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 Secret Life of Bees
Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
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.
...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)
...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)
...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)
...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)
...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)
...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)
...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)