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.
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession ThemeTracker
Lying, Storytelling, and Confession Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“It hurts, I know it does. Let it out. Just let it out.”
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?
“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.