The Secret Life of Bees

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Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Analysis

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.
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon

One of the first things we learn about Lily Owens, the protagonist of The Secret Life of Bees, is that she’s a gifted storyteller. Lily enjoys writing stories; moreover, she’s good at inventing “stories”—in other words, lies—to get herself out of trouble. At several points, Lily’s ability to concoct a convincing story saves her from jail (and moves the plot of the novel forward). But storytelling in The Secret Life of Bees is more than a plot device or an aspect of the protagonist’s personality. There are many several kinds of storytelling in the novel, and by telling different kinds of stories, some fictional and some true, Lily makes sense of her life and matures as a person.

In the first half of the book, Lily becomes an adult by telling stories, most of which are lies. She’s forced to lie quickly and cleverly in order to keep Rosaleen out of jail. As she lies to her father, to police officers, and to nurses, Lily has a strange, “out of body” experience—she can’t believe she’s telling these lies so easily. The experience Lily describes is an important part of her development: although she’s spent her entire life up to this point being yelled at by others (mostly her father), she realizes that she can fight back by crafting her own stories and presenting them as the truth. In the second half of the book, Lily switches from telling lies to telling true stories, reflecting her greater maturity and wisdom. After her friend Zach buys her a notebook and tells her to fill it with stories, Lily writes about her experiences in Tiburon, South Carolina: when there’s a tragedy in her life, she takes control of the tragedy by turning it into a story. In these chapters, Lily experiences an epiphany that’s familiar to any writer: she realizes that she can come to terms with the truth simply by writing it down.

The crux of Lily’s realization is that there’s a fundamental difference between experiencing something and telling a “story” about it: by telling the truth about her pain, she can move past it. This idea is exemplified by May Boatwright, who has the practice of writing down any tragic thing she hears or experiences and putting the piece of paper into a stone wall. Another poignant example of this principle comes at the end of the novel, when Lily tells August Boatwright the story of her life: how she’s always felt guilty for killing her mother; how she hates her father; how she’s aspired to get out of Sylvan and explore the world. In this scene, Lily experiments with a new kind of storytelling: confession. Even though Lily thinks about her mother’s death constantly, it’s genuinely difficult for her to confess her feelings to another person. This demonstrates the value of confession: by telling (not just thinking about) the truth, Lily takes the crucial first steps in moving past her own guilt and anguish. By admitting her guilt, Lily begins to take control of it, much as she took control of other tragedies in her life through the act of writing about them. By the end of the novel, Lily has been through a great deal, but she’s learned how to take control of her own feelings with the help of storytelling.

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Lying, Storytelling, and Confession ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Lying, Storytelling, and Confession 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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Lying, Storytelling, and Confession 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 Lying, Storytelling, and Confession.
Chapter 2 Quotes

I opened my mouth. I wanted something. Something, I didn’t know what. Mother, forgive. That’s all I could feel. That old longing spread under me like a great lap, holding me tight.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

At the tail-end of Chapter Two, Lily and Rosaleen reconcile. They've been arguing over who's the "leader" of the duo, and whether or not Lily is being racially insensitive. But here, Lily's desire for a mother figure overcomes any disagreement between her and Rosaleen. Even if her upbringing in the South has trained her to think of blacks as second-class, her deep longing for a mother (something she's felt ever since the death of her biological mother years before) pushes her to cast aside her racist preconceptions and embrace Rosaleen.

The passage also has a strong religious element. Lily is overcoming her anger and frustration in the simplest and gentlest way: by asking for forgiveness. As the quotation suggests, the mere act of begging for forgiveness (a quintessential element of Christianity) is enough to diffuse all the tensions--racial and otherwise--between Lily and Rosaleen. The echoes of Christianity in the passage further suggest that Lily's "longing" isn't just a longing for a mother-figure; Lily seems to long for some kind of religious solace as well.


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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

Have you ever written a letter you knew you could never mail but you needed to write it anyway?

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker)
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Lily Owens writes a long letter to her father, T. Ray Owens. Lily has no intention of sending this letter; her reason for writing it is more complicated. Lily wants to write a letter to her father in order to purge herself of some of the anxiety and hatred she feels for T. Ray. She thinks that by "externalizing" these feelings--i.e., writing them down on a page--she can gain some control over them, and hopefully escape them over time.

The notion that one can escape or sort through one's feelings by writing them down is a common theme in literature, and at various points in the novel Lily proves that such an escape is possible. Lily's decision to write a letter to her father anticipates the climactic scene of the novel, in which she purges herself of her guilt by means of another form of communication: direct confession.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“It hurts, I know it does. Let it out. Just let it out.”

Related Characters: August Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Page Number: 238
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Lily confesses her darkest secret to August Boatwright: she feels responsible for the death of her mother, Deborah. August seems to understand right away that it's very hard for Lily to discuss Deborah with anyone else--it's hard enough for Lily to even think about her mother. And yet August insists that it's important for Lily to try to talk about the issue; thus, she encourages Lily to "let it out."

The notion of "letting it out" is important to the novel as a whole. Characters feel a powerful sense of guilt, fear, or hatred--often, their only way of getting over their own feelings is to externalize them by sharing them with other people. In this quotation, then, August is asking Lily to cleanse herself of her guilt by talking about it with another person--August herself. One could say that the scene is a version of the Catholic confessional, with Lily the confessor and August the priest. As in Catholicism, there's inherent virtue in Lily's mere act of confessing; simply to summon the courage to talk about her sins is an important part of being forgiven for her sins.

Kneeling on the floor, unable to stop shuddering, I heard it plainly. It said, You are unlovable, Lily Owens. Unlovable. Who could love you? Who in this world could ever love you?

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker)
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation depicts Lily at her lowest point. She's been feeling guilt for causing the death of her mother for many years, but it's not until this point that guilt consumes her. Afraid that she's murdered a member of her own family--and shocked to learn that her mother ran out on her when Lily was only a baby--Lily jumps to the conclusion that she is unlovable: nobody could ever love a sinner like her.

There's a familiar theme in Christian works that at people's lowest point, they turn to God and find that he still loves and accepts them. In this quotation, we see Lily consumed by the belief that nobody, not even God, can muster compassion for her. From a reader's perspective, however, it's clear that Lily is wrong: on the contrary, Lily is surrounded by people who love her deeply, in spite of her sins. Perhaps it's important for Lily to reach a "rock bottom" point here: alone, angry, and self-hating, she has nowhere to go but up.

“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.