The Secret Life of Bees offers a historically and socially charged coming-of-age narrative for the classroom. Set in South Carolina in the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, the book can ignite discussion on recent US history and the various permutations of racism, including unconscious, implicit bias, and the importance of resistance: "Apologizing to those men would have just been a different way of dying. Only I had to live with it." At the same time, Lily's sojourn among the "Daughters of Mary" offers the class a model of female empowerment, for Lily had been initially left void by her late mother and only partially filled by her surrogate mother Rosaleen. These complex issues are nevertheless filtered through a relatable protagonist, a fourteen-year-old girl who aspires to be a writer and simply wants to belong.

Lily's basic desire, however, will also fuel classroom sympathies and interests, due to the complex family dynamics. Raised by an abusive father and having accidentally killed her mother at the age of four, Lily struggles throughout the novel with a crushing sense of guilt and unworthiness of being loved, relatable at some level to teenagers struggling with their own identity, self-esteem, and sense of achievement. Later confronted with the revelation of her illegitimate birth and her mother's depression-induced abandonment, Lily's acceptance of herself and her newfound three mothers should also expand students' definition of family.

Summary

The Secret Life of Bees follows Lily Owens, a teenage girl who runs away from home primarily to discover the hidden past of her late mother, but also to escape her abusive father and help her surrogate mother Rosaleen evade racial persecution. Traveling to Tiburon, South Carolina, based on her mother's photo of a Black Madonna, Lily follows its image to the home of the Boatwright sisters, who offer a place to stay and employment on their bee farm. There, she becomes enamored with their lifestyle and religion of compassion and female power as embodied in the "Daughters of Mary," and also develops feelings for Zach, who encourages her writing aspirations while himself wanting to become the first black lawyer in the area. In the aftermath of a crisis involving Zach and May Boatwright, Lily sheds her orphan alibi and confesses her motivations for coming to Tiburon, and in return must come to terms with the history of her birth and mother's death, all while deciding between her father and a new family.

Content Warning

The Secret Life of Bees includes racial tensions characteristic of the 1960s South, violence, and depiction of suicide.

Objectives for Teaching The Secret Life of Bees

  • Distinguish between internalized and external racism in the book.
  • Recall how the search for identity is both supported and complicated by family dynamics.
  • Compare the role of the bees and the Daughters of Mary as symbolic markers.
  • Identify the work as a coming-of-age novel and provide supporting details.
  • Discuss the three sisters and Rosaleen as foils that demonstrate female power.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allusion
  • Foil
  • Foreshadowing
  • Metaphor
  • Setting
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Identity — The protagonist is a teenager motivated primarily by her desire to learn about her past and find a place to belong. She also comes to realize that the people around her, new and familiar, are far more complex than they had seemed initially.
  • Race — Because the novel is during the Civil Rights Movement, racial inequality fuels many of the protagonist's conflicts. For instance, a racist assault catalyzes her decision to run away, and a later assault occurs in response to her mixed-race dating. However, the protagonist also finds herself surprised to perceive intelligence or beauty in other races and initially experiences redirected prejudice from a supporting character acting as her hostess.
  • Family —  Leaving home to learn more about her late and unknown mother, the protagonist finds an unconventional surrogate family in the form of three sisters. She also comes to terms with her father's abuse, her mother's unwanted pregnancy and initial abandonment, and whether these conditions reflect on her own ability to love and be loved.

Related Works

Theme of Identity

 

Theme of Race

 

Theme of Family

Key Facts

  • Length: 302 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 840
  • Publication Date: 2002
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9 – 10

Awards

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • Book Sense Paperback of the Year (2004)

Movies

The book has been adapted to the screen in 2008, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The film won Favorite Movie Drama and Favorite Independent Movie at the 35th People's Choice Awards.

Your students will love:

  • The flawed, relatable protagonist
  • The motifs of freedom and self-discovery

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding the context and history of the Civil Rights Movement
  • The jargon surrounding local agriculture, including beekeeping

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.