He Secret Life of Bees By Sue Monk Kidd Summary and Analysis Chapter 1

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Chapter 5


Lily and Rosaleen have been at the Boatright house for one week, and they are fitting in and learning the routine of the household. Lily is figuring out both the business and the family. Honey surrounds their lives. Lily discovers, to her astonishment, that August has a mail-order honey business that extends to Vermont and beyond. August begins to teach her about the bees, stressing that Lily must love them because everything in the world needs love. Lily works very hard at learning beekeeping, because she believes if August comes to love her, she won't send her back home to T. Ray.

As they learn the routine, Lily and Rosaleen work on understanding the sisters. While Lily is working with August, Rosaleen is helping May in the house. The sisters buy Rosaleen a new set of clothing, and she and May get along well. Rosaleen understands that May is a bit "slow" — a child in an adult body. She also understands that the singing of "Oh! Susanna" is May's attempt to keep from crying about sad things. She can't even hurt a bug, so she carries spiders out of the house rather than kill them. June is a teacher at the African-American high school and plays the cello, often at funerals. It is clear to Lily that June does not like that Lily and Rosaleen are staying at the house, but Lily doesn't understand why. She begins to figure it out, however, when she overhears a conversation between June and August. June is angry because she and August both know Lily is telling lies about her past. August protests that they can't send Lily back to where she came from, because Lily has a sadness that makes leaving a bad plan. August thinks maybe they can help Lily. June is also angry because Lily is white, which means she doesn't belong there.

In the evening they sit and watch the television news. Lily likes Walter Cronkite, the news anchor. But there is continuous news about violence related to the Civil Rights Movement, and Lily wonders why violence seems to be increasing, given that the Civil Rights Act was just passed. May becomes so upset at the news that they have to put her in a warm bath and calm her down.

One evening, Lily attends the sisters' religious ceremony. They say "Hail, Mary's," while looking at the statue they have named "Our Lady of Chains." August explains that their mother was Catholic but their father was "Orthodox Eclectic." This gives them some latitude to make up their own flourishes to the Catholic beliefs. August tells a story to Lily about a nun named Beatrix who ran away from her convent. While she was gone, Mary was standing in for her. Lily thinks August is trying to tell her she knows Lily has run away, and that if she asks Mary for help she'll find peace.

Lily and Rosaleen discover the story behind May's wall. May's problems began when her twin, April, died by suicide. August describes an event where racism caused April great sadness, and she began to become more and more depressed, eventually shooting herself with a shotgun. Since April's death, May also suffers from depression and sadness. Now she is so empathetic to other people's pain that it overwhelms her. So June and August invented her wailing wall, similar to the one in Jerusalem. When May gets sad, she goes to her wall, writes down what makes her sad, and sticks it in a crack in the wall, like a prayer. This calms her.

Lily understands that sadness. She compares May's overwhelming sadness to T. Ray's total indifference to people's suffering. Lily feels she wouldn't want to take either course: feel too deeply or be totally immune to suffering. Returning to the honey house, she is confronted by a sullen Rosaleen, who is jealous of the time Lily is spending with August. Their conversation is a reminder that Rosaleen feels like a mother to Lily and tries to protect her. Lily explains that she is sure August knows something about Deborah, and Lily can feel her mother's presence in the house. Rosaleen tells her to stop this silliness because she doesn't want Lily to get hurt. But once Rosaleen falls asleep, Lily goes out to the wall, writes "Deborah" on a slip of paper, and sticks it in the wall.


Chapter 5 begins with an epigram about the bees, but this time it describes people as being small enough to follow the bees into their hive and feel the darkness. This refers to Lily's and Rosaleen's immersion in the Boatright home: There is a great happiness and love on the surface, but there is also a darkness in April's suicide and May's depression. In this community of women, Lily comes to find the love she so desperately wants. She is attracted to the family atmosphere and the way the sisters love and protect each other, so she works very hard to get August to love her so she can stay.

Underneath their relationship, however, are lies and secrets. Lily has lied about her identity, her past, and Rosaleen's injuries. August knows this, but it does not appear to upset her. Instead, she believes she can help Lily and does not want to send her back to wherever she was unhappy. Lily is keeping lots of secrets from the Boatrights, but they, too, have secrets. They distract May from painful events for fear she will be overwhelmed. And August keeps secret her disbelief of Lily's stories. But most of all, Lily is seeking to find out the secrets surrounding her mother's life and death. These secrets parallel the title of the novel and the idea that both bees and humans have complex lives that are difficult to understand.

