he Secret Life of Bees By Sue Monk Kidd Summary and Analysis Chapter 1
Looking back at the summer of 1964, Lily, the fourteen-year-old narrator, realizes everything changed that year. It was the first time the bees came swarming in her bedroom, a sure sign of death according to the black housekeeper, Rosaleen.
At that time, Lily lives with her father, T. (Terrence) Ray, and Rosaleen in Sylvan, South Carolina (pop. 3,100), a town of peach stands and Baptist churches. Her cruel father mostly ignores or punishes Lily, denying her the opportunities and accoutrements that are so important to teenagers trying to fit in. No boys are attracted to her, especially since she wears "Pentecostal dresses." No girls invite her to sleepovers. Like the thrashing bee she traps in a jar, Lily struggles to be like everyone else. But she is an outsider.
Lily has a horrific memory that haunts her. Deborah, her mother, died on December 3, 1954, after a heated argument with T. Ray. Lily was only four, but she remembers her mother hurriedly packing a suitcase. Then T. Ray arrived and argued with Deborah, who reached up on the closet shelf for a gun. T. Ray knocked it out of her hand and it fell on the floor near Lily. Lily picked it up, and she still remembers an explosion. She had accidentally killed her mother. "She was all I wanted. And I took her away."
Now, at fourteen, Lily begins a systematic search for information about her dead mother. She can find out only bits and pieces. Her mother was from Virginia and is buried there. Strangely, Deborah was also adamant about saving bugs instead of killing them. This is all Lily knows about her. She finds a paper bag of her mother's things in the attic: a photo; gloves; and a wooden picture of Mary, mother of Jesus, with (surprisingly) a black face. On the back of the picture someone has written "Tilburon, South Carolina." It's a town only two hours away, and Lily vows to go there. Lily buries her mother's items in a tin box in a wooded area and visits them when she aches for Deborah.
Lily is encouraged by some and discouraged by others. Because Lily's verbal aptitude score is high, her teacher, Mrs. Henry, encourages Lily, telling her she can be a college professor or a writer. Prior to this support, Lily thought she might possibly make it as far as beauty school. Now she has hope, and Mrs. Henry loans her books to read and talks about her getting a scholarship. A discourager, T. Ray makes Lily sell peaches at his stand along the highway but he won't allow her to take a reading book because he thinks education and college are a waste of time for girls. After she leaves the peach stand one day, Lily returns home and sees Rosaleen watching President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act on television.
Before Lily starts school, her father talks to her about her mother's death. When Lily tries to explain that she remembers that day, T. Ray gets angry. He explains that he and Deborah were arguing and Lily picked up the gun and "it just went off." He can't look her in the eye or comfort her, but he staunchly repeats that he has told her the story she must tell others.
A series of events causes Lily to start thinking about leaving home. July 4 is Lily's birthday, and she wants a charm bracelet like the other girls. T. Ray utterly ignores this request. Unhappy, that night she goes out and sleeps in the trees with the tin box of her mother's things. She unbuttons her blouse to allow "night to settle on my skin." The next morning, T. Ray is hunting for her and when he sees her hastily buttoning her blouse, he believes she is meeting a boy. He calls her a slut and punishes her in the usual way. She has to kneel down on uncooked grits, which feel like powdered glass. The next morning, her knees are swollen with red welts and bruises, but she has the tin box safely hidden under her mattress. When Rosaleen arrives, she is appalled at Lily's punishment. T. Ray says Lily will follow his orders as long as she lives in his house, and Lily thinks for the first time about living somewhere else.
Rosaleen is going to town the next day to sign up to vote. She has practiced writing her name, Rosaleen Daise, on a piece of paper. Lily lies to her father so that he'll let her accompany Rosaleen without asking any questions.
The next morning begins with Lily's birthday and ends in an unexpected assault. Rosaleen brings an angel food cake with fourteen candles for Lily's birthday. They walk to Sylvan on a scorching hot day, stopping at the Ebenezer Baptist Church to cool off. Brother Gerald disapproves of Rosaleen in his church, and when she asks about borrowing two paper fans from the church, Brother Gerald says no. So Rosaleen steals them. On the way into Sylvan they are accosted by three white men playing cards who make fun of Rosaleen and ask where she is going. Lily wants no trouble and tells Rosaleen to ignore them. But Rosaleen, disregarding common sense, tells them she is going to register to vote. When they ask about the fans, she admits she stole them. Angrily, she pours the contents of her snuff jar all over their shoes. They grab her, beat her, and call the police, resulting in her arrest. She is charged with assault, theft, and disturbing the peace, and put into a police car with Lily to go to jail. Lily will be released to her father, a fate almost as bad as Rosaleen's.
