In literature, the quest is a device that is commonly implemented into the plot of many stories. According to Thomas C. Foster in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the five characteristics of a quest are a quester, a destination, a reason for going to the destination, difficult trials along the way, and a true reason to find the destination (3). In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, fourteen-year-old Lily embarks upon her own quest, branding her as both the protagonist and the quester. Her reason is to find out more about Deborah, her deceased mother, by traveling to Tiburon, South Carolina, wanting “to go to everyplace she had ever been” (Kidd 15).
Lily wants to escape T. Ray’s emotional and physical abuse and prove that he is lying to her about Deborah leaving. While on her journey, Lily encounters several challenges along the way, such as Zach’s unjust arrest and May’s heartbreaking suicide. After the two tragedies take place, Lily eventually learns that while Deborah truly did leave her, she later came back because “She’d wanted to bring [Lily] here, to Tiburon, to August’s” (Kidd 254). The hardships that she experiences shed light on her true reason for going to Tiburon. Although her stated reason for embarking upon the quest was to find out about Deborah, “The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge” (Foster 3). Lily realizes that she does not need a biological mother to experience maternal love and comfort, and she finally forms genuine human connections that she had longed for throughout the novel. She is able move on from the past that has plagued her as she forgives both Deborah and T. Ray and finds a permanent home with the Boatwrights.
Weather plays a significant role in The Secret Life of Bees by shifting the mood or tone of a scene. Conditions like rain, lightning, and fog have the power to drastically transform the entire ambiance, and it is usually indicative of a character’s emotions. After arriving at the Boatwright house, Lily, Rosaleen, and August were waiting to go to the honey house. The sky looked as though it were going to storm soon, and Lily narrates how she refused to wipe away the raindrops that sprayed her face because “It made the world seem so alive” (Kidd 75). In the same scene, Rosaleen stayed in the rain, letting it soak her entirely, and Lily “could see she was returning to herself, looking like an all-weather queen out there, like nothing could touch her (Kidd 75). The description of rain in these two moments are positive and warm as the water brings vitality to those it touches. Although rainy weather is typically seen as gloomy, “Rain can bring the world back to life, to new growth, to the return of the green world” (Foster 72). The author depicts rainwater as a source of youthfulness and energy to both Rosaleen and Lily.
Both characters have escaped Sylvan and now feel liberated; they are beginning new lives in Tiburon and are beginning to understand the simple joys of life. Later in the novel, when August is telling Lily about Deborah, the sky was clear and starry before “a damp fog rolled into the yard and settled over the porch” (Kidd 248). The sudden change in weather foreshadows Lily’s mind becoming clouded by the influx of new information and her overwhelming emotions. As August continues to speak about Deborah’s imperfections as a mother, Lily becomes agitated, and the stormy weather becomes increasingly violent. In the same way, when Lily eventually calmed down, “The rain had nearly stopped, leaving [them] with all this quiet” (Kidd 255). The eerie fog and heavy rain in this particular instance is used to emulate the rise and fall of Lily’s feelings rather than provide characters with vitality. When Lily reaches her peak of emotional stress, the rain is at its heaviest. By modifying the environment of certain scenes, the weather of the novel, specifically rainfall, was used to parallel Lily’s emotions and serve as a source of vitality.
One obvious major symbol in The Secret Life of Bees is the bees. Throughout the entire novel, the author frequently mentions bees and shows the parallel between the insects’ tendencies and human behavior. While symbols in literature “involve a range of possible meanings and interpretations” (Foster 105), one possible analysis could be that the bees are represent Lily, and the symbol is important to the novel because it offers a subtle glimpse into the protagonist’s true emotions. For example, Lily’s fascination with bees at the beginning leads her to catch some in a jar to show T. Ray, who thinks that she is imagining them. After she first traps some in the jar, she mentions how the bees fight to escape (Kidd 11). However, when Lily finally uncaps the container to free them, they remain inside for hours; the bees have grown accustomed to their imprisonment (Kidd 28). The acclimation of the bees to their harsh and limited environment is similar to Lily being trapped in her abusive house. Although she tried to fight for her freedom, she is now weary and has given up, just the like the bees have become desensitized and stop struggling.
Later in the novel, August explains to Lily that you must “‘send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved’” (Kidd 92). Just like how the bees want to receive affection, humans do as well, which is why Lily yearns for loving human connection. She spent her childhood with an abusive father and the guilt of possibly killing her mother, never really experiencing compassion. While the author draws these connections between the bees and Lily, Kidd places immense emphasis upon queen bees specifically. Before every chapter, a quote is placed at the beginning – most of them regarding queen bees. Lily also describes how “a hive without a queen was a death sentence for the bees” (Kidd 286). Without a female laying eggs and serving as the mother, the rest of the bees would be confused and dejected, leading the hive to shut down. Like bees without a queen, Lily has grown up disoriented as a result of spending the majority of her life without a solid maternal figure to love, cherish, and support her.
Water, in literature, is typically associated with renewal and metamorphosis. Immersing a character in water can denote a new beginning or a turning point because “ symbolic rebirth is the point of the sacrament of baptism” (Foster 167). In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily and Rosaleen experience their own “baptism”. When the two begin to argue on their journey to Tiburon, Rosaleen walks away. Lily eventually finds Rosaleen wading in a nearby creek, and she describes the sight as “the kind of vision you never really get over” (Kidd 55). The picture of Rosaleen standing in the water is almost ethereal to Lily, and she is fascinated. In her head, Lily seeks forgiveness from Rosaleen as if she was asking her own mother. She slips herself into the water as well, and both of them apologize to each other, illustrating a clear change from their recent argument. This symbolic baptism of the two women mends their relationship, cleansing their minds of anger and their hearts of bitterness. The water calms Rosaleen and Lily, allowing them to forgive one another. The baptism also signifies their rebirth into new lives free from the cold grip of T. Ray. By submerging themselves into “that shimmering dark world” (Kidd 56), Lily and Rosaleen leave behind them the pain of the past.
Irony is multivocal due to how people perceive things differently based on past individual experiences. While the irony in The Secret Life of Bees is quite evident, the multivocality of the device means that “irony doesn’t work for everyone… [and some] simply may not register that multiplicity” (Foster 261). Not every reader may notice the situational irony manifested within the novel. It is quite interesting how Lily escapes her home and finds herself in the exact same house where her own mother ran away to. When May reveals that Deborah resided with the Boatwrights several years ago, both Lily and the reader are surprised by the unexpected news (Kidd 173). The revelation is an example of irony; the chances of Lily happening to stumble upon the Boatwright house while running away are slim, yet it happens. Another example of situational irony is how, at the beginning of the novel, Lily is enchanted by the fantasy of her late mother being a faultless human being, a inimitable person. She dreams of Deborah being alive and places her upon a pedestal. Lily recognizes later that in reality, she had “spent [her] life imagining all the ways she’d love [her], what a perfect specimen of a mother she was. And all of it was lies. [She] had completely made her up” (Kidd 252). Deborah was nothing like Lily had pictured, and she does not get the closure she was expecting. However, instead of finding her ideal Deborah, Lily ironically finds an entire group of mothers to love and care for her (Kidd 302). Lily went through life longing for a mother, one single person to show her affection, and manages to gain four mothers in the span of a couple months. She comes to terms with the actuality of her situation and begins to understand what is truly important in life.