Study Questions: Overall Novel
1. Describe Lily’s relationship with her mother, Deborah. What makes their
relationship so complicated?
Lily has a very complicated relationship with her dead mother. On one hand, she loves
her mother dearly and misses her constantly throughout the novel, especially when she is
alone at night. Lily fantasizes about Deborah such that Deborah becomes a larger-thanlife, perfect person in Lily’s mind. When she learns that her mother had left her with T.
Ray before she died, she resents her mother a great deal. She is angry with her mother for
not loving her, for not being there for her, and for being a flawed person. But even while
she is filled with anger, Lily still loves her mother dearly and looks for proof everywhere
that her mother cared for her. The fact that she has trouble forgiving her mother disturbs
Lily and leaves her feeling ugly inside. However, Lily eventually realizes that Deborah
was a real person, just as she is, and that even if Deborah had lived, she would have had
flaws and problems. Once Lily realizes her mother was a real, complex person, she takes
time out of her life to mourn the loss of this very real mother. Through this mourning,
Lily discovers the ability to forgive her mother for her faults—and for leaving her behind.
This process is difficult for Lily for many reasons, especially because Lily also feels
guilty for her role in killing her mother. After coming to terms with her mother’s life,
Lily must come to terms separately with her death. Lily relies on the rhythms of the river
to guide her through the trauma. In mourning like the river moves, she lets the pain,
anger, guilt, and frustration flow downhill and out of her life.
2. What is the significance of the female communities in the novel? How do they help
Lily grow up?
When the novel begins, Lily has only one female companion: Rosaleen. However, in
Tiburon, she comes upon a few large, active female communities. The first is “the
calendar sisters”: August, June, and May. These sisters support each other in a way that
Lily has never experienced. Not only do they love each other unconditionally, but they
also accept and compensate for one another’s faults; act sensitively toward one another’s
needs; and willingly, as well as unconditionally, give one another help and love. For
example, August develops the wailing wall to help May deal with her depression.
Whenever May is upset, August or June always encourage her to reduce her pain by
going out to the wall. From this community, Lily learns about being a member of a
supportive family. In just a short time, Lily too encourages May to head to the wall.
Being around the Boatwrights teaches Lily learns how to be a supportive sister to other
women.
For much of the novel, Lily struggles to ask August or the black Mary statue for help or
guidance. She learns that asking for help and guidance is a sign of maturity—and she
begins to understand that asking for help and guidance makes a person stronger. In
addition to the lessons Lily learns from the sisters, Lily matures a great deal by being
around the Daughters of Mary. This boisterous religious community at first seems closed-
off to Lily: they are all black ladies, and she is a young white girl. But their community is
really based on pooling their feminine powers and in praying to their female divinity.
Once Lily realizes the community is based around tenets of support and mutual love, she
soon is able to derive support from the ladies and to love them as they love her. By the
end of the novel, she is an active member in their support group, and she is stronger,
more self-reliant and more mature for it. This female community teaches her how to seek
the support of other women when she is in need.
3. In what ways does Sue Monk Kidd root The Secret Life of Bees in a specific time
and place? How does this tie into Lily’s experience of coming-of-age?
Just as the novel is about Lily’s personal experiences as a young girl discovering her
femininity and searching for love, so is it a novel about a specific time and a place: the
American South during the 1960s. Lily shares a birthday with the United States, a fact
that inextricably binds Lily’s experiences to her country’s experiences. At one point, Lily
watches a man walk on the moon, and at another she walks by banners that say
“Goldwater for President” and “Affirmation Vietnam.” With these and other details, Kidd
carefully reminds readers that her novel takes place during a particular time.
Early in the novel, we learn that the Civil Rights Act has just been signed, and events
influenced by the signing of this act seep into Lily’s experience as a fourteen-year-old
girl in many ways. The Civil Rights Act left many white southerners anxious that their
way of life would be threatened if increased rights were granted to African Americans.
