The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter begins with a quote from a book about bees: when a queen bee is taken from a hive, the other bees notice her absence immediately, and begin to act “queenly” themselves.
Kidd will start each chapter of her book with a bee-related “proverb”—a bee fact (from an imaginary book) that relates to the chapter that follows it.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
The year is 1964. An unnamed narrator sits in bed and watches bees flying around the room. The narrator, a 14-year-old girl, thinks back on everything that’s happened to her that summer. She compares the bees in her room to angels, coming to Earth to right the world’s wrongs. She concludes that, in spite of everything, she remains “tender toward the bees.”
We begin at the end, as Kidd makes it clear that she’ll tell this story in a flashback. The narrator seems to be happy and secure at this point, but it’s also clear that she’s experienced some tragedy.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
It’s July 1, 1964 (a flashback from the previous scene). The narrator sits in bed. Rosaleen, the family maid, has worked for the narrator’s family since the narrator’s mother’s death. Because Rosaleen has no children of her own, she thinks of the narrator as her child. The narrator’s father is T. Ray—she never calls him “Daddy.”
We now see the relationship between the chapter and the epigraph about bees. In the absence of a biological mother, the narrator turns to mother-figures like Rosaleen. The narrator’s relationship with her father, by contrast, is cold and distant, as evidenced by her refusal to call him “Daddy.”
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
The narrator’s mother died when she was 4 years old, supposedly because of an “accident.” The narrator thinks about being reunited with her mother in Heaven one day. She also thinks about the misery of living with her father, T. Ray—a mean, bitter man. Although he loved his wife, he hasn’t been the same since her death.
From early on, Kidd makes it clear that this is a religious novel, in the sense that the main character takes for granted the existence of Heaven and, presumably, a God. Kidd also uses this section to give us some information about T. Ray’s character. Although he’s mean now, his meanness seems tied to his grief at his wife’s death, making him more sympathetic.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Get the entire Secret Life LitChart as a printable PDF.
The secret life of bees.pdf.medium
The narrator sees a swarm of bees entering her room, and she runs to wake her father. When T. Ray surveys the narrator’s room, he finds no bees, and angrily tells the narrator—whose name, we learn, is Lily Owens—“this isn’t funny.”
T. Ray is presented to us as an angry, impatient man, who has no idea how to interact with a girl, even if the girl is his own child. In a novel that already privileges the importance of bees, it’s an obvious sign of ignorance and shortsightedness not to notice the bees’ existence.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Lily’s only memory of her mother (Deborah, as we learn later) concerns the day of her death, December 3, 1954. Her mother was walking through the house, packing a suitcase, when T. Ray walked in and began arguing with her. Lily overheard their yelling, but can’t remember what the argument was about, exactly. Suddenly, Lily’s mother ran to Lily and held her in her arms—then, T. Ray pulled her mother away. Lily remembers her mother waving a gun at T. Ray, and then T. Ray snatching the gun. Lily remembers picking up the gun when her father dropped it, and then a loud gunshot, and then silence. Lily sometimes imagines that she is responsible for her mother’s death.
This is one of the most important moments in the book: the scene to which Kidd (and Lily) will return again and again. Although Lily was obviously too young to be morally responsible for her actions, it’s possible, based on this description, that Lily accidentally shot her own mother. Through Lily, Kidd conveys the concept that human beings are capable of doing evil things, even before they’re aware of what they’re doing.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lily and T. Ray live in the town of Sylvan, South Carolina. Lily is an unpopular child, partly because she’s shy and partly because T. Ray refuses to take her to football games or other town events. She tried to attend the town’s Charm School, but because she had no mother to present her with the traditional white rose, she wasn’t admitted. Rosaleen had wanted to give her the rose, but because Rosaleen is black, this wasn’t allowed.
This is an important passage because it establishes that the novel is set in a time when racism was still openly accepted throughout the country. Blacks couldn’t participate in many social actions—like here, with the Charm School ceremony. The novel focuses on Lily and her quest to love herself and find a mother, but Kidd also deals with racism quite often (and sometimes problematically), particularly as it affects the black “secondary” characters.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
The morning after she wakes T. Ray, Lily tries to catch a bee to prove that she wasn’t lying last night. She shows Rosaleen the jar she’s found, and Rosaleen warns her that she’ll be stung. Lily nods, thinking to herself that Rosaleen—in spite of her tough attitude—loves her very much. Rosaleen left her husband because he drank and “caroused” too much, and though she has many siblings, she never sees them. Lily often fantasizes about Rosaleen becoming white and becoming her “real” mother, or else imagines herself becoming a “Negro orphan” and being adopted by Rosaleen.