Racism is again a motif in this chapter. When June protests that Lily is white and that she should not stay there, Lily realizes that June does not even know her. The idea that racism is senseless prejudice that fails to take a person's character into account is a new awakening for Lily. Each similar event slowly breaks down the barriers of Lily's upbringing.

Kidd emphasizes in this chapter that passing a law may simply increase violence without changing social conventions. The violence of the 1960s and the inhumanity of racism are continued in evening news broadcasts that recount various cruel and brutal events. May's intense reaction to these programs underscores the inhumane treatment of human beings for each other and their callous disregard of their victim's humanity.

This chapter also begins to dig deeper into the religious aspects of the novel. Lily and Rosaleen join the Boatrights' evening prayers, including the repetition of the Catholic "Hail, Mary." Lily is not quite sure why they call the statue "Our Lady of Chains," but she follows August's lead because she wants to be a part of this community. August's use of the story of the nun who ran away from the convent is a diplomatic and subtle way to give Lily an opportunity to talk about her own flight. It also connects the idea that religion offers an opportunity for hope. Asking Mary for help will surely make Lily's life easier. However, at this point Lily decides she is going to keep her own counsel.

Chapters 6-7


Chapter 6 introduces Neil, June's boyfriend of many years. He is the principal at June's school. Long ago, June was left at the altar by another man, so although she dates Neil, she refuses to marry him. Lily reflects that it's odd all three sisters are unmarried.

The Daughters of Mary have their weekly meeting at the Boatright house. An assortment of ladies in fancy hats arrive, including Queenie, Violet, Mabelee, Cressie, Singer-Girl, and her husband, Otis Hill. Lunelle is the hat maker. They sit in the presence of the Mary statue and begin to say "Hail, Mary's." This is followed by a Bible reading, and then the story of Our Lady of Chains. To August, storytelling is an important way to keep the past alive, the memory intact, and the community connected. Without stories, we forget "who we are or why we're here." Lily can tell August repeats the story the same way, every time.

The story begins in the days when slaves were yearning for freedom. A slave named Obadiah found a ship's figurehead floating in the water. He figured the Lord had sent her to rescue them, and was sure of this when the statue spoke to him, saying she was there to take care of them. When he set her on the hearth of the praise house, Pearl, the oldest slave, identified her as Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Pearl said mothers have seen suffering and are "strong and constant" with a "mother's heart." Then the slaves danced and touched the statue's chest, where they later painted a heart. The master heard the goings-on and chained the statue in his barn, but the statue always escaped, so he gave up. The slaves called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke their chains. The Mary statue gave them hope, and with that hope, some escaped to the North.

The Daughters of Mary sing "Amazing Grace" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain," with each daughter touching Mary's heart. Lily wants very badly to touch her, too, but when she tries to, June stops the music. As a result, Lily faints. When she comes to, the sisters take care of her.

Later, watching the television news, they find out the United States is sending a rocket to the moon as part of the space race against Russia. August says it takes away the magic of the moon — one less magical symbol. Listening, Lily decides one day she will touch the statue's heart, and then tell August her true story.

Eight days have passed at the Boatright house when Chapter 7 begins. Lily still jumps when she hears a siren because she is afraid it is T. Ray having her arrested and returned home. She still feels she is loved in her new community, but the worry about her father finding her is never far behind.

A black teenage boy, Zachary Lincoln Taylor, comes to the Boatright house, and Lily sees him at first as an intrusion on her relationship with August. He helps Lily and August with the honey. Lily sees Zach as handsome, which surprises her, because she had never thought of black men as being handsome; in fact, back home, she had joined in on making fun of their looks with her schoolmates. But Zach is August's godson, a junior in high school, a football player, and a strong student. He is hoping for a scholarship to go north for college. He is surprised that Lily, a white girl, is staying with the Boatrights and asks her what she is doing there. She gives the standard reply.

They work companionably together and compare notes on their lack of futures. Zach wants to be a lawyer, not a football player, but he is black, and that will limit him. Lily wanted to be a writer but now that she's an orphan, she doesn't see that happening. Zach advises her that she must imagine what has never been.

The only anxious part of Lily's life now is June and her obvious distaste for Lily. August interrupts a conversation between June and Lily, saying Lily can stay as long as she wants. August gives Lily an opportunity to tell her the truth about her history, but although Lily would like to come clean, she keeps putting it off, afraid that August will reject her. At the same time, Lily wants to know what August might know about her mother. That night, Lily has a good cry, both because she hates lying to August and because she's afraid Rosaleen is right about her living in a dream world at the Boatright house. The same evening, June and Neil have a huge argument, and he leaves. Angrily, she yells at him not to come back.

