The Secret Life of Bees

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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Secret Life of Bees, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon

Some of the longest and most vivid passages in The Secret Life of Bees are about the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals that take place at the Boatwright house. The three Boatwright sisters subscribe to a religion they’ve developed themselves, blending aspects of Catholicism and African-American history.

The Secret Life of Bees makes it clear that rituals and ceremonies are bent and shaped according to the needs of the people who practice them. The Boatwrights, together with the so-called Daughters of Mary, practice a religion in which they worship the Virgin Mary, whom they depict as a black woman. Every week, the Daughters assemble around a small statue of the Virgin and pray to it. August Boatwright’s explanation for the Daughters’ ritual is that African-Americans need a religion that reflects their own culture, history, and even their appearance. According to the “history” of the Boatwrights’ religion, the statue of the Virgin Mary was given to a slave (Obadiah) by Mary herself, inspiring the slave to break free from his chains. In this tradition, the black Daughters of Mary—who, quite rightly, believe that they’re still the victims of white racism and oppression—obey a set of rituals that are designed to respect their own unique history and culture.

This leads to one of Kidd’s most important points about ritual: it’s designed to build a strong community and sense of identity. By assembling in the same place every week, and worshipping a statue that explicitly represents black history, the Daughters of Mary aren’t just reminding themselves of the importance of prayer and worship—they’re reminding themselves that they are strong, and that they are a group bound together by their common history and heritage. Ceremony and ritual don’t just reflect a community—they nurture it.

One natural question, then, is whether or not the Daughters believe in the literal truth of their rituals. The answer is complicated. While the Daughters have great respect for the statue of Mary, and pray before it with a sense of awed reverence, they’re also fully aware that the statue isn’t literally a relic of the slave era, passed down from the Virgin Mary. August makes this clear when she tells Lily that the statue is actually a figurehead snapped off an old ship. The Daughters don’t worship the statue because of its deep holiness—on the contrary, they give it this holiness in the act of worshipping it. (To emphasize this point, Kidd shows us that casual observers such as T. Ray find the statue of Mary ugly and worthless.) This points to the fact that ceremonies are meant to nurture a sense of holiness that’s already within worshippers’ souls. As August tells Lily, the Virgin Mary isn’t a statue on a table—she’s inside Lily already. Lily’s goal when praying before the statue shouldn’t be to find enlightenment in the statue itself. It should be to find this sense of enlightenment already within herself.

Ultimately, Kidd suggests that rituals are designed to help worshippers find their own wisdom, not tell them what wisdom is. The best proof of this is the fact that Lily—a white teenager surrounded by middle-aged black women—is welcomed into the Daughters of Mary. Although worshipping a black Virgin Mary is designed to instill a sense of community in the Daughters, its ultimate purpose is also to help people be at peace with themselves. Lily isn’t black, and hasn’t gone through the same experiences as the Daughters, but because she’s sincere in her desire to be enlightened and happy, she becomes one of the Daughters.

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Ceremony and Ritual ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Ceremony and Ritual appears in each chapter of The Secret Life of Bees. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Ceremony and Ritual Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees

Below you will find the important quotes in The Secret Life of Bees related to the theme of Ceremony and Ritual.
Chapter 3 Quotes

According to Brother Gerald, hell was nothing but a bonfire for Catholics.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Brother Gerald
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

For most of the novel, Lily will make friends with black Catholic women--a veritable trifecta of oppressed citizenship in the South. (Blacks are perceived as inferior to whites; Catholics as inferior to Protestants; women as inferior to men.) As this quotation makes clear, the church in the South is deeply unfriendly to the Catholic religion; preachers even suggest that all Catholics go to hell.

The quotation further implies that the Christian institutions of the South, in spite of their claims to teach love, mercy, and faith, are often just used to justify hatred. As we've already seen, the church in Lily's town is deeply prejudiced against black people; it's not surprising that it's similarly intolerant to Catholics. As the novel progresses, Lily finds a form of Christianity that--unlike the one she grew up with--is loving and accepting of all people, including and especially the people that society disdains.


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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.

