Elements of Fiction in the Secret Life of Bees Essay

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Secret Life of Bees -- Sue Monk Kidd

Author Sue Monk Kidd made effective use of creative ideas when she wrote The Secret Life of Bees. She builds a story based on a Black Madonna, bees, honey, a young girl caught in the middle of racial tensions with a hateful, abusive father. Kidd's narrative brings her characters to life through the use of good descriptive techniques and also by weaving actual historical events into the themes. In a way the book is like a history lesson. The protagonist, Lily, is fourteen years of age and is terribly guilty because she accidentally shot and killed her mother Deborah when Lily was only four years old. Besides that tragedy, Lily lives with a father who abuses her and hates her. So Lily must turn to another person for the love and appreciation that every child -- every human -- truly needs. She becomes very close to Rosaleen, an African-American housekeeper who was like a mother to her and helped raise her.

Elements of Fiction (Black Madonna): There are at least three strong elements of fiction in Kidd's book that stand out; though they are actually based on the "real" world, they play important fictional roles in this book. One is the institutional racism that causes social conflict, a denial of Blacks' right to vote and hatred towards Blacks in the South during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Lily was born on the 4th of July, 1950, so at 14 she would be living in 1964, in the middle of the most violent part of the Civil Rights Movement.

Two, the importance of bees and honey is another strong element in this book. There is so much that is sour and dark in the society (and in her home life with her abusive father) Lily is being brought up in but honey is very sweet and actually is a healing symbol in this book. Bees, too, are symbols of regeneration and nourishment. Bees and honey are also Lily's ticket out of her house and on to a better life away from her brutal father. The photo of the Black Madonna she finds in her mother's personal things leads her to the pink house where beekeepers live.

And three, the three-foot-tall Black Madonna plays an important part in this story; it becomes a kind of alternative, nondenominational religion for the women in the Boatwright home, and for Lily it seems to protect her -- at least Lily believes that, and that's good enough in this story, having her believe something is real and true.

Why does author Kidd use the 3-foot-high Black Madonna as a prominent element, a powerful fictional symbol in this book? The Black Madonna is a potent symbol in history because, among other purposes, it is used in some social situations as a Black mother symbol of Jesus Christ. In fact, on page 92 Lily asked the statue (she calls it "Mary") for "special help." Lily asked Mary to see to it that "I never went back" to the house where her hateful father lives. "I asked her to draw a curtain around the pink house so no one would ever find us" (p. 92).

Lily asked the Black Madonna for this favor "daily," and she said she "couldn't get over that it seemed to be working" because no one had come to knock on the door and no one had "dragged us off to jail. Mary had made us a curtain of protection" (Kidd, p. 92). That is a strong element in this novel, belief that a statue can protect a 14-year-old girl from her ugly father, and from anyone else threatening she and her friends.

And so thanks to Lily and the other "Daughters of Mary" characters the Black Madonna is used effectively by Kidd. But author Penny Barham believes that Black Madonnas have more power than "a black version of the Christian Mary" (Barham, 2003, p. 327), which the Daughters of Mary are using it for. Barham looks into the "continuing aspects of ancient Earth Goddesses" and discovers that not at all are related to the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ (Barham, p. 326).

Barham explains that there appears to be a "clear link" between Black Madonnas and Pagan (Pre-Christian) female deities. On page 328 Barham quotes "one Mexican" woman: "My Virgin de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God'." In case of Lilly's Black Madonna, the black symbolizes and is a metaphor for Earth, "with her dark soil and healing and restorative powers," Barham continues (p. 328). In fact Black Madonnas are apparently borrowed from early Pagan art forms, Barham asserts; those deities that Black Madonnas personify include: Isis, Cybele, Diana, Ceres and Demeter Meleina (Barham, p. 328). Beyond being a metaphor for Earth, Black Madonnas reflect "Wisdom" and have been seen as "teachers of the esoteric," Barham explains on page 329).

Elements of Fiction (Black Madonna): In Catherine B. Emanuel's scholarly article she writes that Lilly's adoration of the Black Madonna is linked to Lily's distaste for the Southern Baptist denomination. Lily is rebelling against the Southern Baptist church because it "reinforces the tyranny of her father, T. Ray…" (Emanuel, 2005, p. 115). The Baptist church also represents a place where the sheriff (who metes out his own brand of racist "justice") and other bigoted whites can hang their hats and believe what they are doing is right. Also, Emanuel believes that Kidd has fictionally given Lily a kind of symbolic mother: "Her only link to the mother she never really knew is a picture of a Black Madonna with a South Carolina town printed beneath it" (p. 115). So her mother's Black Madonna (varnished into a piece of wood) photograph led Lily to the pink house in South Carolina where she does in fact become close to another woman -- not a metaphor for a mother or a symbolic mother as in the Black Madonna -- whose name is August.

August is a name identified with the harvest, of course, which Emanuel sees as symbolic (the seeds of Lily's rebellion coming to fruition, and her intuitive travels to the pink house paying off) in the surface. And in reality the woman in the pink house named August "…befriends Lily, but not in the ways of the father… [though] edicts and punishment" (Emanuel, p. 116). So for sure Lily has left her father for good and Emanuel quotes from psychologist Marion Woodman to reinforce the powerful move Lily made by leaving her mean dad. "If we leave our father's house, we have to make ourselves self-reliant," Woodman wrote. "Otherwise, we just fall into another father's house" (Emanuel, p. 116).

On page 71, the power of the Black Madonna in the Boatwright pink house is portrayed as very powerful to Lily. She sees the Madonna and believes that the statue knows what a "lying, murdering, hating person I really was," Lily says. She wants to cry and laugh at the same time. "Standing there, I loved myself and I hated myself. That's what the black Mary did to me, made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time" (Kidd, p. 71).

Elements of Fiction (Honey): Honey and bees in this novel has many purposes. Initially, it is bees in Lily's room that cause her to wake up her grumpy father, which was a disaster because by the time he arrived in Lily's room the bees were gone. But the incident introduces the reader to the meanness of T. Ray (interesting how close that name is to "T. Rex" the terrifying dinosaur). Bees in effect led Lily to the pink house in Tiburon, which was inhabited by three beekeepers. As to honey, there are fictional and real-life elements that have poignancy in this book.

As a practical matter, honey contains carbohydrates which "create and replace heat and energy"; honey has two invert sugars, levulose and dextrose (www.honey-health.com). When humans eat sugar, the sugar has to be processed by the body during digestion, the author of this article explains. The cane sugar goes through a process of "inversion" which changes the elements of sugar into fruit-sugars. But, honey doesn't have to go through that process because honey has "…been predigested by the bees, inverted and concentrated" (Honey-Health).

What is the advantage of eating honey instead of sugar? Honey saves the stomach "additional labor," Honey-Health claims. Especially for those with weak digestive systems, honey is very important. The science of honey is interesting but for the purposes of this paper, honey is seen as an important element in Lily's life. In fact bees and honey help make this novel fascinating. Kidd's narrative is greatly enhanced and made entertaining and fascinating by the actions of bees and their product.

For example, on page 67, Lily, the narrator, is watching August the "Mistress of the Bees" -- a real professional beekeeper -- do her work with bees. "Clouds of bees rose up and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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