The Secret Life of Bees | Study Guide

Sue Monk Kidd

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The Secret Life of Bees | Chapter 8 | Summary



Social isolation means certain death for a bee, as this chapter's opening quotation reveals.

August Boatwright tells Lily there are many black Marys around the world, and the one on their label is "the Black Madonna of Breznichar in Bohemia." August and Lily find common ground in discussing some of the things each of them loves. August labels her honey with the black Mary because "everybody needs a God who looks like them." She tells Lily that "the spirit of Mary" is everywhere and in everything, "but sometimes it will get concentrated in certain places." This idea intrigues Lily. August tells Lily all about her family. Her grandmother, Big Mama, kept bees and taught August about them. August decided against marriage because she didn't want to serve a man.

While working on the hives with Lily, August tells her, "bees have a secret life we don't know anything about." While "every bee has its role to play," the queen is mother to every bee in the hive, and "they all depend on her to keep it going." As Lily becomes covered in bees, she becomes calm, and in her mind, "dance[s] with the bees." Suddenly she begins to ache in her "motherless place" and relives the memory of her mother's death. August wants to have a talk with Lily, but Lily refuses.

Zach Taylor announces that the town's whites are in an uproar about movie star Jack Palance's plans to come to Tiburon and integrate the local movie theater by bringing a "colored woman" on a date there. Lily is sick of all this fuss over "skin pigment."

Lily goes with Zach to the office of Clayton Forrest, a local lawyer, to deliver honey. She calls T. Ray from Forrest's office. He is angry, claiming that "the peaches have gone to hell" since he has been busy searching for Lily. Lily asks if he knows her favorite color; T. Ray responds with a threat to "tear [her] behind to pieces." Lily hangs up sadly. She writes T. Ray a letter expressing her anger, then tears it up. That night she goes to the black Mary statue and prays for direction and protection. She touches Mary's heart and tells her, "I live in a hive of darkness, and you are my mother."


In this chapter, Lily begins to undergo what Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" narrative schema terms her ordeal. Lily's confrontation with her deepest, darkest fears and pain is brought about by the bees. As the bees cover her body, Lily resists the instinct to submit to the fear of being stung. She undergoes a spiritual experience of inner peace that leads into her viscerally reliving the memory of her mother's death. Lily's experience is something like a baptism, but instead of being dunked in water by a white male preacher in the Baptist church, she is enveloped in a covering of bees, under the guidance of a black woman.

August prepares Lily for this spiritual experience by sharing with her a piece of spiritual wisdom that would likely be regarded as heretical by Christian orthodoxy, but that Lily finds empowering. Spiritual power, according to August, suffuses existence. The black Mary is so powerful because of the power accorded to her by those who worship her. She functions as a symbolic receptacle for the combined power of many human hearts. When Lily understands this, it prepares her to undergo the experience of being covered by bees, to relieve her mother's death, and to finally touch the heart of Our Lady of Chains.

The idea of the mother functions in the same way. Lily has lost her biological mother, but there is mother energy all around her that she may tap into. This doesn't mean that everything is okay; on the contrary, Lily is more aware of darkness than ever. But she now recognizes that she is part of a community, a "hive," and that the symbolic mother, or queen bee, of this community is the black Mary. Lily's touching Mary's heart is a triumph, but it is not the end of Lily's ordeal. She is still not ready to exchange truths with August.

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