Lily and Zach go on a trip into the country to bring back honey. The property they are on belongs to a lawyer, who helps Zach with his studies. Lily is shocked to experience sexual feelings about Zach, crying about it at one point. Zach misunderstands and thinks he has offended her. He assures her that she will be a great writer. They see a sign for Tilburon that mentions the home of Willifred Marchant, who is a writer and Tilburon's only claim to fame.

When they return, Rosaleen is moving out of the honey house in order to sleep in the main house near May. August is reading Jane Eyre. That evening, Lily begins reflecting on how her body is turning into that of a woman. Zach has awakened feelings in her that she has never felt before. She daydreams about him, and her dreams are mixed up with her mother calling her name. Two days later, Zach brings Lily a notebook to write in, and she hugs him. It is more than a brotherly/sisterly hug. He warns her that people would kill him for just looking at a white girl. Lily begins writing every day in her notebook, and later reading her stories to Zach.


Chapter 6 reveals the source of June's unhappiness; Lily learns that she was left at the altar many years earlier. Her fear of being hurt again by a man causes her to argue with her boyfriend, Neil. Despite dating for many years, she continually refuses to marry him. This conflict causes her overall unhappiness and explains her treatment of Lily.

The Daughters of Mary have a form of religion that is also a social community. Mary has been their source of hope, from slavery until the present day, and followers have been passing their stories down from generation to generation, taking great pride in their history. Their religious services are somewhat like those at conventional churches, but also not: Hymns, spirituals, joy, dancing, storytelling, and fellowship are key parts of their beliefs. The Daughters accept Lily as a friend, but she is not black, and this bothers June, who stops the music when Lily goes to touch the statue. Lily is so overcome by this enmity that she faints. But Lily understands the idea of Mary and of hope, and her yearning for her mother connects with her new ideas about Mary.

Lily is still in conflict over whether to tell August about her past. When Lily goes to the house to check on Rosaleen's moving, she sees August is reading Jane Eyre, a novel of Charlotte Bronte's that is similar in some respects to Lily's life. The novel's protagonist, Jane, is an orphan who survives a horrible time in a cruel orphanage and rises to become tutor to a rich man's daughter. She overcomes terrible secrets, an unhappy romance, and her own poor beginnings to finally find happiness. August simply tells Lily that the novel is about a motherless girl who leaves home.

Another thread in Lily's maturation is her relationship with Zach. He causes a sexual awakening in her that is confusing, especially because she has no mother to talk with about these things. Lily is again surprised that she sees Zach as a handsome man, given that she grew up in a culture that believed black people are not beautiful. Lily also feels a connection with Zach because they are both outsiders, persecuted for their color or poor status. Zach understands that their relationship can't happen; in fact, he knows that it is a dangerous idea that could bring violence — even death — into their lives. So, at the moment when they almost kiss, Zach pulls back.

Chapter 8


While Lily and August put labels on the honey jars, they talk. Lily begins thinking about the picture of the Black Madonna and how her mother looked at the same picture. August explains that she read about Black Madonnas in school and learned they aren't unusual in Europe. When Lily asks why she labeled her honey that way, August explains that she wanted to give the Daughters of Mary a divine being that is their own color. August then further enumerates her beliefs, including the idea that the spirit of Mary is alive everywhere in nature. Then she talks about her grandmother (who taught her about beekeeping) and her mother — Lily realizes for the first time that August misses her mother, too.

Lily hears August's story about her parents and also her opinions about marriage. August's father was a black dentist in Richmond, which was where he met August's mother, who was working in a hotel laundry. August she spent her childhood summers with her grandmother. She then went to college and was a history teacher for a few years, until her grandmother left her the house and 28 acres, where she has lived for eighteen years. When Lily questions August about love and marriage, she explains that she fell in love once but loved her freedom more. She does not plan to marry, because it would restrict her life.

They go out in the woods to check on the bees. August explains that the hardest thing in life is choosing what matters. She has Lily listen to the bees in the hives, where each has a role to play but mostly lead secret lives. The queen in the hive, however, is a mother to thousands. The bees then fly out of the hive and cover Lily. Remembering what August said about Mary being in nature everywhere, Lily lets the bees surround her. Having a spiritual moment, Lily remembers the day her mother died and wishes (privately) that she could go back and fix the "bad things." August asks Lily to talk about herself, but Lily nervously says they will talk later.