Chapter 1 of The Secret Life of Bees introduces the reader to the point of view, setting, exposition, and themes that will be integral to the novel. Each chapter begins with an epigram about bees, and these short quotations foreshadow happenings in the chapter. In Chapter 1, the Queen Bee is Deborah, Lily's mother.
The story has a first-person reminiscent point of view; it is a coming-of-age story and will be told by looking back. Because the mature Lily has had time to reflect on the events from her childhood, this viewpoint will be a real advantage. In 1964, Lily is living under horrible conditions, with a father who does not love her and takes every opportunity to punish her. In fact, he punishes her so viciously that the reader wonders why he is so cruel. But Lily also has a substitute mother in Rosaleen, the housekeeper who sometimes has more courage than sense for her own safety.
Reoccurring motifs are introduced. The first of these is the idea that the lives of bees parallel human lives. Kidd begins this connection with the short epigram about bees. Later in the chapter, when Lily imprisons the bees, they fight to get free, just like Lily is imprisoned in a loveless home. But when she opens the jar, the bees are so desensitized they do not fly away. They are battered and exhausted from trying to survive. This, too, represents Lily, who does not think to leave her abusive parent until he punishes her so deeply that she begins to think of freedom.
Lily's yearning for her real mother and her guilt about killing her are themes that will also appear throughout the novel. These two situations add to her loneliness and sense of being an outsider. Lily is already different from other teenagers at her school because she has only her father, and her loneliness is heightened when she is excluded from events like charm school because she is motherless. Lily particularly misses her mother when it comes to maturity issues such as picking out a training bra or starting her periods. Twice, the story of her mother's death is repeated, both through Lily's memory and T. Ray's dubious explanation. Lily even suggests that her own death will allow her to ask for her mother's forgiveness. In this world, however, she has no one to help her with teenage dresses or explain the bits of wisdom that are passed from mother to daughter. Because Lily knows so little about her mother, she makes up romantic stories about her and compares her own photo with that of her beautiful mother. She dreams of what her mother would have been like and the motherly things she would have done, like brushing Lily's hair. She even dreams sometimes that Rosaleen is her mother.
Religion is mentioned only briefly in this chapter, given that the photo with her mother's items is of a black Mary and that Lily is used to attending a church for whites only. Lily does not know why the photo of the Virgin Mary is black, and she accepts the fact that Rosaleen should not be in her Baptist church because blacks are not allowed. In fact, the world of black and white are totally and legally separated in 1964 America, and Lily understands that is the way things are.
The 1964 world of black and white are separated by both law and attitudes. Even churches condone segregation. As Brother Gerald says, "We love them [black people] in the Lord…but they had their own places." That divided world, as well as the Civil Rights Act that will eventually change those divisions, are all part of a theme that will be intertwined with the events of Lily's growing up. Rosaleen does not know her own age or birthday, given that she has no birth certificate. She has six brothers and sisters but has no idea where they are. Rosaleen threw her husband out, but with no mention of legal divorce. Although the Civil Rights Act has become law, changing years of social behavior and attitudes is not so easy. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., is mentioned in this chapter, because he is defying the law and spending time in jail in order to challenge the white world's intentions. When Rosaleen decides to register to vote, Lily becomes uneasy, because she has heard from a church deacon that the white world will find ways to keep this from happening. In fact, a man from Mississippi was killed for registering.
Finally, Chapter 1 introduces ideas that will appear later in the story. Lily's ability to lie in the face of adversity will come in handy in many situations. The one story she knows about her mother — that of not being able to kill or hurt bugs — will also be a thread that is embellished later. Rosaleen's protection of Lily will also continue, even when they are no longer in Sylvan. But the most crucial idea introduced in this chapter is the understanding that this will be a coming-of-age novel, so that Lily will mature through adversity and challenges before the novel ends.