This fear, in turn, appears in the novel as the ever-present racial tension. More
specifically, this fear leads Franklin Posey to bully Rosaleen when she sets out to vote,
and it leads the white police to patrol the movie theater in Tiburon. This second example
of the fear leads to Zach’s arrest and ultimately to May’s suicide. Lily’s maturity and
development begin in earnest only after she has removed herself from the white
community and gone to live in a black community. The changing social situation for
African Americans directly leads to Rosaleen’s arrest, which leads Lily to leave T. Ray,
to find August Boatwright, and to grow up.
Important Quotes:
1. She was black as could be, twisted like driftwood from being out in the weather,
her face a map of all the storms and journeys she’d been through. Her right arm
was raised as if she was pointing the way, except her fingers were closed in a fist. It
gave her a serious look, like she could straighten you out if necessary.
In this quotation, from the beginning of chapter four, Lily describes the black Mary
statue. Lily has just spotted it in the Boatwright house. She has yet to learn of its
significance, to experience its important role in the lives of the Daughters of Mary, and to
understand its place in the family history of the Boatwright sisters. Rather, Lily simply
yet viscerally reacts to the statue’s material, color, and gesture. Immediately she feels that
the statue is able to see deep into her true self. She believes that the statue is aware that
she is lying to August and June about where she has come from and why she has come to
Tiburon. Although she fears the statue, Lily also connects with Our Lady of Chains and
realizes that it has special powers.
These initial reactions help substantiate the role the statue will later take as the
Boatwrights’ central religious artifact, which the Daughters of Mary pray to and which
Lily goes to for guidance. But, more important, Lily thinks of the statue as the
embodiment of a strong and defiant woman. So far, only Rosaleen has inspired Lily to be
more powerful and independent. Lily has never had any other female role models, since
her mother died when Lily was four and she lived isolated with T. Ray. Arriving in
Tiburon, Lily realizes that she has the chance to act in any way she pleases, to become
the person she has always wanted to be—and she grows into a strong, confident young
woman through her experiences with the statue and with beekeeping. Reacting to this
statue in the way she does foreshadows Lily’s eventual transformation. Readers see that
Lily has the capacity to become a powerful woman, because she is able to recognize and
feel magnetically pulled toward images of such a woman.
2. “I’ve just never heard of a Negro lawyer, that’s all. You’ve got to hear of these
things before you can imagine them.”
This conversation, between Lily and Zach, takes place in the middle of chapter 7 and
encapsulates Lily’s limited understanding of how people may transcend social roles. At
this stage, Lily has really own known one African American: Rosaleen. While she cares
for Rosaleen, maybe even loves her, Lily still sees Rosaleen is a domestic figure—as a
woman who fits into the stereotypical role of a southern, uneducated housekeeper. Later,
readers learn that August once worked as a housekeeper as well, but like Lily readers
learn that August chose another life for herself. Lily believes that people have set roles,
which they cannot transcend: black women work as housekeepers, black men do not
become lawyers, and poor white women like Lily go to beauty school.
Zach and August help Lily understand the power of choice. Zach has decided to become
a lawyer, and August chose to become a beekeeper. Both characters believe in
themselves and in their ability to transcend the roles American society has chosen from
them. Rather than simply accept their fates, Zach and August decided to work toward
achieving their dreams. During their conversation, Lily does not mean to discourage or
disparage Zach. She merely expresses the fact that she has never heard of an African
American becoming a lawyer, much the same as she had never heard of an African
American woman running a honey farm before meeting August. Zach feels empowered
by his imagination: the mere act of picturing himself as a lawyer encourages this young
man to work to make the image a reality. Lily will eventually discover that, through her
writing, she will be able to empower the characters she writes about and engage social
dilemmas that she finds restrictive. In her stories, she will depict Zach as a lawyer and
Rosaleen triumphantly confronting her racist foes.
