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.
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon

It’s easy to see that The Secret Life of Bees is a religious novel, even an explicitly Christian novel. The characters gain wisdom and happiness by gathering together to worship Christian figures like the Virgin Mary, and Lily Owens, the protagonist, has some of her most important insights while she’s praying. And yet none of the characters have much respect for churches (indeed, the only priest in the book is portrayed as being foolish at best and racist at worst). This points to the fact that the characters believe in building a personal relationship with the Virgin Mary and the transcendent, outside of the tenets of organized religion. Most importantly, the characters use their religious faith to confront their own guilt, and learn how to forgive themselves and each other.

The Secret Life of Bees begins with a quintessential Christian concept: sin. Lily hates herself because she believes that she was responsible for accidentally killing her own mother, Deborah. For most of the novel, Lily has a conflicted relationship with her mother: she wants to know more about her, but she’s also terrified of what she might learn (for example, that she really did kill her mother). With August Boatwright’s help, Lily learns about specific religious rituals and ceremonies (see the Ceremony and Ritual theme), but even more importantly, she learns how to use religion to address her own sense of guilt.

August teaches Lily to accept tragedy and imperfection, both in herself and in other people. For Lily, this process must begin with accepting the love of other people. In an emotional scene, Lily repeats, “I am unlovable,” only to hear August correct her: everyone loves her. By accepting that she’s loved, Lily learns to love herself, including her own sins and mistakes. With this knowledge, Lily gains the courage to accept other people’s sins. The big test of Lily’s moral progress comes at the end of the book, when T. Ray comes to the Boatwright house to take Lily home. Instead of yelling or fighting back, Lily calmly apologizes to her father for running away, and feels sorry for him. Thanks to August’s help, Lily has learned to be sympathetic, even to highly unsympathetic people: because she forgives herself for her own sins, she can forgive other people, too.

Ultimately, sin, guilt, and forgiveness are parts of an ongoing process. Perhaps August’s most important lesson for Lily is also her most explicitly Christian: although we’ll never be perfect, the Virgin Mary is “inside” us all, helping us come to grips with our own mistakes. Faith and religion don’t provide a one-time solution to Lily’s problems—rather, they help her understand the complexities of life as she grows up.

Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness 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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Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness 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 Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around, The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us. This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away.

Related Characters: Lily Owens (speaker), Deborah Fontanel Owens
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback scene, Lily Owens, the novel's protagonist, recalls an episode from her childhood that's haunted her ever since. As a young girl, Lily witnessed her parents fighting. Lily's father, T. Ray Owens (who still takes care of her) yelled at Lily's mother, Deborah, and Deborah waves gun at T. Ray. Lily can't really recall what happens next, but she believes that she picked up the gun and accidentally fired it at Deborah.

Lily has spent most of her life living in guilt for killing her mother. She can't recall exactly what happened (she was only a small child), but she doesn't especially try to recall—she's afraid of what she'll learn. It seems unhealthy for anyone to feel guilty for what they did at the age of four. But because Lily has no one to talk to--T. Ray seems to despise her--her guilt and anxiety accumulates over the years. Lily's guilt at killing her mother might also represent a kind of "original sin." Sue Monk Kidd fills her novels with Christian themes, and Lily's "sin"--the murder of her mother, for which, as we'll see, she both is and isn't guilty--symbolizes the state of sin that (at least according to Christianity) all human beings are born into.


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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.

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.

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 11 Quotes

“I’m sorry for being so hard on you when you first got here…”

Related Characters: June Boatwright (speaker), Lily Owens
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, June Boatwright, August Boatwright's sister, apologizes to Lily for being mean to her when Lily first arrived. June immediately treated Lily with disdain when Lily arrived at the Boatwrights' home--and it was never entirely clear why June behaved this way. In part, Lily believed that June disliked her because she was white, and therefore a representative of the social group that oppresses June and her sisters.

It's important to keep in mind that just before this quotation, June has gotten engaged to her longtime admirer, Neil. By juxtaposing two important moments for June--her engagement and her apology--Kidd implies that the two moments are closely linked. In other words, it's suggested, June didn't hate Lily simply because of Lily's skin color; she hated Lily because of her own sadness and pain--she took out her feelings on the most convenient scapegoat available, Lily the runaway.

Chapter 12 Quotes

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.

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.