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.
Mothers and Daughters ThemeTracker
Mothers and Daughters Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees
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.
“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?
“You act like you’re my keeper. Like I’m some dumb nigger you gonna save.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.