The Secret Life of Bees | Study Guide

Sue Monk Kidd

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The Secret Life of Bees | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

In the opening quotation, readers are asked to imagine entering a beehive, a place of literal darkness.

The sisters use honey, "the ambrosia of the gods," for everything. Lily quickly learns how to operate the honey equipment. May and Rosaleen bond. May often becomes distressed; whenever she begins humming "Oh! Susanna," August sends her to the stone wall in the garden to calm herself. June is a teacher and plays the cello for dying people.

One night, Lily overhears June and August talking. They both know Lily's story is a lie, but August says they can help her. Lily is shocked to hear June objecting, "she's white, August."

On the nightly news, they learn of the violence shaking the nation after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Lily feels "self-conscious and ashamed" of her whiteness. After the news, they always pray to the wooden black Mary, which May calls "Our Lady of Chains." August explains their religion is a mixture of Catholicism and their "own ingredients."

August tells Lily a story about a young nun, Beatrix, who ran away from the convent. After being on the streets, she longs to return, but knows she can't go back. When she finally returns in disguise, the sisters tell her that Beatrix never left, and point to another woman. Beatrix knows the woman is Mary, and realizes that Mary "had been standing in for her." Lily knows the story is really about her. She begins to pray to Mary, asking for protection.

August takes Lily to the beehives and teaches her "bee yard etiquette." She is to be gentle, unafraid, and loving. Lily goes with August to tend to her many beehives around the county. She wants to earn August's love "so she would keep [Lily] forever."

August tells Lily that since May's twin, April, committed suicide, May has felt the world's suffering as her own. The stone wall is a "wailing wall" like the Western Wall in Jerusalem. May deals with her suffering by writing down things that bother her and sticking the notes in the wall's crevices.

Lily realizes Rosaleen is jealous of her closeness with August. Lily says August might know something about her mother, but Rosaleen says looking for her is dangerous because Lily might learn something she wishes she hadn't. Lily writes her mother's name on a piece of paper and puts it in the stone wall. She wants to tell August the truth and ask about her mother, but she is afraid this would wreck the new life she and Rosaleen have at the Boatwrights'. If August knew that Lily was a runaway and Rosaleen a fugitive, she would have to report them to the police and to T. Ray.

Analysis

In this chapter, Lily witnesses some of the darkness that can reside inside the human heart. The author continues the metaphor of the Boatwrights' home as a beehive—it is a place where sweetness, in the form of love and caring, is produced, but it is also a place that is marked by darkness.

Despite the welcome she has received, Lily is more aware than ever of her whiteness as it contrasts with the blackness of the sisters. Although May and August wholeheartedly accept her, June is not so welcoming—and the reason for her standoffishness seems to be Lily's color. Lily is self-conscious of her whiteness as she learns of the racial violence sweeping the nation in response to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Her feelings may be described as a manifestation of "white guilt," the uncomfortable sense that, as a white person, she bears responsibility for the unjust and racist acts of other white people. She realizes, for the first time, the ubiquity of the racism that she has been brought up in, and feels ashamed at the unexamined assumptions about race that her father and other white people have taught her.

For all her childlike joy and eccentricity, May Boatwright struggles with darkness every day of her life. The suicide of her twin sister, April, has overactivated May's sense of empathy, so that she is crippled by the pain of others. The "wailing wall" is her way of managing this pain. It entails a ritual that allows her to make her pain concrete and then detach from it by leaving it out in the world, in the safe space of the wall. May's ritual recalls the Jewish practice of placing prayers in the Western Wall that surrounds the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Having survived the destruction of two Jewish temples, this wall has become one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, and the Jewish tradition of entrusting the wall with prayers is a recognition of its strength.

Lily's life at the Boatwrights' is full of new rituals, and these rituals are the key to confronting, processing, and overcoming darkness. Lily learns and participates in the rituals of beekeeping and honey processing, as well as in the eclectic spiritual rituals practiced by the sisters. While May's "wailing wall" draws on Jewish tradition, the sisters' worship of the black Mary statue draws on Catholic and pre-Christian traditions. The Boatwrights' is a place of spiritual freedom, where the mixing of traditions allows for the creation of a spiritual life that is personally meaningful and not imposed by an outside authority.

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