Strength And Racism In “The Secret Life Of Bees”
Martin Luther King once said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees fully embodies his idea of equality, by introducing the story of a fourteen-year-old white girl named Lily Owens, who lives during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina. Lily’s mother was killed in an accident when Lily is a little girl. Ever since, she lives with her father T-Ray, and her black surrogate mother, Rosaleen, in Sylvan, South Carolina. Soon after her fourteenth birthday, Lily escapes to the Boatwright sisters’ house in Tiburon, South Carolina, with Rosaleen, who is arrested for assaulting a white man. Upon her arrival, Lily faces different racist situations and meets her first love, a handsome black boy named Zach. The novel The Secret Life of Bees demonstrates that although racism has a negative impact on everyday life, it also influences Zach and Lily’s development in a positive manner.
The segregation in South Carolina happens everywhere and every day. Indeed, racism is manifested through the media, the law, which legitimizes segregation, and the perceptions that white and black people have of each other. Because of the laws against colored people, Rosaleen, as a black woman, lives with constraints in her life. For example, she cannot live in a house with white people (Kidd, p.8), she cannot represent Lily at the charm school (Kidd, p.19), or even to travel with a car with white people (Kidd, p.76). The media is also influenced by racism, and constantly shows news about segregation such as the case of Martin Luther King, who is arrested because he wants to eat in a restaurant (Kidd, p.35), the “man in Mississippi was killed for registering to vote” (Kidd, p.44), and the motel in Jackson, that closes, because the owners don’t want to rent rooms to black people (Kidd, p.99). These events are so normal, that the violence becomes predictable even by youngsters as Lily, who knows “inside” that Rosaleen can be killed by the white man in the jail (Kidd, 59), and it does not bother her at all. In sum, racism negatively influences all aspects of life such as media, law and even the people’s perceptions which causes segregation.
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Motherhood is closely tied to love in the novel. Lily’s goal throughout the novel is to understand her true mother. She does not understand what the presence of a mother would really be like, but she feels her mother’s absence constantly. At some developmental milestones throughout her life, Lily deeply feels her lack of a mother. Though Lily fantasizes about a replacement mother in Rosaleen, she still yearns for the real thing.
Lily leaves Sylvan because T. Ray tells her that her mother, Deborah, left her as a child. She travels to Tiburon in order to learn the truth about her mother. She hopes to find someone who knew something about Deborah in order to answer all of the questions she has. More importantly, however, she is trying to find evidence that T. Ray is wrong and her mother did not leave her. It would be better to find out that she had accidentally killed her mother, for at least this fact would not diminish her perception of her mother’s love for her.
Upon settling into her new life in Tiburon, Lily finds motherly love where she did not expect it. The Boatwright sisters and the Daughters of Mary all love her with different styles, and she turns to them with different needs. August, most of all, allows her to open up and cry to her as if she would to a mother.
When Lily learns the truth about her mother’s actions, she has mixed feelings of anger, pity, and grief. She is angry after finding that her mother left her after all. She feels sorry that her mother never truly escaped from her life with T. Ray, and she grieves her mother’s death.
At the end of the novel, she learns that her mother did love her through a photograph documenting their interaction. She also learns that despite the loss of her mother, she has found the love she sought in her new Tiburon mothers, from Mary, and even from the bees.
Interdependence is a basic element of human beings and human society. At many points in the novel, the dependence or interdependence of various characters is expressed through their interactions. The dependent person often becomes the one on whom others depend later.
Lily and Rosaleen often switch between being the stronger woman or the dependent one in their relationship. Though Rosaleen is the older and more typically independent character, she often depends on Lily for leadership and direction. Yet, Lily often depends on Rosaleen for stability, love, and mothering. The two are clearly interdependent, though this aspect of their relationship wanes as they become integrated into the Boatwright home.
May seems to be the most dependent character in the novel due to the great pain that she bears. Yet, after she learns of Zach’s arrest, she begins to make independent decisions regarding her future. As an extreme example of this independence, she ends up taking her own life. The Boatwright sisters continue on after May’s death, but it becomes apparent that many of the traditions they know and love can be attributed to May.
