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Free Online Summary Notes for The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
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THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES BY SUE MONK KIDD

THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

Secret Lives

The major theme of this novel is expressed in its title, which comes from a statement made by August: “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” (148). Throughout the novel, the reader learns how most characters are not what they seem on the surface. People’s lives are usually much more complex and complicated than they appear.

Throughout the novel, Kidd builds on the hive and bees as a metaphor of life. Bees represent people working together in a society, which is represented by the hive. The beehive has been known in history to represent the soul, death, and rebirth. The hive is presided over by the queen, or mother-figure. In explaining that bees have secret lives that are not immediately perceptible, August speaks metaphorically of people. As the plot progresses, we learn that almost every character has an explanation for his or her actions that cannot be seen immediately.

We know that Lily is pretending to be someone that she is not in order to find out about her mother. We learn that May is so emotional because of her twin’s suicide. August tells Lily that T. Ray was not always the cruel man he is now. He was once tender and sweet and become embittered when Deborah died. Lily also finds out that her mother was not the perfect women she imagined. Throughout this story, Lily learns people, like the bees, are often motivated by forces that cannot be understood immediately.

Fortunate Coincidences and Signs

Throughout the novel, Lily seeks and finds signs and is propelled by a series of fortunate coincidences. Lily frequently asks for signs and often believes things that come to her are signs. Lily believes it was a sign that her room was infested with bees and now she is at the home of a beekeeper. Lily believes it was a fortunate coincidence that August’s mother met her father because she had a toothache. Lily believes it is a fortunate coincidence that she went to a store that sells August’s honey, which leads her to August, the person with whom her mother stayed when she left. Lily believes the picture August gives her of Deborah feeding Lily as a child is an answer to her request for a sign that she was loved.

Each of these “signs” and “fortunate coincidences” suggest that perhaps there is some order to what seems to be a chaotic existence. This notion is affirmed by the bee hive metaphor which weaves its way throughout the story. Although the activity in bee hives--which symbolize society--appears nonsensical and disorganized, we learn the bees lead a highly organized and orderly existence.


Mothers

Lily is driven by her need to know about her mother so that she may learn more about herself. In seeking her mother, Lily finds mother substitutes. Rosaleen, August, and the other women step into Lily’s life and provide the mothering that she needs so desperately.

The Black Madonna/ Virgin Mary demonstrate each woman’s need to be mothered. The women’s devotion to the Blessed Mother shows the power and importance of a mother in the life of a woman.

Race

This novel treats the contentious issue of race in the 1960’s south as well as in the everyday relations between individuals. The plot demonstrates two encounters between whites and blacks in which the black person is treated unjustly. Rosaleen is sent to jail for defending herself and Zach goes to jail for not admitting which of his friends broke a bottle on a white man’s nose.

On another level, Lily must personally navigate the delicacy of the racial difference between herself and the African-Americans she comes to love in Tiburon. White people criticize Lily for living with the black women, who treat her better than anyone else ever has. Lily develops romantic feelings for Zach, who tells her that he could get killed for even looking at a white girl. Finally, for the first time Lily experiences what it is like to be judged based solely on her skin color when June complains to August that she does not want Lily in the house because she is white.

Death Gives Way to Life

Throughout the novel there is the theme of death giving way to life. The resultant life is sometimes good, but it is also sometimes bad. In the very beginning of the novel Lily tells us “People who think dying is the worst thing don’t know a thing about life.” Here, we see how Lily’s life has been profoundly affected by her mother’s death. This statement suggests that living with someone else’s death can be more painful than dying. In this case, Deborah’s death has given way to Lily’s miserable life.

However, death also can be a positive force in the lives of the living that remain. Following May’s death August tells Lily: “Putting black cloths on the hives is for us. I do it to remind us that life gives way into death, and then death turns around and gives way into life.”

Death as giving way to life is seen twice in this novel as a positive force. The first instance is the way that May’s death propels June to marry Neil, thus establishing their new life together. The second time is when Lily finally reconciles with her mother’s death and is set free to truly begin her own life.

Life also gives way to death. Literally--everyone who is born must die. But on a symbolic level, life can kill too. May kills herself because life is too much for her to bear. When Deborah learns she is pregnant with Lily she decides to marry
T.Ray. Lily’s life leads to Deborah’s symbolic death on the peach farm, where she has a nervous break down because she cannot bear to live there. This new life (Lily) also leads to Deborah’s literal death when Lily accidentally drops the gun and Deborah is hit with a bullet.

POINT OF VIEW

First-person, limited. The narrator of this story is Lily. We have access to her thoughts, but not to the thoughts of the other characters.

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