The Secret Life of Bees takes place in the 1960s and follows the incredible and emotional journey of fourteen-year old Lily Owens, a white girl living in Sylvan, South Carolina. Lily lives alone with her father, T-Ray, and her African-American housekeeper, Rosaleen. Growing up with an abusive father and a dead mother she barely knew, Lily often feels alone in this world and worthless.
The story opens up with Lily looking back on the day her mother died. Lily’s mother, Deborah, had left T-Ray when Lily was only a couple years old, but later came back to retrieve her daughter. T-Ray and Deborah started to fight, which quickly became physical. Mrs. Owens pulled out a gun and accidentally dropped it by Lily, who picked it up and attempted to shoot her father to protect her mother. The bullet missed and hit Deborah, killing her instantly. Lily mentions her constant feeling of responsibility for this horrific event, which T-Ray takes advantage of and uses against her as a way to torture her. A couple days after Lily recalls this event, her and Rosaleen were walking through town when Rosaleen was attacked by a group of racist men. Both Rosaleen and Lily were brought to jail, but T-Ray came and bailed only Lily out, leaving Rosaleen behind. Fearing the men would go back to the jail to kill the only person Lily actually cared about, she came up with a plan to break Rosaleen out. While coming up with this plan, T-Ray came into Lily’s room and started verbally abusing her. Lily tried to stand up for herself, which T-Ray laughed off and went back to using the story of her responsibility for Deborah’s death to emotionally abuse Lily.
After he went away, Lily came to the conclusion that the only way she could be happy and truly understand her mother was if she ran away with Rosaleen. After Rosaleen and Lily both successfully escaped, the two started towards Tiburon, South Carolina. Lily had found a picture of black Mary with “Tiburon, South Carolina” printed on the back in some of her mother’s belongings. Lily took this as a sign that the only way for her to truly connect with her mother was to go to this place. On the journey there, Lily and Rosaleen come across a store with jars of honey in the window with the same black Mary picture on them. When they asked the store keeper where the jars were from, the man told the women that a local beekeeper by the name of August Boatwright had made the honey. Rosaleen and Lily went to her house where they discovered August and her two sisters, who were more than willing to let the women stay with them. Lily and Rosaleen lied to the sisters about their identities out of fear of August or someone else calling Mr. Owens to tell him where they were. As time passed, Lily and Rosaleen helped August and her sisters take care of the bees in exchange for a place to live. August helped Lily realize her worth and how her father’s disparaging comments did not define who Lily was. Eventually, Lily opened up to one of the sister’s, May Boatwright, and asks if she knew anyone by the name of Deborah. May told Lily she did, confirming Lily’s suspicions of the women being connected to her mother. Lily decides she wanted to go and talk to August about all of this, so a couple weeks later she finally worked up the courage to do it. Lily explains her reasons for coming to the Bee Farm and who her family really is, while August listens quietly and nods her head. She later tells Lily she knew who she was all along but kept quiet because she wanted Lily to discover herself and experience being “normal” for awhile. Mr. Owens drives to Tiburon to get Lily, who refuses to leave, standing her ground against her furious father. T-Ray eventually leaves, allowing Lily to finally be free from his physical and emotional torture and able to move on with her new family.
Significant Characters & Setting
Lily is introduced into the book as a curious and determined teenager who grows up with an abusive father and little to no knowledge of who her mother was. The only memory she has of Deborah Owens is the painful memory of her death. Lily constantly replays the memory in her head, each time feeling less and less loveable. She poses the question of how anyone so stupid and horrible enough to kill their own mother could be loved. Lily battles this feeling of being worthless throughout her journey, with her father reminding her every second he can about how Lily caused Deborah’s death. She also feels that her mother did not truly love her because Deborah left her behind when she ran away from T-Ray. Not wanting this to be true, she pushes the thought to the back of her head only for her father to bring it back up, as he usually would, when abusing Lily. Lily finds it hard to escape and attempts to distract herself with the bees that live in her house.