In this chapter, Lily's education in race relations really begins. Following Rosaleen's arrest, the policeman, Avery Gaston, drives Lily and Rosaleen to the jail with the three hollering men following them in a green pickup with a gun rack. Rosaleen ignores their yelling, but Lily can tell Rosaleen is scared by the way the seat is shaking. When they reach the jail, Franklin Poseyhits Rosaleen in the forehead with a heavy flashlight, and she falls to her knees. The policeman, smiling, covers Lily's mouth so she can't scream. After the beating, Lily and Gaston drag Rosaleen into jail, as Posey declares he wants an apology. The two are put in a foul-smelling jail cell. T. Ray arrives but only to free Lily, who promises to return, and although Rosaleen tries to be brave, Lily can see that she is scared. All the way home, T. Ray speeds at 70 to 80 miles per hour, and Lily can imagine the pyramid of grits he'll have waiting for her, a veritable torture chamber for this offense. T. Ray tells Lily that Posey is the "meanest nigger-hater" in Sylvan, and he'll probably kill Rosaleen. A frightened Lily realizes that he means it.
After arriving home, T. Ray goes to oversee the payroll, leaving Lily in her room and warning her not to leave. In a moment of courage, she asserts that he doesn't scare her, and he takes a swing and misses. To hurt Lily, he tells her that her mother didn't care about her and was actually leaving her when she died so long ago. Once he is gone, Lily debates this new information, half sad and half believing that he lied.
Now she must get Rosaleen out of jail before her housekeeper is killed, and Lily has decided they will leave T. Ray's forever. She packs the $38 she earned selling peaches, some clothes, a map, and her mother's things. Then she leaves a note for T. Ray ending it with, "People who tell lies like you should rot in hell."
She makes up her plan on the way to the jail. She will free Rosaleen and somehow they will go to Tilburon, South Carolina. On the way, Brother Gerald picks her up in his car, and she lies that she is taking things to Rosaleen. When Gerald explains that he is going to the jail to file charges against Rosaleen, Lily lies, saying Rosaleen is deaf and probably didn't hear him say "no" about taking the fan. And she again lies that Rosaleen, when accosted, was singing a hymn and the three men told her to shut up. Because of this information, Brother Gerald decides not to press charges against this deaf religious martyr.
Lily's newfound courage gets Rosaleen out of town. She finds out from Gaston that Rosaleen is at the hospital, but he warns Lily not to go there. Lily ignores him, going to the hospital and sneaking past the policeman. Although Rosaleen's door has a "no visitors" sign, Lily goes right in. Rosaleen cries when she sees her, and Lily sees that Rosaleen has a huge bandage on her head. It turns out that, after Lily left, two men held Rosaleen while Posey hit her, until Gaston said "enough." But she didn't apologize. Lily assures Rosaleen that they will kill her and she must escape. Lily dresses Rosaleen and takes the telltale bandage off her head, advising her to walk like a visitor. Lily finds a phone and calls the nurse's station, posing as the jailor's wife. She says to tell the policeman he must come back to the jail. Once he leaves, she and Rosaleen walk out of the hospital.
Lily is sure her mother must have been at Tilburon sometime because of the picture and name on the piece of wood. Lily plans to walk to highway 40 and thumb a ride to Tilburon. A black man in a beat-up truck gives them a ride to within three miles of Tilburon. Lily lies to the man, telling him she is visiting her aunt and Rosaleen is going to do housework. Once they are dropped off, a full moon allows them to walk in the dark; when they tire, they stop for the night at a stream. When Lily explains T. Ray's story about Deborah's returning from somewhere only to leave again, she looks at Rosaleen for confirmation. But Rosaleen says she had seen Deborah only a couple of times and she thought Lily's mom always looked sad. Rosaleen believes that this trip to find where Deborah stayed is crazy. The two argue, but they spend the night near the river and bathe in the stream. Lily falls asleep, dreaming of her mother.
Two major threads of the story come together in this chapter. Lily's decision to leave a loveless home is fueled by her resolution to help Rosaleen escape certain death. Lily's understanding of the adult world is heightened when she realizes that both her father and Rosaleen are right to be fearful about the dangerous black and white divide.
T. Ray and Rosaleen both understand how prejudice works, but Lily doesn't. Rosaleen's trembling during the police car ride and in the jail warns Lily that forces she doesn't understand are at work here. When Avery Gaston allows Rosaleen to be brutally beaten, not once but twice, he smiles and says, "I can't say what men riled up like that will do." A culture where the police tacitly accept violence is a fearful place. Lily is kept from screaming during the first beating, during which Posey smashes Rosaleen with the flashlight. The second beating puts the housekeeper in the hospital. When Lily says T. Ray will get both of them out of jail, Rosaleen answers ironically. But when T. Ray gets only Lily out, Lily says she'll be back and sees the "caved in look" on Rosaleen's face. Later, T. Ray asserts that Posey is the worst "nigger-hating" man in the town and he will kill Rosaleen. At first Lily doesn't believe him, but then she sees that he is telling the truth. Thus her understanding of prejudice is growing. The black and white divide is part of the culture: When Lily goes to the hospital, it has a wing for blacks and a wing for whites. Lily casually accepts this division, having grown up in it all her life. But she had not seen the violence until this point in her life. This motif is a continuing one throughout the novel.