The bees demonstrate a non-human form of interdependence. At one point in the novel, August shows Lily what happens to the hive when the queen is not present. The bees lay dormant eggs and ultimately sit around without any sort of purpose. Without the queen, the bees are rendered useless; they are extremely dependent on the queen. At the same time, the queen depends on her attendants to take care of the hive.
Lily finds moments of solace when she is working with others. She finds relief from grieving over her mother when she is massaging honey into Mary. She finds comfort in her eight “mothers” at the end of the novel. She accepts her dependence on others as a replacement for her dependence on her mother’s memory.
August teaches Lily the important lessons of beekeeping. These lessons reflect good practices of life in general. For instance, she teaches Lily to manage her anger—not to swat the bees, for angry actions are counterproductive with bees. She tells Lily to act as though she knows what she is doing, not to be an idiot. Such lessons as these are tolerably good rules to live by.
When May passes away, August drapes the hives as a sign of respect and mourning. Lily learns the story of the first beekeeper and how his bees came back to life. Bees seem to have an interconnection with death. It seems that all humans have such an interconnection as well, whether or not they want to admit it.
All of the worker bees depend upon the queen’s existence, or they do not appropriately function. When one of August’s queen bees disappears, she needs to replace it in order to save all of the attendant bees. Similarly, the queen bee depends upon her attendants to keep the hive functioning. The bees’ interdependence mirrors the interdependence of humankind.
Lily comments about the precise work that the bees produce. Their work, though instinctive, shows effort and diligence. August argues that bees are smarter than dolphins, and Lily comments about how hard they work. She thinks they work too hard and should take a break. Lily’s reflection seems to apply to her feelings about people, those who seem to work too hard and never stop. These “worker bee” types live for their work and create quality work, but they often do not take the time to enjoy life.
Finally, August says that the heat makes the bees act out of sorts. This statement could also be applied to humans. For example, in the hot Tiburon sun, June and Rosaleen are compelled to have a water fight in their front yard. This action, like that of the bees in the heat, is completely incongruent with their characters. In unusual circumstances, people act in unusual ways.
Throughout the novel, all of the characters are forced to cope with difficulty. They cope with grief, discrimination, abuse, and physical pain. They all use different methods to cope, and no two characters take the same approach.
May takes the most outward approach to coping. Her singing of “Oh Susannah” and leaving the room to go to her wailing wall are clear signals to everyone else that she is disturbed. This is a significant contrast to Lily’s efforts at coping, which typically involve her lying down and avoiding her feelings. Ultimately, she takes out her bottled anger in a raging tantrum, destroying the interior.
Zach copes with being jailed by taking a new, somewhat vengeful interest in race relations and civil rights. He almost exclusively discusses topics such as civil rights and the KKK. As for August, she allows her true fire to show after Zach’s jailing, exhibiting a new passion in her eyes.
T. Ray coped with Deborah’s death by turning to anger and becoming bitter towards Lily. This bitterness becomes apparent at the end of the novel, when T. Ray calls Lily Deborah. Deborah, for her part, coped with her unhappy life with T. Ray by escaping to the Boatwrights’ home, even if she had to leave her baby behind to do so.
Pain and misery are easily transferred from one person to the next in the novel, where characters pass their sorrow back and forth. This transference and sharing of pain might ease the load borne by one person, but it also expands the reach of the pain.
T. Ray caused Deborah great pain in their marriage, enough that she ran away to the Boatwrights’ without Lily. Deborah’s pain thus began to lessen, but she died before having much chance to become truly happy. As a result, T. Ray and Lily absorb the pain of Deborah’s death. T. Ray takes out his pain on Lily, most vividly at the end of the novel, when he tries to hit Lily and calls her Deborah.
May absorbs everyone’s pain. She takes the pain of friends, neighbors, and those she sees in the news. She makes all of this pain her own. She attempts to transfer this pain into her wailing wall. However, she cannot bear the burden and ultimately kills herself. This action transfers pain to the other Boatwright sisters and the Daughters of Mary.
