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
Religion, Guilt, and Forgiveness Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees
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.
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.
According to Brother Gerald, hell was nothing but a bonfire for Catholics.
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.”
“I’m sorry for being so hard on you when you first got here…”
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.
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.