Rosaleen's courage — or foolishness — gives Lily the audacity to confront her father and leave home. When her father tries to hit her, she fights back by saying her mother wouldn't allow him to hurt her. At the mention of her mother, Lily feels something deadly and cold happen with T. Ray, and as a result, a tremor goes down her spine and she is afraid. T. Ray hurts her with his strongest weapon — his sarcasm about her mother protecting her. He devastates her with the words that her mother was coming back ten years earlier in order to pack and leave Lily. While she shouts that she hates him, Lily feels her heart breaking, and the tears she had been holding in over ten years come out. She replays her memory of that day and believes her father's hurtful words. But after he leaves, she pours a tear out of her bee jar and considers that he might have lied. And she hears a voice telling her, "Lily Melissa Owens, your jar is open." Lily believes it's the voice of the mother for whom she yearns. She must find out the truth about her mother, and she must get Rosaleen to safety.
Another aspect of the adult world, one that will help Lily, is a skill she has learned from her father. She leaves a note to T. Ray calling him a liar, but Lily, too, is an accomplished liar. When Brother Gerald picks her up, she convinces him not to press charges against Rosaleen, on the pretext that she is deaf and was singing a hymn when she was accosted for her religious zeal. Lily can't believe her own talent when the nurse at the hospital thinks she is truly calling from the police station, nor when she tells the black truck driver, who takes them near Tilburon, that she is visiting her aunt. Perhaps T. Ray has taught her a useful skill to help her survive.
The bee motif also progresses, only this time Lily is the bee in the epigram, leaving for a new life. Her tear over the family secrets parallels the title of the novel, and the tear falls into the jar that the bees have fled. When the idea to leave enters her head, she hears a voice saying her name and reminding her that her own jar is open.
It is the next morning. Waiting for Rosaleen to wake up, Lily studies the picture of the black Mary, trying to figure out why her mother had it. Having been raised Baptist, Lily has always been told to convert Catholics. In fact, Brother Gerald taught her that Hell was designed for Catholics. Now Lily believes her mother must have been mixed up somehow with Catholics, given that she had this picture and Baptists don't talk much about Mary.
Rosaleen wakes up, and they start walking toward Tilburon. Neither has eaten, so Lily suggests they find a hotel and get some food, but Rosaleen explains that a hotel won't take a black woman. When Lily demands to know why the Civil Rights Act doesn't help that, a shrewd Rosaleen explains that the law doesn't mean people will change their minds.
So far, Lily has no plan, but she hopes the voice that persuaded her to leave will come back. She waits for a sign. They come upon the Frogmore Stew General Store and Restaurant. Lily goes to the restaurant to buy food; the owner, not recognizing her, asks where she's from. Lily lies, saying she is visiting her grandmother. She persuades the owner to open her two purchased Coca-Colas, and when he leaves momentarily, she steals snuff for Rosaleen. Guilt-stricken, Lily promises herself she'll send a dollar back to the store sometime in the future. Suddenly she sees the sign she has been looking for. On a store shelf are dozens of honey jars with the exact black Madonna in her mother's picture. The owner explains that "the woman who makes the honey is colored herself," and her name is August Boatright. She lives outside town in a pink house.
Lily hurries back to Rosaleen and explains this sign. She is sure her mother must have known the honey collector. They walk through the town, and Lily checks the post office for their pictures on wanted posters. Fortunately they are neither there nor in the newspapers.
The two continue walking, coming to a place that will provide refuge. When they reach the edge of town, they see a pink house and a woman walking around who looks like "an African bride." August Boatright is dressed in white, with a helmet that has veils attached. She swings a bucket that is belching smoke, and bees fly up from boxes on the ground. Lily and Rosaleen watch before approaching the pink house. June Boatwright answers the door, followed by May. Both are August's sisters. June invites them in, and Lily can feel instinctively that her mother was in this house at some time. Her whole body tingles. Lily is amazed by the smell of furniture wax, the velvet cushions and footstools, and, mostly the carved wooden figure from a ship. She surprisingly tells August the truth: They've run away from home. Even though June objects, August says they may stay for awhile.