Due to her mother not being around, she also longs for a maternal figure, and when Lily finds someone exhibiting this trait, she tends to cling to them. While with the Boatwright sisters, Lily quickly connects with two of them (August and May), but has a hard time relating to the third, June Boatwright. June is portrayed as standoffish and not wanting anything to do with Lily, which only fuels her feelings of being undesirable. However, as Lily gets to know June better and is forced to interact with her, June opens up to Lily and defends her as if she were her own child. From this, Lily eventually learns to love herself and stops listening to T-Ray’s voice in her head telling her that her life is meaningless. Now that she has people in her life who act as maternal figures, Lily is able to grow as a character and really see the beauty in life and her biological mother’s love for her. In the end, Lily is able to let go of all the hurt that plagued her and move on with her life with a new family she knows will not hurt her the way T-Ray did.
As the father of Lily, T-Ray is expected to be the protagonist of the story, but quickly shows he is the complete opposite. He raises Lily in a harsh way that scars her both physically and emotionally. After the freak-accident that killed his wife, who was also a victim of his abuse, T-Ray looks to blame someone other than himself for the death. He looks at Lily, as she was the one who fired the gun. Although Lily did shoot her mother, T-Ray is still responsible as he was physically abusing her when she drew a gun on him out of self-defense. T-Ray forces himself to deny the fact that if he had not been so cruel to Deborah, she would still be alive. Instead, he takes out his anger on Lily, making fun of her for little things, like claiming there were bees in the house. He forgets Lily is his own daughter at the end of the book when trying to bring her home, and refers to her as “Deborah,” truly believing in that moment it was his wife in front of him. He cries out, “You’re not leaving me again” (Kidd 294). By saying this, T-Ray shows how blinded by hurt and self-loathing he actually is and how much he really did love his wife, despite his bitter nature.
August Boatwright, a humble beekeeper, is introduced to the readers early on and is portrayed as an understanding and mother-like figure. These two qualities immediately draw Lily to her. August knew who Lily was from the beginning, despite Lily’s lies about her identity, and recognized her determined nature from Deborah Owens. August was Deborah’s nanny when she was a child and practically raised Deborah, which is why she ran to August’s farm after leaving T-Ray. August saw the emotional battles Lily was fighting and felt the need to assist her without fully disclosing her knowledge of Lily’s mother in order to help Lily discover herself independently.
August successfully helped Lily positively grow as a person and help her to finally feeling worth something in this world. She taught Lily important skills while they took care of the bees and helped Lily permanently let go of the idea that her biological mother did not love her and that she was to blame for Deborah’s death. August made Lily realize that she is human and capable of mistakes, something she should not beat herself up for every day. August Boatwright was the glue to her family. Without her, June would never have connected to Lily nor would Lily have ever gone through such a positive and remarkable change. She used her compassion and faith that everything would be alright to guide Lily down the right path and to teach Lily to pick herself up after she falls.
Tiburon, South Carolina
Tiburon, South Carolina holds a special meaning to Lily because of it being written on the back of one of her mother’s belongings. She did not originally know why this place was significant, but believed that she could find answers to her questions about Deborah if she went there. When Lily and Rosaleen arrive in Tiburon, they encounter the Boatwright sisters who they later find out knew her mother. Lily learns a lot while in Tiburon and is able to move on in life with the help of the Boatwright sisters, something she would not have been able to do back in Sylvan, South Carolina. Tiburon is Lily’s safe space, a place where she can connect with her mother and come to terms with Deborah’s death and her guilt from it.
Opening & Closing Statement
In the beginning of the book, Lily gets into an argument with T-Ray in which she yells, “You don’t scare me!” (Kidd 38). Lily actually meant this and was willing to stand up against her father because of how much she hated him. She did not care about the possible abuse to follow her defiant statement.
At the end of the book when T-Ray come to Tiburon and confronts Lily, she is terrified. By living with the Boatwrights and learning more about her mother, Lily was able to understand her father’s sadness and truly feel for him. She admitted to being scared of him and was actually concerned for her safety. Lily realized that T-Ray was so blinded with rage and hurt that he did not even notice he was abusing his own daughter, but believed she was Deborah.