I walked the length of the fence, and it was the same all the way, hundreds of these bits of paper. I pulled one out and opened it, but the writing was too blurred from rain to make out. I dug another one. Birmingham, Sept 15, four little angels dead.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), May Boatwright
Related Symbols: The Stone Wall
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lily follows May Boatwright--the strange, quiet Boatwright sibling--to the stone wall near the Boatwright house. There, Lily finds hundreds of slips of paper, crammed into the cracks of the wall. One of these slips of paper mentions four "angels" killed in Birmingham--a clear allusion to the four black girls who were murdered when the Ku Klux Klan bombed a black church that had been supportive of the Civil Rights Movement.

May is deeply saddened by the racism and intolerance in the United States; whenever a new tragedy occurs, she writes it down and slips the note into the wall. May is a vessel for the racial tragedies of her country; moreover, she herself has become so overwhelmed with tragedy that she's turned to the stone wall to help her "carry the weight." May's actions have a ceremonial, performative quality. As with the other ceremonial acts in the novel, May's behavior doesn't literally accomplish anything, but the symbolic act of filing away papers helps May feel stronger and more in control.

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 6 Quotes

“The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…”

Not because she wore chains,” the Daughters chanted.

“They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them.

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, we see the Daughters--a group of black women who worship the statue of the Lady of Chains / Virgin Mary--uniting together in ritualistic celebration. The passage makes several important points about the nature of the Daughters' religious practice.

First, the passage suggests the way that ritual is used to reinforce religious faith and create a sense of community. Everyone in the scene already knows the story of the Lady of Chains (they've been saying the chant for years). But the Daughters continue to perform the chant to remind themselves of the beautiful story on which their religion is founded: a story in which a prisoner attains freedom and dignity through the strength of her faith. Moreover, the chant builds cooperation and unity between the Daughters: the Daughters are a close-knit group, and their religious rituals keep it so.

Additionally, the passage shows some of the racial components of the Daughters' religion. By choosing to worship a prisoner, the Daughters (all of whom are black) clearly allude to African Americans' traumatic history as slaves for white Americans. "Chains" might also suggest the racist laws and practices that keep black people poor and segregated, even 100 years after slavery was banned. By celebrating the story of the Lady of Chains, the Daughters are suggesting that even the most racially persecuted members of society can find happiness and empowerment by embracing God.

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.

“What I mean is that the bees weren’t really singing the words from Luke, but still, if you have the right kind of ears, you can listen to a hive and hear the Christmas story somewhere inside yourself.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Related Symbols: Bees
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, August takes Lily out to visit her collection of beehives. Lily is stunned to see a vast collection of hives, from which comes a strong humming noise--the noise of thousands and thousands of bees. August claims that one can hear the sound of music in the hives, along with the key stories of Christianity, such as the "Christmas story."

The episode reinforces an important point: the mind and spirit are the most powerful things in the world, and they have the power to endow even ordinary things (like an old statue, or the buzzing of bees) with extraordinary meaning and power. This is Kidd once again commenting on the importance of ritual and keeping an open mind to the wonder of the world.

“Egg laying is the main thing, Lily. She’s the mother of every bee in the hive, and they all depend on her to keep it going. I don’t care what their job is—they know the queen is their mother. She’s the mother of thousands.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Related Symbols: Bees
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Out by the beehives, August Boatwright explains the importance of the queen bee to Lily Owens. The queen bee, August says, is the "mother" of all the other bees in the hive. In other words, the queen has an unfathomable responsibility; a responsibility that she weathers calmly and peacefully. There are many different ways to interpret August's quote. One could argue that the queen bee represents the mother for whom Lily is still searching. Lily began her quest to Tiburon by searching for literal information about her biological mother. But over time, Lily has begun to interpret her need for a mother more and more abstractly. At first, she gravitated toward August--a kind, maternal presence. And now, prompted by August, Lily seems to be turning to the natural world itself--the world of bees, hives, etc.--for the sense of comfort and peace she was once looking for in a biological mother. The queen bee might also represent the ritual and ceremony that unites the Daughters--a group of women who come from many different walks of life. Lily has come to see how the statue of Our Lady of Chains unites the Daughters, much as the queen bee unites her bees. Thus, August seems to be suggesting that Mary herself is the "mother of thousands," and is strong and loving enough to take care of Lily too.