Lily changes a lot during the novel, and it’s important to understand what kind of person she is before she embarks on her adventures. Lily is young and fairly immature—in this scene, Rosaleen treats her like a small child, not a teenager. More importantly, though, she’s been brought up in a society that treats black people as second-class citizens—as a result, she thinks that only a white woman could replace her mother. This is illogical (a replacement mother could be any woman), but it reflects Lily’s racially biased thinking.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Lily’s mother was named Deborah, she recalls. Deborah—whose name T. Ray refuses to say anymore—was born in Virginia. Growing up without a mother, Lily had to rely on Rosaleen for “mother’s advice” about things like her period, trying out for the cheerleading team, etc. Lily keeps some of her mother’s old things in a tin box: her gloves, a photograph of her that Lily found in the attic, and a picture of the Virgin Mary, depicted as a black woman, with the words “Tiburon, South Carolina” scribbled on the back. Nobody knows about the box, not even Rosaleen. Lily keeps it buried beneath a tree.
Lily still has a close, personal relationship with Deborah’s memory, despite the fact that Deborah herself is dead. Lily is protective of her intimate relationship with her mother—she doesn’t want anyone to know about it, perhaps because some part of her understands that it’s based on a fantasy, not the truth.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Lily spends her afternoon selling the peaches her father picks. This is her summer job—an extremely lonely job, since it requires her to sit in a roadside hut alone for long hours every day. She tries to read books during her job, but T. Ray sometimes sees her reading, and becomes so angry that she’s forced to spend her time doing nothing. In spite of this, Lily loves reading. One of her schoolteachers, Mrs. Henry, made her fall in love with Shakespeare, and encouraged her to become a professor a writer. Although T. Ray doesn’t support Lily’s writing, and even mocks her for wanting to study writing in college, Lily hopes that Mrs. Henry will be able to find a way to send her to college on scholarship.
The overarching characteristic of Lily’s community in South Carolina is that everyone should know their place. Thus, blacks should accept that they’re second-class citizens, Lily should do her job instead of reading and trying to go to college, etc. Kidd shows how the community in Sylvan beats these lessons into people’s heads as they grow up. It’s inspiring that Lily continues to feel a strong ambition to get out of Sylvan and study writing, considering that almost everyone around her wants her to give up this dream.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Theme Icon
Lily remembers the day when she was 6, and T. Ray found her sticking a nail in his peaches. To Lily’s surprise, T. Ray didn’t punish her. Instead, he sat her down and told her about Deborah. Lily vividly remembers the day her mother died—she even blames herself for the death, since she remembers holding the gun at one point.
Kidd has already implied that Lily blames herself for Deborah’s death, but by repeating this information, she reminds us of Lily’s guilt. Lily thinks about Deborah’s death all the time; in fact, her love for her mother is inseparable from her own sense of guilt.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lily tells T. Ray she remembers the day her mother died. Angry and surprised, T. Ray tells Lily to tell him everything she remembers. Lily explains that she remembers a gun, an argument, a loud explosion, and—at one point—picking up the gun. T. Ray nods and tells Lily that the gun went off when Lily picked it up. As he told the police, it was a horrible accident that led to Deborah’s death: Lily accidently aimed the gun at her mother. With this, T. Ray leaves Lily alone.
Because we don’t know very much about T. Ray, we don’t know if he’s lying or telling the truth about Lily’s manslaughter. One thing is sure, though: T. Ray is a bad father. He doesn’t make any effort to comfort or console his daughter after delivering this crushing news. Instead, he just leaves her to wallow in her guilt and unhappiness.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
At 6 pm on the hot July day, Lily walks back to the house. She finds Rosaleen in the living room, watching the television set. Lyndon B. Johnson has just signed the Civil Rights Act, protecting the rights of African Americans in the U.S. Rosaleen says “Hallelujah” when she hears this news, but Lily is worried—she wonders how the people of Sylvan will react.
Here Kidd explicitly places her story in its historical setting. The Civil Rights Act was seen as a great legal and civic victory for African Americans, but the reality was that many racist white Americans clung to the status quo and refused to accept this ruling, even threatening the safety of any blacks who attempted to exercise their rights.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
At dinner that evening, Lily brings up her birthday to T. Ray. She tells him she’d like to have a silver bracelet as a present, but T. Ray doesn’t reply. That night, she waits for her father to fall asleep, and then sneaks outside to watch the full moon. She goes to a tree and digs up the tin box that contains her mother’s possessions. She looks at the photograph and strokes Deborah’s gloves. Suddenly Lily hears T. Ray running toward her with a flashlight, and she quickly covers the tin with dirt. T. Ray angrily calls Lily a “slut” for sneaking out, and he punishes her by making her “kneel on grits” (ground-up corn).
This scene conveys T. Ray’s refusal to understand his daughter’s inner life. Despite the fact that Lily is going outside to be close to her dead mother—not a bad thing by any means—T. Ray automatically assumes the worst of her, and accuses her of being sexually licentious. T. Ray’s punishment also seems especially petty and sadistic, emphasizing the injustice of it.
Themes
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
The next morning, T. Ray orders Lily to go to the peach stand and “do some work.” Lily nods, but secretly decides to leave T. Ray as soon as possible. In the afternoon, she catches a few bees in her jar.