June’s first fiancé caused her great pain by leaving her at the altar. In turn, June absorbs that pain and later transfers it to Neil. June refuses to marry Neil because of the pain she felt earlier. It is not until after May’s death that June allows herself to be happy by marrying Neil.
Finally, Zach is caused pain by the seeming injustice of a society that would jail three black boys when only one of them is guilty. He expresses his pain by focusing his interests on changing the world and civil rights. Lily absorbs Zach’s pain and thus finds herself pained, missing her earlier, much simpler interactions with Zach.
The summer of 1964 in South Carolina comes at just about the boiling point for race relations in American history. The summer of the Civil Rights Act, a summer during which Martin Luther King was advocating thoroughly for equality, was also a summer when much of white America remained disdainful towards blacks. Kidd incorporates race relations into her novel in order to paint an accurate picture of life during this time in the American South.
Rosaleen works as a domestic housekeeper in the Owens’ house, a typical role for a working black woman at the time. Lily considers Rosaleen a member of their family despite her lack of biological relation to them. Rosaleen has some fight in her for the sake of equal rights. For example, she attempts to register to vote on the first day that she can. She refuses to take abuse from anyone regardless of skin color. Her fighting attitude ultimately lands her in jail.
Lily’s interactions with the Boatwrights and the Daughters of Mary allow her to see some of the lines drawn between white and black. Lily begins to realize her own prejudices about what she believed black people could or could not attain. She also finds that June discriminates against her due to her skin color, something she had never experienced before.
Lily also gets a more clear understanding of society’s view of race through her relationship with Zach. Prior to meeting Zach, Lily could not imagine how she could find a black man attractive. Despite Zach’s and Lily’s love, their society will not accept them as a couple. They vow that someday they will be together, but they understand that right now, interracial dating is strongly taboo.
Zach decides to attend a white high school. Despite all of the challenges that come along with integration, Zach feels that he must be one of the students who take a stand on behalf of a peaceful social revolution. Lily and Clayton Forrest’s daughter Becca are outwardly friendly toward Zach at school, which garners them a certain reputation. In spite of those who do not like such friendships, they allow their fondness for Zach to overcome the racism of others.
Lily spends the beginning of the novel ignorant about her past, about her family, and about a life beyond Sylvan, South Carolina. She is a young girl who believes she can amount to very little, and she has settled into a routine of abuse from T. Ray. Yet, she always hungers for knowledge, wanting to know more about her world, her past, and (most deeply) her mother. The search for knowledge all too often provides knowledge which perhaps had remained hidden for a reason, for this knowledge often brings sorrow.
Lily is basically ignorant about her mother except for what she remembers about the day of her mother’s death. T. Ray gradually explains that she had left both T. Ray and Lily, which angers Lily greatly. She goes on a quest to Tiburon in hopes of learning more about her mother. Yet, when she does, she learns the burden associated with such knowledge. She is overcome by emotions including anger, pity, and grief. She is heavy with the knowledge that yes, her mother did leave her, but she also learns that her mother did try to come back for her out of love for her.
May takes in knowledge in a way that is different from her sisters. She absorbs the knowledge and feels the pain associated with troubling events. She feels the pain as if it were her own. Therefore, her sisters try to shield her from the pain associated with Zach’s jailing. Yet, when she finds out about it, she is pained that her sisters tried to keep her ignorant of the facts. She is also pained by the situation at hand. She finally kills herself.
Lily is constantly bothered about not knowing what T. Ray has been feeling since she ran away. She feels gnawed by the hope that T. Ray misses her and regrets the awful way that he treated her. Yet, her lack of knowledge drives her to find out the truth about T. Ray’s reactions. She calls him and finds that he has felt angry and frustrated. She realizes that he has not missed her and has not felt apologetic, which crushes her hopes and hurts her further.
Zach is fairly laid-back and relaxed until the incident for which he is jailed. After that event, he is awakened by a new knowledge of injustice. This knowledge provides him with a new fire and anger for equality. He thus devotes his time and conversation to civil rights and related issues, even if his new mission pushes Lily away somewhat.