Lily and Rosaleen discover more about the Boatrights. Rosaleen asks about the Boatright sisters' names, and May explains that her mother named them for her favorite months. A fourth sister named April died when she was little. May then begins humming "Oh! Susanna" and breaks into tears. August tells her to go to her wall to finish her cry. Lily and Rosaleen are puzzled by this ritual.
Lily lies about their last names — Smith and Williams — and says her mother died when she was little and her father recently died in a tractor accident in Spartanburg County. To avoid being sent to a home, they ran away. Rosaleen is the housekeeper, and they're going to Virginia to find Lily's aunt, but need to earn money first. When August asks about Rosaleen's bruises, Lily says Rosaleen fell down the stairs.
August explains that she is from Virginia and, immediately, Lily gets a strange, tingling feeling once again. The Boatright sisters offer them room and board, and say they can call Lily's aunt to get bus money. Lily says she doesn't know her aunt's last name. August lets them stay for awhile but it is clear that she does not believe Lily's stories. They will stay and sleep on cots in the honey house. It is a one-room building with all kinds of machines and tools for making honey for distribution. A thin coating of honey lies over everything. August explains that Zach — a hired boy — will be back soon to help with the honey and that Lily can work with him.
Despite being in a strange place, Lily feels that she belongs, but she also feels very white. Lily tells Rosaleen not to tell anyone about her mother's wooden picture. The prospect of talking to August about her mother makes Lily feel uneasy.
The next day, Lily goes outside to explore and can see fourteen beehives. She learns that August was left twenty-eight acres of land by her grandfather. Lily then walks over to a stone wall and finds hundreds of bits of paper, folded up, in the cracks between stones. One refers to Birmingham, where four angels died on September 15. Lily suddenly feels guilty for intruding, so she leaves and walks down to a river. She takes off her shoes and wades in it, feeling at peace. Lily wishes life could always be like this without cruel people like T. Ray or Gaston.
In these two chapters, the epigrams about bees sum up what is about to occur. At the beginning of Chapter 3, the circle of attendants refers to the Boatwright sisters, and Lily believes she will find out about her mother, the queen bee, through them. Chapter 4 begins with an epigram that describes the female establishment at the home of the Boatright sisters, who seem to get along fine without males. Life in the Boatright home is quiet in comparison to the violence in Lily's life back home.
Religion continues to be a dominant theme as Lily notices the ship's figurehead. It is a black woman, and Lily instantly realizes it is Mary, mother of Jesus. Her heart aches because she believes Mary can see into her cheating conscience and recognize her hatred of T. Ray, of the girls at school, and of herself. But at the same time, Lily feels deep love for herself. Her understanding of right and wrong is awakened by her religious upbringing, and she refers to it once at the end of Chapter 4, when she wishes evil men like T. Ray and Gaston were not part of her world.
Lily also spends a great deal of time trusting her instincts, a decidedly mature trait. When she first sees the black Madonna at the grocery store, she is sure her mother was there or was connected somehow with the honey sellers. She believes that August will be a "portal" to finding out about her mother. Lily feels as though she has a spiritual connection with her mother, given that she senses her presence in this house. Even the mention of Virginia leaves Lily shaking as if she is instinctively sensing something about her mother's past. However, she feels uneasy talking to August about Deborah, and she isn't sure why.
Another continuing motif is Lily's use of lies to forward her plans. She lies to the grocery store owner and to August about their names, the nature of her mother and father's deaths, and Rosaleen's bruises. Lily has not lived in a world where people can be trusted, so she trusts her own instincts when it comes to revealing too much.
The Boatright home is an education in race. The sisters are intelligent and competent, running their own business and doing well. Because T. Ray taught Lily that black women aren't smart, or at least not as smart as white women, Lily is amazed by these women. She realizes that she has been prejudiced by her upbringing. She also is shocked that June would be prejudiced against her, a white girl. It is always the other way around. This is another lesson about growing up: An understanding of all forms of prejudice is necessary in order to realize that skin color is not a fair way to assess peoples' characters. The Civil Rights theme is again brought up with a reference to the senseless Birmingham church bombing, where four children died. In addition, Lily doesn't understand why Rosaleen can't stay in a hotel in spite of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Prejudice is a wall Lily hasn't quite figured out, but she's beginning to see that the world isn't exactly as described to children.
The nature of good and evil is a question in Lily's mind. People who bomb churches and kill children are evil. T. Ray and Gaston are part of evil, so Lily wonders why they exist. As they grow up, children have to devise ways to cope with the evil and sadness in the world. May is a symbol of what happens when a person feels too deeply about tragedy in the world. She can't deal with that knowledge, and it has crippled her life.