“I know you’ve run away – everybody gets the urge to do that some time – but sooner or later you’ll want to go home”Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
The Secret Life of Bees is no secret in the book-reading community; I’m just really late to the party! Since the book’s release back in November 2001, it has spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times Best seller list and was adapted into a movie starring Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Alicia Keys. I’ve had a copy of the book tucked away in my bookshelf for years, but I just read it for the first time this week. As I was reading, I annotated my copy of the book like crazy because it was filled with such beautiful symbolism and imagery. The Secret Life of Bees uses bees, flowers, and other elements in nature as metaphors to illuminate the theme of community between women. Almost all the women in the novel have symbolic names which strengthens their connection with the natural world and their bonds with one another.
Though she’s only 14 years old, Lily Owens is haunted by the hazy memories of her past. When she was only a toddler she accidentally shot and killed her mother. One of her mother’s few remaining possessions is a photo of a black Madonna with the word “Tiburon, S.C.” scrawled on the back. After a violent encounter with some local racists, Lily’s caretaker, a black woman named Rosaleen, is arrested. Compelled to run away after a confrontation with her Dad, Lily helps Rosaleen escape, and they hitchhike to Tiburon together. Once they arrive, they take refuge in a house owned by the Boatwright sisters, three black women who run a local honey business.
Lily and Rosaleen are both named after flowers, the lily and the rose, as a way to symbolize their character development. In the beginning, they both start as “flower buds,” showing their potential for growth but an environment that stifles them. Under the harsh and oppressive conditions in her father’s home, Lily cannot embrace womanhood. Rosaleen is oppressed by racial prejudice and segregation that prevent her from succeeding. After Lily and Rosaleen leave their home behind, they experience a type of rebirth; They swim naked in a creek implying that they are being reborn by the water like a baptism. Once Lily and Rosaleen move in with the Boatwright sisters they can begin to blossom. I appreciated the parallel between a flower’s growth and the development of these two characters. It makes sense that Lily would be named after a flower because the book is her coming-of-age story. Though Rosaleen is not a child like Lily, she too undergoes a transformative evolution throughout the novel. The metaphor of the flower shows that the characters both transform because of their experiences in Tiburon.
The symbolic meaning behind the Boatwright sisters names immediately connects their purpose to Lily and Rosaleen’s journey. They are named after the months August, June, and May. The “Calendar Sisters” represent the seasons of spring and summer where flowers and other plants thrive. Before meeting the sisters, Lily and Rosaleen were stuck in a dormant phase or a “winter” period of their life. It was toxic for Lily to continue living with her Dad because he didn’t allow her to age and come into her own being. The house in Tiburon becomes a haven away from the reality of her life with her father. There is a lot of opportunity for love to flourish here because there are no constraints as there would be in a judgmental and prejudiced society. I would even go so far as to wonder if the last name “Boatwright” is also symbolic, showing that the sisters are like a vessel for Lily and Rosaleen to safely journey through the storm. The prevalence of nature in and around the house and the organic relationship that the Boatwright’s have with the natural world further stresses that this house is a heavenly paradise on earth.
Motherhood, we learn, is a role that is not limited to the woman who birthed you. The women in the book all have symbolic names linking the characters to nature and nature’s hierarchy, showcasing the feminine presence in the natural world. Virtually all of the women in the story act as mother figures to guide, protect, and teach Lily. The first time she meets her, Lily describes August as “the mistress of bees” which immediately associates August as the “queen bee” of the house. The Daughters of Mary are a group of friends who all worship together at the house. They act like “the worker bees” if the metaphor is that the house is a bee hive. They serve as a quiet support system for the Boatwright sisters and, eventually, for Lily. The name “Queenie” symbolizes that she is a type of queen bee (though I think the ultimate queen bee of the novel is August). Her name suits her because she is a mother. Lunelle and Cressie get their names from the moon (Luna and Crescent Moon); The moon being yet another powerful symbol of femininity that Lily frequently turns to when she needs guidance. Violet takes her name from a flower, just like Lily and Rosaleen. All of the women’s names relate back to Kidd’s message about the powerful bonds that women have with nature.
This review only scratches the surface in discussing the important themes and messages of the novel. I chose to focus on nature, femininity and symbolism but there is a lot more that can be unpacked about race, Christianity, and mental health. I would recommend this book to you if you enjoyed titles such as The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Dicamillo, or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. I particularly loved Sue Monk Kidd’s voice; The passages are so gorgeous and descriptive. Every word seemed like it was dipped in honey. You can almost hear the rich southern drawl in the way that Kidd writes. I appreciate that she almost goes overboard with her use of symbolism because it just feels like a smorgasbord of metaphors for the reader to engage with. Kidd used all of her tools to illuminate the beautiful world her characters live in.
To buy a copy of the book from a local book store: https://www.booksaremagic.net/?searchtype=keyword&qs=the+secret+life+of+bees&qs_file=&q=h.tviewer&using_sb=status&qsb=keyword
To watch the movie: https://www.amazon.com/Secret-Life-Bees-Dakota-Fanning/dp/B001P33BES/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1I6WT46T1DFNJ&dchild=1&keywords=the+secret+life+of+bees+movie&qid=1586921753&sprefix=the+secret+life+of+bees+%2Caps%2C148&sr=8-1