The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What are some of the ways that bees serve as symbols in Lily's life?


    a) Bees symbolize Lily's mother in a number of instances throughout the novel. In Sylvan, Lily feels her mother's presence when swarms of bees enter her room. Her mother's name, Deborah, literally translates as "bee." She follows the path of her mother to Tiburon and finds herself on a honey farm.

    b) Bees model human society. Once Lily begins her beekeeper training with August, she quickly learns the ways in which a beehive models the human world. Lily learns to send the bees love, to act like she knows what she's doing, and to avoid angry outbursts--all reasonably good lessons for life.

    c) Bees, like Lily, need a queen or a mother figure in order to function. At the beginning of the novel, Lily uses the memory of her mother as this figure. Lily sometimes depends on Rosaleen to fulfill this role, and once in Tiburon, Lily mainly counts on August. Eventually, she turns to all eight of her Tiburon "mothers" to fulfill this need in her life.

  2. 2

    Why does Lily feel the need to carry around mouse bones with her?

    Answer: Lily finds the mouse bones under her bed when she is storing her mother's belongings. Therefore, Lily makes some odd connection between the mouse bones and the sentimental day on which she learned of her mother's love for her. Lily is in an emotionally heightened state, and she therefore displays some seemingly irrational behavior. After Lily finishes babysitting the mouse bones, she determines that she may have just needed to nurse something. But she might have intuited that the bones could be from a mouse Deborah once saw. In addition, the bones could symbolize Deborah's dead body.

  3. 3

    How does Lily's idea of a mother change throughout the novel?

    Answer: In the beginning of the novel, Lily associates the idea of "mother" only with a legal and biological connection between a woman and her child. She displays this definition when she dreams of Rosaleen adopting her and becoming her "real mother." But Lily's relationship with her biological mother is based on memories and uncertainty. Lily spends the majority of her childhood attempting to put together the missing pieces in her mother's life. Such curiosity drives Lily to travel to Tiburon. Lily experiences feelings of anger, pity, and grief when she learns the true story of her own mother.

    Along the way, Lily also recognizes Our Lady in Chains as the mother of all, including her. She looks to Mary as a mother who brings about the inner strength inside Lily.

    Finally, Lily is able to connect the term "mother" to the eight women in Tiburon who have pledged their love, time, and resources to ensure that she has the best life possible. Now, a mother in her mind is someone who takes up the role of a mother.

  4. 4

    What does the symbol of Our Lady of Chains provide for the Daughters of Mary?

    Answer: The Daughters of Mary, as a group of black women in the South in the 1960s, have clearly been exposed to their share of discrimination. The Boatwright sisters have attended college, but they have not really been able to find appropriate jobs outside of the black community, except for domestic positions within white households. The women feel the societal chains that bind them to a specific status position. The story of Our Lady provides women with hope for advancing their lives regardless of the "chains" that hold them down. Rather, they realize their ability to harness their internal power to enhance their lives.

  5. 5

    What are some examples of characters suffering from the "burden of knowing"?

    Answer: Lily feels terrible pain when she learns the truth about her mother temporarily leaving her behind. Lily feels that she would rather go back to the point in her life when she could just wonder about the truth, given that the truth hurts her so much. She is forced to move forward with this new information anyway. When she sees the photograph depicting her as a baby interacting with Deborah, however, she then realizes her mother loved her. Suddenly, she is hurt again, but in a new way because she feels a great loss due to her mother's death, and she realizes even more strongly how her own killing of her mother has caused this loss.

    May feels a great burden from perceiving the pain of the world. She is weighed down when others are hurt. She does her best to alleviate the pain through rituals like putting notes in the wailing wall. Her family attempts to shield her from knowledge that will hurt her further. But when she does learn the truth about Zach, the burden becomes too heavy, for she also learns what everyone else thinks about her frailty, and she ultimately kills herself.

    August, for her part, feels the burden of knowing that Lily's story is false, yet August is willing to shoulder this burden in patience until Lily is ready to talk.

  6. 6

    How does Lily's concept of race evolve throughout the novel?