The most prominent theme in this novel is the sense of community. By helping each other get through hard times and recover from past experiences, the female characters of this book were all able to become better versions of themselves. The Boatwright sisters welcomed Lily into their house, sensing her desire for any sort of maternal connection, and helped Lily find her home within this community built from trust and compassion. Without a trusted group of people to turn to, Lily would not have been able to grow as a person and finally achieve the happiness she craved. June Boatwright learned to open up and to love through Lily’s presence, ultimately helping her become closer to her sisters. By finally feeling a sense of belonging to a group of people who genuinely loved her, Lily was able to feel at peace with her past and ready for the future because she knew that no matter what, she would always have people supporting her.
Another important theme in this book is the theme of love. Lily’s only desire is to feel some sort of affection from anyone, as long as she feels wanted. When she arrives at the Boatwright’s, they welcome her into their home with open arms and willing to care for her. This helps Lily realise how much she had been missing in her life back in Sylvan with her father. Her father had not shown her the slightest amount of love or affection, which caused her to often feel depressed and like her life was meaningless. All of that changed when the Boatwright sisters showed Lily love despite really knowing her. This compassionate and kind emotion was something Lily had never experienced, but eventually wondered how she ever lived without.
Throughout the novel, the author starts each chapter with a quote from books about beekeeping. The quote always relates to what is happening in that chapter. An example of this is when the author uses the quote, “Let’s imagine for a moment that we are tiny enough to follow a bee into a hive. Usually the first thing we would have to get used to is the darkness…” (Exploring the World of Social Insects 82). This quote starts off chapter five, which ends up being about Lily and Rosaleen’s struggles when trying to adjust to living with the Boatwright sisters, who live in a way that is the complete opposite of what they are used to.
“You don’t scare me!” (Lily 38)
This quote is significant because it show’s how Lily is able to recognize T-Ray’s irrational thinking when he abuses her and not let it scare her. She chooses not to give into his emotional abuse and mind games, but instead challenge T-Ray to show her growing independence. T-Ray clearly was threatened by this because he immediately retaliated, proving his fear that Lily would leave him alone. All along, T-Ray thought she was dependent on him and felt that he could treat her any way he wanted and she would not run away. By Lily standing up for herself and claiming that she was not afraid, she showed that she was willing to leave T-Ray and become independent.
“I could tell you I did it. That’s what you wanna hear. I could tell you she did it to herself, but both ways I’d be lying. It was you who did it, Lily. You didn’t mean it but it was you” (T-Ray 299).
This quote is significant because it shows how T-Ray was finally able to acknowledge the fact that Deborah’s death was an accident. Throughout the whole novel, T-Ray makes sure Lily never forgets that it was her fault her mother was dead, causing Lily to also believe this and consider herself a bad person. When T-Ray says this quote, he also helps Lily to get rid of the thought that she is unable to be loved by anyone because of this tragic event. Lily is finally able to be at peace with her mother’s death and her role in it because of her father acknowledging that it was an accident.
“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” (August 148).
This quote is significant because it relates to the situation Lily is in while comparing it to a hive of bees, something that interests Lily. The hive represents the community Lily has joined and how she is different compared to the Boatwright sisters, both physically and mentally. Lily withholds her identity from the sisters, also relating to the secret life bees have in their hive. No one truly knows what happens in the hive, occasionally not even its members. None of the sisters, besides August, know that Lily is hiding her identity, yet they still welcome her into their community.
“‘I’m staying here,’ I said. ‘I’m not leaving’” (Lily 296)
This quote is significant because it shows how Lily has finally found a home, a place she knows she belongs in and is loved. When T-Ray threatens to leave, she refuses, not afraid to stand up to him if it means she gets to stay in the one place she feels happy. Lily shows how much she has grown as a character in this quote. She shows her independence and confidence, two things she did not have early on in the book.
“Send them love and everything will be fine” (August 149).
This quote is significant because it highlights one of the themes of this book: the need for love. August is showing Lily the beehives and telling her about them when she says this quote. By sending the bees love, they in return will not hurt anyone, but instead will happily produce honey and be productive. This relates to August’s beliefs about how everyone deserves some sort of affection, especially those who do not normally receive any, like Lily. Lily is also impacted by this quote because it shows her the importance of love in any community and how it can make or break a person. Lily has gone so long without any love from her father and is finally receiving it from the Boatwright’s, and to Lily, everything is fine. She feels wanted and that is enough for her.