The Secret Life of Bees
Analysis of Major Characters
As a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, The Secret Life of Bees presents the development and maturation of one central character, Lily Owens. Lily’s voice makes up the central consciousness of the novel. Because she narrates the work, readers use Lily’s perceptions to develop their own interpretations. Through Lily, we learn about the racism, love, and community within the worlds of Tiburon and Sylvan, South Carolina; through her, we learn about strong women, such as August Boatwright and Rosaleen, and the importance of developing female-centric communities. Developing an understanding of Lily is central to understanding The Secret Life of Bees, because Lily’s story is the story of the novel: told by her and about her. Thus, Lily is both the protagonist and the narrator, the focus of the novel and the one who does the focusing. For these reasons, readers must be conscious of how Lily performs in her own account and of what she chooses to reveal about herself.
As a character, Lily’s two most important traits are her determination and her longing for maternal love. Lily finds a mysterious font of confidence after her fourteenth birthday and after she sees Rosaleen confront a group of racist men in Sylvan. This confidence allows Lily to escape an abusive, unpleasant home life and go searching for her mother’s past. Lily has a deep human need to be loved, so much so, in fact, that she risks her life and freedom by breaking Rosaleen out of jail. Similarly, she goes off to Tiburon, South Carolina, on the slim chance that there she will find a link to her dead mother. She has no idea when, where, or why Deborah once passed through Tiburon, only that she was once there. For all Lily knows, Tiburon could be a town her mother stopped in for lunch one day and never returned to again. However, her determination forces her to suss out any remaining traces of her mother—and she is rewarded for these character traits at the end of the novel, when she gains August Boatwright as a surrogate mother and comes to terms with her own past.
Over the course of the novel, Lily matures into a young woman. At the Boatwright house, surrounded by the Boatwright sisters, associated with the Daughters of Mary, attended to by Rosaleen and interacting with Zach, Lily at long last becomes a part of a supportive community. She thrives in this environment, learning things about herself and developing a more positive character in general. August inspires her to be more introspective, Zach inspires her to be more sensitive, and the bees inspire her to be more hardworking. By the time she learns the truth about her mother abandoning her, Lily is strong enough in character to understand that it is not her fault. She is mature enough to process the feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion, and she is mature enough to love her flawed, complex mother. This ability to love without guilt or blame is the most important indication of Lily’s maturation. When Lily learns about her mother, she does not run away seeking a new source of maternal support, because she has already found such support in August and August’s community. With this strength and support behind her, Lily confronts her father, the final sign of how thoroughly she has changed and developed. When Lily stands up to T. Ray, she stands up to the world she left behind, the world in which she was a beaten down as an immature girl—and she rejects this world and this old sense of self. At the novel’s end, Lily has taken a proactive role in her own life, on her way to coming of age and to becoming a woman.
August Boatwright is unique. Not only is she a black woman in the South who runs a successful business, but she is a black woman who also owns a great deal of property, is educated, has eschewed the conventions of marriage, and does not flinch or shy away from the opportunity to take care of a young white runaway girl. A rare soul and a warm, accepting person, August guides the cowed and browbeaten Lily to a place from which she confidently confronts her confusing, unfair world. In a way, August functions as the spiritual core of the book, the wise sage that leads the novel toward its positive conclusion. Without August, there would be no “of age” in Lily’s “coming-of-age.” Although she too is a pawn in the greater events of the world, she has created a remarkable community in Tiburon and infused it with her own brand of spiritual gusto. August becomes a surrogate mother for Lily, a trusted friend, and guiding light. August’s undying support, trust, and love saves Lily—just as this love has softened June, kept May alive, created and supported the Daughters of Mary, and given Zach something to hope for in the future.
Zach Taylor serves as a type of foil for Lily. Born and raised in Tiburon, and never without the love and support of the Boatwright sisters, he has grown up with many advantages. He is good at sports, handsome, intelligent, and hardworking—and he has been praised and paid because of these traits. However, as a black man in the mid-century South, Zach is at a disadvantage. Nevertheless, Zach does not let his race act as a negative force in his life. Lily’s different skin color does not prevent Zach from falling in love with her, nor does his skin color prevent him from dreaming about becoming a lawyer (despite the fact that he does not know any black lawyers). Instead, the difficulties of being African American inspire Zach to imagine a better, more productive future for himself. When he is imprisoned as a result of his race, and for his refusal to turn in a friend, he merely becomes more empowered, more driven, and more focused on changing the course of his life. He not only offers Lily love but also serves as a model for her. He helps Lily transcend her own circumstances. Through Zach, readers may imagine a version of what Lily would have been like with a different set of advantages—and what she will grow into at the end of the novel.