The Secret Life of Bees | Study Guide

Sue Monk Kidd

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The Secret Life of Bees | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with a quotation describing the social structure of the honeybee colony. The queen lays the eggs, and her daughters, the worker bees, gather food, tend to the nest, and raise the young. The sole function of male bees is to fertilize the queen's eggs.

Standing near August Boatwright's pink house, Lily and Rosaleen watch her tend to her bees. Knocking at the door, they are greeted by August's sisters, June Boatwright and May Boatwright. On entering the house, Lily feels "a traveling current" moving along her body. She looks around the house and is moved by a large wooden statue of a black woman, like those one would see on a ship's bow. Lily realizes she is the same woman pictured on the honey jars. She feels the woman can see all the good and evil inside her soul. Lily tells August that she and Rosaleen "ran away from home and don't have any place to go." May begins crying when she mentions their deceased sister, April. Lily makes up a story about why she and Rosaleen have come. August sees through her lies but says nothing. August says Lily can help with the bees and Rosaleen can help in the house for room and board.

An afternoon thunderstorm restores Rosaleen's strength. Lily is silently critical of Rosaleen's lack of manners. August shows them the honey house out back where they will sleep. Lily lies to August, saying Rosaleen's wounds are from falling down the steps. August teaches Lily about the beekeeping and honey-making equipment in the honey house. Lily becomes aware of how white her skin is and realizes she has internalized some of her father's racism. She tells Rosaleen not to mention the black Mary picture or her mother; the idea of discussing these things with August makes her "uneasy."

The next morning, Lily walks around on the Boatwrights' 28-acre property. At the edge of the woods she finds a low stone wall with papers stuffed in its crevices. She pulls out one that reads, "Birmingham, Sept 15, four little angels dead." Lily feels safe and glad in "the rain-cleaned woods and the rising light."

Analysis

In Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" schema, Lily has now crossed the threshold and entered an entirely new world—a house full of strong black women who, like bees, have little need for males. They welcome Lily like a member of the family, even though they are strangers belonging to different races. In 1964 such a living situation (both a white girl living with black women, and unmarried women living alone together) would have been considered highly controversial. Metaphorically, the Boatwright household is very much like a honeybee colony, with its all-female organization and its self-sufficiency. Bees are not just a symbol here, however; they also provide the household's livelihood.

Lily correctly recognizes that the astonishment she feels at the intelligence, cleverness, and strength of August Boatwright is an expression of her own racism. Through the character of Lily, Sue Monk Kidd illustrates how racism can insidiously infect even the most open-minded members of the dominant culture. The tables are now turned, however: it is white Lily who is the minority here, and she must now depend on the goodwill of these strong black women for her sustenance. As a reminder of the devastating consequences of racism, the reference to "four little angels dead" calls up the real-life bombing by a member of the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, in which four little girls, as well as 23 other people, were killed on September 15, 1963.

Kidd also sets up the expectation that the wooden statue of the black Mary in the Boatwrights' living room will play a significant role in the narrative. Lily immediately recognizes its power, just as she recognized the power of her mother's black Mary picture.

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