The parallel between Lily’s life and the “lives of bees” is clear here: Lily is trapped in a tiny, community and unhappy home situation, just as the bees are trapped in their jar.
Themes
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
In the evening, Rosaleen tells Lily that she’ll be in town tomorrow, rather than coming in to clean the house. Lily notices that Rosaleen has been practicing writing her own name. Rosaleen explains that there’s a voter’s rally on the 4th of July to celebrate the new Civil Rights Act: Rosaleen is going to register to vote. Lily, who remembers the news of the blacks in Mississippi who were murdered for registering, asks Rosaleen if T. Ray knows where she’ll be. Rosaleen replies, “T. Ray don’t know nothing.”
During the 1960s, many black people in the U.S. were bullied or even murdered for registering to vote—one of the most famous cases of this occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. Rosaleen knows that she is risking her safety with this act. Clearly Rosaleen has no love for T. Ray either, and she and Lily seem to bond over their desire to “rebel” against him.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
When her father gets home, Lily tells him that she’s going to walk into town with Rosaleen to “buy some sanitary supplies.” T. Ray nods, disgusted, as he assumes Lily is talking about “female puberty.” That night, Lily decides to let the bees out of her jar. To her surprise, the bees stay in the jar even after she removes the lid.
Kidd shows T. Ray’s meanness through his disgust for femininity: he clearly has no interest in his daughter’s life, seems misogynistic in general too. The bees’ decision to stay in the jar could symbolize the human reluctance to take chances and risks—a cage or prison can grow familiar, so that it’s hard to leave even when one is offered freedom.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
In the morning, Rosaleen presents Lily with a cake for her birthday. Lily gratefully eats some of the cake, and then she and Rosaleen walk into town, as planned. They walk past the town’s Baptist Church. Lily’s knees still hurt from T. Ray’s punishment, and so they decide to rest in the church for a moment. Inside, Lily notices the church’s milky-colored windows, out of which she’s stared almost every Sunday since she was born. Lily notes that Rosaleen doesn’t go to church: she has her own religion, based on a combination of ancestor and nature worship. T. Ray finds this religion absurd, but Lily is intrigued by it.
T. Ray’s indifference to Lily’s birthday contrasts markedly with Rosaleen’s warmth and love on this day. Rosaleen is the first mother-figure in Lily’s life (after Deborah herself). Throughout the book, Kidd generally portrays adult women as naturally kind and nurturing (as opposed to male characters like T. Ray). There’s another important contrast in this section between organized religion and “personal,” self-created religion.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Ceremony and Ritual Theme Icon
A priest named Brother Gerald greets Lily, but looks uncomfortable around Rosaleen, who, as a black woman, isn’t allowed in the church. Gerald has previously told Lily that he loves black people, but thinks they should “have their own places.” Rosaleen asks Gerald for a fan for Lily, since it’s her birthday, but Gerald refuses, saying there aren’t enough to go around. Lily and Rosaleen leave the church, and outside, Rosaleen shows Lily that she’s stolen two fans.
Kidd’s critique of the church in the South is apparent here. Although Christianity is based on the principle that all people are equal before God, it’s clear that this church doesn’t practice what it preaches: Brother Gerald believes in the doctrine of “separate but equal,” showing him as a supporter of segregation. Rosaleen is shown to have her own moral code: although she’s stealing in this scene, her crime seems almost justifiable, since Gerald refused Rosaleen a fan seemingly because of his racist dislike for black people.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Lily and Rosaleen proceed to the “bad part” of Sylvan. They see a group of rough-looking men playing cards and shouting. One of the men calls Rosaleen a “nigger,” to which Rosaleen proudly replies that she’s come to Sylvan to register to vote. Although Lily whispers that they should keep moving, Rosaleen stays put. The men approach Rosaleen, ask her where she got her fan: she says she stole the fans from a church, and then she empties her snuffbox onto the men’s shoes. Furious, the men order her to clean their shoes, but she refuses. They push her, and a fight breaks out. Lily feels herself “caught up in a current.” She sees Rosaleen lying on the ground, bleeding.
Here Rosaleen comes face-to-face with the racism of the town of Sylvan. White people insult black people freely, and can essentially act however they want without fear of punishment. Rosaleen is proud and even aggressive with her three tormentors: instead of ignoring them, as Lily wants, Rosaleen confronts them and fights back. As we’ve already seen, Rosaleen is brave and confident, even when she knows that she’s going to get hurt.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon
Mothers and Daughters Theme Icon
The police arrive, and inform Rosaleen that she’s under arrest for “assault, theft, and disturbing the peace.”
Racism is such a huge problem because it’s not just about violence and insults, but also about the way an entire society is structured—if justice were truly “blind,” then the white men would be the ones under arrest, but instead Rosaleen is powerless and the men are immune from punishment.
Themes
Race, America, and the 1960s Theme Icon