3. I can tell you this much: the world is a great big log thrown on the fires of love.
Lily comes to this conclusion at the end of chapter 7, after she has her first semisexual
interaction with Zach and has witnessed Neil and June have a fight. In these two very
intense moments, she comes face to face with love and learns that it not only brings
people together but also sometimes drives people apart. Just moments before this
quotation, Lily was driving with Zach when she realized, definitively, that she loved him.
Then, in the field, she licked honey off of his hand. These two experiences, involving
emotional outbursts and physical interaction, only serve to confuse her as to the point of
love in life. Lily does not have much experience with the positive effects of love. Her
father, whom she loves, never shows any affection for her, and she has reason to believe
that her mother, whom she so desperately wants to have loved her, abandoned her before
Lily accidentally killed her. This complicated relationship to love leaves her without a
clear idea of whether love can be a positive force in life at all, and she reaches the
extreme, negatively charged opinion that the fiery passion of love destroys the world.
Later in the novel, when Lily learns that love is not only about rejection and longing, her
opinion of love softens a great deal, although she never recants on these poignant,
passionate words.
4. “Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a
hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.”
As she explains the nature of spirituality as it relates to beehives, August speaks these
words to Lily in chapter 8. August has taught Lily all about the communities bees keep
inside their hives. Amongst other things, Lily has learned of the importance of the female
power structure in the bee community: how the queen bee is doted on by a whole team of
companions, how she lays the eggs that become every single other bee in the hive, and
how this queen bee is the mother of thousands. For Lily, who has lost her mother, this
sounds incredibly wonderful. She relates it almost immediately to stories from the Bible,
and Lily begins to think of the bees as part God and part Mary, whom August also
explains as a spiritual essence that is present everywhere, in everything. Taking these two
ideas together, Lily decides that the mother Mary is the mother of thousands, and also in
many ways her mother as well.
The fact that Lily is a white girl living with black women, a runaway, and a criminal of
sorts, means her life with August must remain a secret—just like the secret life of the
bees that goes on inside the hive. In this way, the motherhood Lily believes Mary offers
her is parallel to the support and love she gets from August and her community of
women, a support that is secret to the world but that nourishes her and keeps her alive.
The secret life that bees have is similar to the secret life of Lily Owens. Lily learns about
the bees’ secrets from August, while we learn about Lily’s secrets from her first-person
narration. Just as the bees produce the sweet honey that August is so attached to, Lily
creates a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a young girl who finds strength, love, and
family in unlikely circumstances.
5.“There is nothing perfect,” August said from the doorway. “There is only life.”
This quotation comes at the end of chapter 12 and represents the relationship August has
with Lily, to whom she speaks these lines. Initially, these words seem rather sharp, but,
taken in context, they actually encapsulate the kind of invaluable maternal comfort
August provides Lily. August teaches Lily about bees and about life. After Lily tells
August the truth about her running away and her role in her mother’s death, Lily expects
August to provide her with the empty phrases that people usually offer those who are
upset. Instead, August offers rough-edged wisdom like the above line. Her words are not
drowned in the saccharine sweetness of “it’s all going to be OK.” Rather, August prefers
to guide Lily into accepting the realities of life. Lily needs to learn that how to deal with
the good and the bad that come with life.
August’s wisdom has been hard-won. She is an African American who has overcome
many obstacles in her life to end up an independent land- and business-owning woman.
Having just lost her sister May, she knows that nothing is perfect, and she knows that this
lack of perfection is, by its very definition, the stuff that life is made up of. Although Lily
does not realize it, this is exactly the kind of maternal wisdom Lily needs in order to grow
up. These words act as the final statement of Lily’s big confession. With these words
echoing in her head, Lily will realize that her mother was human: she loved Lily, but she
also made mistakes. At a time when there is the most potential for navel-gazing and
feelings of self-pity, August uses these words to keep Lily from getting lost inside her
own misfortune. In this way, August functions as the novel’s hero: she rescues Lily, and
she shows her a better way to live.
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Study Questions: Overall Novel