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.
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon

From the first chapter, Sue Monk Kidd makes it clear that she’s writing a novel about the relationships between different kinds of women. Because the protagonist of her book is a young teenager who’s lost her mother, and the majority of the other female characters are adult women, the most important kind of woman-to-woman relationship for the novel is that between the mother and the daughter. Lily travels to Tiburon, South Carolina, in search of information about her dead mother, Deborah, and she also admits to be looking for a maternal figure—a metaphorical mother—to replace Deborah. How does Kidd depict the mother-daughter relationship, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of this relationship?

The first thing we notice about mother-daughter relationships in The Secret Life of Bees is that they’re incredibly loving and nurturing. This is especially clear in the first chapters of the book, when Kidd contrasts Lily’s relationship with her cruel, mean-spirited father, T. Ray, with Lily’s fond memories of Deborah. Even more telling is the relationship between Lily and her black maid, Rosaleen: Rosaleen acts like a mother, baking Lily a birthday cake (T. Ray ignores her birthday altogether), and gives Lily comfort and support whenever she needs it. The metaphorical mother-daughter bond between Rosaleen and Lily is even stronger than the literal, biological bond between Lily and T. Ray—indeed, this bond is so strong that it breaks the “color line.” Like Rosaleen, many of the women in the novel feel an instinctive need to love and protect children, especially girls. During the course of her time in South Carolina, then, Lily moves back and forth smoothly between many mother figures: Rosaleen, August Boatwright, May Boatwright, and even the Virgin Mary. All of these women provide Lily with different versions of the same things: love, support, affection, and wisdom. As Lily notes, “I have many mothers.”

The biggest strength of the mother-daughter relationship is also its greatest weakness, however. Because Lily can move back and forth between so many outstanding mother-figures, she keeps returning to her literal mother’s neglectfulness. Indeed, it’s Lily’s most important mother-figure, August, who tells Lily the truth about Deborah: Deborah abandoned Lily for three months because of her depression. Even though Deborah tried to take Lily away from T. Ray after the depression subsided, Lily finds it almost impossible to come to terms with her mother’s behavior: she’s come to expect so much of her mothers that it’s a genuine struggle for her to accept that her biological mother was anything less than perfect.

For all the limitations of the maternal bond, Lily becomes a stronger, wiser person because of the influence of mother-figures like Rosaleen and August. Moreover, she’s still learning from her mothers as the book ends. Unlike many of the canonical coming-of-age novels about a boy (for example, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), The Secret Life of Bees doesn’t end with the child “going out into the world” and cutting off ties with his or her parents. Lily continues to live with Rosaleen and August and celebrate the importance of the mothers in her life.

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Mothers and Daughters ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Mothers and Daughters 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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Mothers and Daughters 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 Mothers and Daughters.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I used to have daydreams in which she was white and married T. Ray, and became my real mother. Other times I was a Negro orphan she found in a cornfield and adopted.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Rosaleen , T. Ray Owens
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Lily has a lonely life with her father, T. Ray. In her imagination, she fantasizes about escaping her home and "starting over." For Lily, Rosaleen--the black woman who usually takes care of her--represents a path to escape. As far as Lily can tell, Rosaleen is a proud, confident woman--practically a role model for Lily, who seems neither proud nor confident.

The quotation is important because it suggests Lily's deep need for a maternal figure--a need that trumps the racial mores of the era. Despite the fact that blacks were still treated as second-class citizens in the South during the 1960s (the era in which the novel is set), Lily gravitates to Rosaleen without hesitation. Her need for a mother is so great that she ignores the racist sentiments of her father and friends (although Lily still has a racist worldview at this point). Lily's fantasies of becoming a "negro orphan" also foreshadow the plot of the novel. As we'll see, Lily will run away and join a family of black women.


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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.

“You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb nigger you gonna save.”

Related Characters: Rosaleen (speaker), Lily Owens
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lily and Rosaleen are still on the road, fleeing from the police. They've agreed to journey to Tiburon, a town that's many miles away. Along the way, Rosaleen begins to get fed up with Lily. It was Lily's idea to go to Tiburon in the first place, and lately, Lily has been acting like the "leader" of the duo, despite the fact that Rosaleen is a much older woman, and has been taking care of Lily for many years. Rosaleen calls out Lily for her condescending attitude--an attitude that's rooted in racial prejudice as much as anything else.

Although Lily has generally been presented as an intelligent, fair-minded young woman, Kidd doesn't deny the fact that she still has the racist worldview of her time and place. Lily would never hurt Rosaleen, but she's been trained to think of Rosaleen--and all African Americans--as being "below" whites in every way. The quotation is important, then, because it establishes a problem--Lily's cluelessness around African Americans--that will slowly be solved over the course of the novel.

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.

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

“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.

Chapter 9 Quotes

Outside, the night sky was moving over us. I was aware of it, aware of the way Clayton had said he seemed all right, as if we all understood he wasn’t but would pretend otherwise. August closed her eyes, used her fingers to smooth out the skin on her forehead. I saw a shiny film on her eyes—the beginning of tears. Looking at her eyes, I could see a fire inside them.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), August Boatwright , Zachary Taylor / Zach , Clayton Forrest
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Zachary Taylor is wrongfully arrested for supposedly fighting with a group of racist whites. August and Lily learn that Zach will be forced to spend the next five nights in jail--something that August finds infuriating.

The passage reminds us of the outrageous bigotry that the African American community faced in the 1960s. Although blacks had some legal protections, these protections were poorly enforced, with the result that teenagers like Zach could be sentenced to nearly a week in jail (or worse) for essentially no reason at all. Furthermore, the passage depicts August at her strongest and most maternal. Although August has no biological connection to Zach, she considers Zach her "family"--they've known one another for many years, and she cares about him deeply. August is a "mother" to many, like the Virgin Mary herself, and she clearly considers Zach to be one of her "children"—just as she does Lily.

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.