Zach arrives and is heading to Mr. Forrest's law office to deliver honey. He says there is a rumor that a movie star, Jack Palance, is coming to Tilburon with a black girlfriend. Supposedly, Palance plans to visit his sister and go to the movie theatre, where he and his girlfriend will sit downstairs in the white section. This may stir up violence in the town. Hearing this, Lily wishes God had made everyone one color. She wants to go with Zach to town, but August is afraid. Finally, though, August relents and lets Lily go.

Zach takes Lily to Mr. Forrest's law office. She meets his eighty-year-old receptionist, Miss Lacy, who is shocked that Lily is staying in a black household. Lily assumes Miss Lacy will now gossip and tell the rest of the town. Zach introduces Lily to Mr. Forrest, who is kind to her. He takes Zach back to his office while Lily waits in another room, where she sees a photo of Mr. Forrest with his daughter. Looking at the photo, she believes she is looking at a father who loves his daughter; she muses that he probably even knows what her favorite color is. This makes her think of T. Ray, and she picks up the telephone and calls him. She expects him to be worried and concerned, but instead he is angry, telling her she's in big trouble. She asks him if he knows her favorite color, but he ignores her question and threatens to find her and, when he does, to hurt her. She hangs up and fights tears because he will never be the father she wants. He doesn't know the simplest things about her.

The visit to the law office upsets Lily. Mr. Forrest returns and, in a pleasant and cordial way, asks her some questions about her. She makes excuses to leave so she won't have to answer his questions. She and Zach return to the Boatright house, Where Lily goes to her room and writes an angry letter to T. Ray. It is about Father's Day and a card she once spent hours making for him; she found later that he had used it to hold peach skins. She writes that she hates him and doesn't believe her mother left her. Then she tears the letter to pieces. That night, when Lily goes into the house to go to the bathroom, she speaks to the statue of Mary as if she's her mother and asks for her help.


Lily hasn't had a strong woman in her life to teach her the lessons she needs to know. When August takes Lily on as a beekeeper, August also becomes a surrogate mother, who talks to Lily about issues a mother would discuss. In this chapter, several conflicts and themes are developed through Lily's and August's conversations. First, August talks about her philosophy about making choices. Then Lily begins to consider how humans can learn from nature. Finally, Lily comes face to face with her realization that her romantic dreams are not reality.

August teaches Lily a great deal about growing up and making choices, and these are lessons she did not learn from T. Ray. August discusses choices and the idea that peoples' lives depend on the choices they make. The idea that a woman would decide to be on her own and not marry is a revelation to Lily. But, as August explains, women had few opportunities, especially black women. August is lucky enough to own land and a thriving business, so if she marries, she would restrict her freedom to choose. Lily never considered the possibility that a woman could be so strong. August is a strong role model for imagination, passion, intelligence, and leadership, a model that is totally alien to the one to which she was exposed while growing up.

As Lily works with August and notices her patience in dealing with the bees, Lily learns that bees have a great deal to teach humans. The queen is instrumental in sustaining life and making it rich. Without her, the hive cannot thrive, prosper, or reproduce. Just as a strong woman can create a community of workers and thrive in that community, the hive is filled with only one queen and many workers who follow her lead and who have jobs to do. Lily absorbs this lesson as she spends more time working with both August and the bees.

In this chapter, Lily still has many romantic notions about parents and family. When she sees the photo of Mr. Forrest with his daughter, she feels a yearning for a father who cares about her and who cares enough to remember the details of her life. She keeps thinking that T. Ray could come around and be that kind of loving parent. But when she calls him, she discovers that her world is not going to be like the photograph of the happy family. She hopes he misses her, but finds that he is only angry that she's escaped him. The letter she then writes (but does not send) is filled with yearning and a tremendous need for love. Her thoughts about the Father's Day card make her see that no matter what she does to make him pay attention or love her, he won't, which is why she tears up the letter.

Chapter 9


The bee epigram for this chapter explains that communication is key. In the chapter, Lily makes an amazing discovery by being very direct with May.

It is July 28 and the temperature is going up to 103 degrees. Lily wakes August to water the bees. On the way to the hives, August turns on the radio and hears news of the moon landing, several missing Civil Rights workers, and the escalation of the Vietnam War. They reach the hives and, while watering them to cool them down, Lily is stung. August tells her she is now a true beekeeper, and Lily is proud of herself. They return to the house, and all three sisters plus Lily and Rosaleen have a water-sprinkler fight. Even June joins in and by the time it's over, June hugs Lily.