    Answer: Lily begins the novel having a close relationship with Rosaleen, her black housekeeper. Still, she does not consider white people and black people to be equal. When she arrives in Tiburon, however, she realizes her own prejudices. She discovers that she has believed that she did not believe that a black person could be as smart as she is. Her idea was disproved once she met August. She also is angry when June discriminates against her for being white. She begins to understand discrimination and begins to be able to empathize. Then, when Lily falls for Zach, she is overcome with curiosity and confusion that she could be attracted to a black man. Yet, she soon realizes her deep and lasting feelings for him and sees him for who he is. Despite their love, Lily learns that they cannot truly be together because of the racial divide between them, and she comes to understand the equality of people as well as the curse of racism. When she is fully accepted by the Daughters of Mary and fully appreciates the Black Madonna, we can say that she has become fully integrated into a world (as yet unrealized elsewhere) where race does not matter for getting along with others in equality and love.

  7. 7

    What causes T. Ray to become so bitter and abusive toward Lily?

    Answer: Lily's mother and T. Ray had seemingly been truly in love when they first began their relationship. August tells Lily that Deborah said that T. Ray treated her like a princess, and they conceived a child. Deborah finally agreed to marry T. Ray after she was pregnant. Yet, at some point in their marriage, their relationship turned sour. Deborah fell into depression, the cause of which is uncertain. Deborah eventually left her Sylvan home with Lily to escape to Tiburon. Lily determines that when Deborah left, it must have effectively killed T. Ray, which would explain his harsh attitude and bitterness. Additionally, Deborah's death must have caused T. Ray great sadness. Now that Lily has grown to be a teenager, she looks more and more like Deborah. T. Ray takes out his anger towards Deborah on Lily, most clearly demonstrated at the end of the novel, when he actually addresses Lily as Deborah.

  8. 8

    Discuss why and how Lily is torn about her sense of home after she arrives in Tiburon.

    Answer: Lily loves her new life in Tiburon. She loves her work in the honey house, her relationship with the Boatwright sisters, and her interactions with Zach. She finds herself happy keeping her life a secret and keeping the facade she has created. Yet, despite her utopian life in Tiburon, Lily cannot help but wonder what T. Ray is going through back in Sylvan. After all, despite T. Ray's horrible treatment of Lily, he is the only real parent whom Lily has known. Lily wonders if he misses her, if he worries about her, and if he feels guilty for her treatment of her. Due to this curiosity, Lily surrenders to her urges and calls T. Ray, which ultimately leads him to find her in Tiburon.

  9. 9

    How does Lily's relationship with Zach expand her understanding of herself and of society?

    Answer: Once Lily begins her relationship with Zach, she learns that she has the capability to love a boy. Additionally, she is fascinated by the thought that she is capable of becoming so enamored by a black boy, a situation she had never thought possible. She begins to become more in touch with her own body as it is evolving into womanhood. She also more clearly understands her feelings, her urges, and her fears. Zach provides her with a solid sense of self, of confidence, and of hope for her future. Lily also learns that society will not always make room for love. Societal views in the time and place of the novel would never permit a relationship between a young interracial couple. Lily learns that despite her mutual feelings with Zach, the nation needs some sort of revolution before it will accept their relationship.

  10. 10

    August tells Lily that the most important purpose of life is to "persist in love." How does August exemplify her own words?

    Answer: August has lived an unmarried life, but she is in no way alone. From her childhood, she has always been surrounded by the love of her family. August returns that love unconditionally. She discusses her intense love and her sorrow concerning April. She consistently tolerates the narrow-minded opinions of June, and she does everything she can to provide May with as much relief from pain as possible. She is clearly the leader of the family, for she runs the honey farm, bringing in the majority of the income. At the same time, however, August represents the emotional leadership in the family, holding the other women as they cry, laughing with them, and providing unconditional love. At a time when it would be easier not to do so, August provided great love for Deborah, even after she finished working with the Fontanel family. A generation later, August allows Lily to stay with her, persisting in love for Deborah. She loves Lily despite her lies, her anger, and her sadness. She ultimately makes a great sacrifice, taking Lily and Rosaleen into her household, because she loves them. (Remember the positive meanings of the word "august," which also relate to August.)