the statue is enough to inspire feelings of honesty and conviction in her: the statue's beautiful shape and important place in the Boatwrights' house signals that it's an important object, around which Lily should be respectful.

It's also interesting to consider that the Boatwrights are associated with Catholicism at various points in the novel; Catholicism usually being considered a more ritualistic, ceremonial form of Christianity than the Protestantism on which Lily was raised. As the quotation makes clear, rituals and ceremonies are crucial for "drawing out" feelings of faith and purity in Lily.

It should be noted that the statue also has some awkward racial undertones, specifically in the word "bossy," as Kidd presents the Black Mary as the kind of archetypal wise, outspoken black mother-figure for Lily—characteristics that are certainly complimentary, but highlight how all the black figures mostly exist to guide and teach Lily, rather than existing in their own right.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“Mary smiled at Beatrix, then led her back to her room and gave her back her nun outfit. You see, Lily, all that time Mary had been standing in for her.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

August Boatwright tells Lily--now living in her home--a mysterious parable. In the story, a young nun runs away from her convent and spends miserable years on the road. When the nun returns to her home, she's amazed to find that the Virgin Mary was "covering for her," taking her place so that none of the other nuns would notice her absence. As with any parable, August's story is designed to provoke careful thought and meditation. It's worth listing a few of the possible interpretations of the story:

1) As Lily initially believes (wrongly), August is suggesting that Lily return to her home with T. Ray--just as Beatrix the nun was able to return to her home without a problem, so too could Lily return to her father without fear.

2) The story suggests that we all have a mother-figure who watches over us. Such a message is especially relevant to Lily, who longs for a mother to take care of her, and--during the course of the novel--moves between several different "mothers," including Rosaleen and August herself.

3) The parable's ultimate suggestion, as verified by August herself, is that Mary, "the Lady of Chains," could act as a stand-in for Lily's biological mother, Deborah. This is a reminder that Lily's story isn't just the story of her search for the truth about her mother; it's also about her struggle to find religious faith. Over the course of this struggle, Lily often thinks that she's unlovable--that God hates her because of her "crimes." The purpose of August's story, then, is to suggest that everyone--even Beatrix the disobedient nun--gets love and help from the Lord.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“Well,” August said, going right on with her pasting, “you know, she’s really just the figurehead off an old ship, but the people needed comfort and rescue, so when they looked at it, they saw Mary, and so the spirit of Mary took it over. Really, her spirit is everywhere, Lily, just everywhere.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Related Symbols: The Black Virgin Mary
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, August tells Lily the truth about the statue of "Our Lady of Chains." Although the Daughters worship the statue as a sacred object, the truth is that this object itself is totally ordinary--just an old figurehead that fell off a ship.

August's point is that the statue--and for that matter, all ceremonies and rituals--is important not because of its physical shape, qualities, or history, but because of the passion it can inspire in its devotees. The very fact that so many people worship the statue makes the statue meaningful; not the other way around. One could even say that the least important part of worship is the literal object being worshipped; more important is the sense of faith and community centered around the object. In such a way, ritual is really a testament to the powers of the human spirit, not the magical powers of a statue.

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The Black Virgin Mary Symbol Timeline in The Secret Life of Bees

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Black Virgin Mary 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
...photograph of her that Lily found in the attic, and a picture of the Virgin Mary, depicted as a black woman, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scribbled on the back.... (full context)
Chapter 2
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
...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 Lily explains that she’s headed... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
...when Lily shows Rosaleen the picture, Rosaleen is intrigued by the fact that the Virgin Mary is black. (full context)
Chapter 3
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...the time by imagining a reason why Deborah owned a picture of a black Virgin Mary. Lily remembers that only Catholics carry pictures of Mary. There are no Catholics living in... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...nods. Suddenly, she notices a jar of honey bearing a picture of a black Virgin Mary—the same picture she’s carrying with her! The storeowner explains that the seller of the honey... (full context)
Chapter 4
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
...house. When they’re alone, Lily urges Rosaleen not to say anything about Lily’s picture of Mary. (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
At night, everyone kneels before the 3-foot statue—a statue of the Virgin Mary—and prays. Lily is confused when the Boatwrights call the statue, “Our Lady of Chains.” August... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...life, she returns to her convent, where she is shocked to find that the Virgin Mary has been “standing in” for her. Lily doesn’t understand what this story is supposed to... (full context)
Chapter 6
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...neighbors come to their house to join in. The group is called the Daughters of Mary, and is made up of black women dressed in bright yellow skirts. When the Daughters... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
August continues with her story. The figure of the Virgin Mary inspired the slaves to break free from their masters and escape. Ever since then, the... (full context)
Chapter 7
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
...Lily feels an urge to ask June about her mother’s picture of the black Virgin Mary, but she doesn’t out of caution. (full context)
Chapter 8
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
One day, August tells Lily to glue images of the black Virgin Mary to the honey jars. As Lily looks at these images, she imagines what her life... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
August tells Lily a secret. The black statue in her house isn’t really the Virgin Mary at all; it’s just a figurehead from an old ship. The figurehead has been in... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...at night, Lily wanders through the Boatwright house. She sees the statue of the Virgin Mary and observes that it looks very different at night: older and more mysterious. She faces... (full context)
Chapter 10
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
The Daughters of Mary arrive at the Boatwright house with food for May’s vigil. At the vigil, a guest... (full context)
Chapter 11
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
...lively, and when it’s over everyone goes to the parlor to pray to the Virgin Mary. Afterwards, August touches the statue and sighs, “Well that’s that.” (full context)
...her that today is August 15—the Feast of Assumption (a Catholic holiday celebrating the Virgin Mary and her ascension to Heaven). Lily explains that at her usual church, “we don’t really... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
The rest of the Boatwright house proceeds with work for Mary Day, overjoyed by June’s good news. Lily makes garlands all day, and the Boatwrights offer... (full context)
Chapter 12
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...also sees an aquarium that contains honeycomb. Lily finds a book on August’s shelf, called Mary Through the Ages. Inside, she finds depictions of the Virgin Mary from various eras. One... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
...Outside, Lily 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... (full context)
Chapter 13
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
...She wonders, “where do I go from here?” She decides to pray before the Virgin Mary statue. Downstairs, she sees the statue, glowing in red candlelight. Lily tries to tell herself... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
In the afternoon, the Daughters of Mary come to the Boatwright house bearing food for the second day of the Assumption celebration.... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
The Daughters gather around the Mary statue and bathe it in honey: each woman covers her hands in the honey and... (full context)
Chapter 14
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...Deborah’s absence, the Lady of Chains could be a mother for Lily. She adds that Mary isn’t just a statue: she’s something inside Lily. Lily doesn’t understand what August means. Then,... (full context)
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
...Lily, and now it’s time for her to go home. He notices the statue of Mary, and calls it “something from the junkyard.” Lily quietly asks T. Ray how she found... (full context)
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...a “good woman.” Right on cue, August enters the room, followed by the Daughters of Mary. Lily notices that they’re looking aggressive, as if daring T. Ray to try to take... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
...with the Boatwrights. She decorates her room with blue, and goes to the Daughters of Mary meetings. Forrest tells Lily that he’s “working things out” in Sylvan, so that neither Rosaleen... (full context)
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
...her. She thinks about the day T. Ray left her, and about the statue of Mary—a woman who lives inside her. Lily concludes that she is lucky: she has many, many... (full context)