The heat goes to 104 degrees, and everyone takes to her bed. This gives Lily time to think. She is rapidly reaching a point where she has to tell August about her past; she is simply working too hard to keep it all in. Lily still yearns for her mother, but maturity has softened the blow. She wants to talk about God and ask why He let the world get away from His original idea of paradise.

Lily goes to the kitchen, where she makes an unsettling discovery. May is sitting on the floor with graham crackers and marshmallows, breaking off pieces of each and putting them on the floor so that roaches will follow them out of the house. Suddenly, Lily has another light-headed epiphany, because T. Ray told her Deborah did that same thing. Lily has to sit down because she is so shocked by this scene. She asks May point blank if she knew a Deborah Fontanel. May says yes, that Deborah had lived in the honey house. Before Lily can faint, May starts singing "Oh! Susanna" and heads to the wall. Something about the memory of Lily's mother has upset her.

The honey house has a strong effect on Lily. She goes there and meditates on her mom being in that very room. She falls asleep and dreams that her mother walks into the honey house, but she has roach legs. Lily wakes up and is so disgusted she almost vomits. The next few days, Lily is restless; she walks through the rooms picturing her mother there. She wants to ask August about her mother, but she's afraid that she will ruin her new life. Finally, Lily decides her life is in suspension until she talks to August once and for all. She takes a deep breath, assembles her mother's things, and sets out to confront August. She imagines that she will show August her mother's picture and hear stories about her mother from August.

Lily heads to the house, but Zach informs her August is with Sugar-Girl. Zach is going to town and invites her along. After they drive to town and park the truck, Lily notices that people are out on the street and the atmosphere is tense. Then she remembers: It's Friday, the day Jack Palance is supposed to arrive. A group of African-American teenage boys approaches the truck, and one makes a comment. A white man nearby hears and confronts the boy. The boy — named Jackson — throws an RC Cola bottle at the man's head. It hits his nose, which starts bleeding. A policeman is called, and Zach is rounded up with the other teenagers. Lily doesn't know what to do so she gets out of the truck and walks home.

Lily tells August what occurred in town and since Mr. Forrest is already there, they get a plan together. Bail won't happen, which means Zach will have to stay in jail until the judge comes. They keep the news from May so as not to upset her; meanwhile, August and Lily go to the jail to see Zach. The policeman looks suspiciously at Lily, but gives the two women five minutes with Zach. August comforts Zach, but Lily doesn't get to say much. To reassure her, Zach asks her about her writing. A few evenings later, the phone rings and May answers it. She hears about Zach and goes into a trance, making it difficult for him to communicate with her. She becomes horribly quiet, and then says she is going to the wall. When August tries to stop her and asks to go with her, May says she just wants to be alone and leaves.


The exquisite tension within Lily about staying at the Boatright house and finding out more about her mother is the primary conflict building up and up before the end of the novel.

When August and Lily return from tending the bees, the sprinkler fight is a reminder that this is a community of women who care deeply about each other. Even June lets down her suspicions about Lily and joins in the fun. This is the happiness and love that Lily wants to be a part of — and she is. Anything that might break up this community causes anxiety for Lily.

That pressure is increased when Lily walks into the kitchen and sees May trying to get rid of the roaches without killing them. She knows little about her mother, and for the first time, she confronts someone about whether her mother has been here. Her curiosity, however, also leads to feelings of dread, because Lily fears anything that will throw her out of her community and talking about her mother may be that thing. But now she must ask questions and find out more. Her fears have been overcome by her yearning for her mother. But she has to choose the right time to ask August about her mother.

That conflict is overshadowed, however, by Zach's serious situation after the episode in town. Lily is still learning about racial attitudes and conflicts, and prior to this day, she didn't understand Zach's anger and frustration, his desire to become a lawyer, his need to achieve. Now she sees firsthand what happens when you are a black teenager anywhere near an "incident." When Zach is hauled in with the other boys, Lily isn't sure what to do. But visiting the jail is a grim reminder of what happened earlier to Rosaleen. She can feel the palpable danger for Zach. If she didn't understand Zach's fear about being her boyfriend, she does now. She has finally internalized the understanding of prejudice that T. Ray and Rosaleen know by heart. Lily is learning that the stories on television about riots and murders happen to real people. And she is afraid for Zach.

The tense tone of this chapter escalates as May leaves to go alone to the wall. Clearly, something bad is going to happen. Over and over, May has shown that she can't deal with sad events that are part of reality. Her dreamlike state and insistence that she leave alone are foreshadowing of a terrible event to come soon.

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