Mother Figures In the Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a narrative that presents the challenges of a young girl in an attempt to find motherly love. The narrative integrates various themes that aid in explicating the protagonist’s search for acceptance and love from a mother figure. This paper examines the impacts of mother figures in the narrative towards the emotional and social development of the protagonist.


The Role of a Mother

The role of a mother in the narrative is emphasized progressively as Lily keeps on searching for someone who can provide her with motherly love. Though her father is abrasive and mean, Lily finds comfort in the hands of their housekeeper, Rosaleen who in her own way is also searching for a mother figure (Kidd 29). The author presents Lily as a disturbed and unsatisfied young girl who is constantly seeking understanding and knowledge of the mother that she lost. Since her mother died while she was a young child of four years old, Lily does not have clear memory of her mother and often thinks that she was abandoned. The author uses flashbacks, memories, and dreams to show the reader past events that succeed in explaining the sequence of events that led to Lily’s current predicament. Through these, the reader becomes aware of a conflict between Lily’s mother, Deborah, and her father, T. Ray. The fact that Lily shot her mother accidentally during the conflict becomes a motivator in her search for a mother figure and an explanation of her mother’s fate (Emanuel).

The Arrival at the Boatwright House

The moment that Rosaleen is arrested and subsequently admitted into a hospital after being abused in jail offers the two young women an opportunity to escape in search of answers. Armed with a picture of black Mary that belonged to her mother, Lily sets out in search of the Boatright house. Though her father had presented Rosaleen as a surrogate mother for Lily (Kidd 3), it becomes clear that their racial differences would prevent a more permanent solution than their current predicament. Their arrival at the Boatwright house is met with unexpected kindness, especially for Lily, considering that the women in the house are all black (Emanuel).

August as the Mother Figure

The author presents a situation where a white girl in search of a mother figure is housed by black women who accept and love her unconditionally in spite of the racial differences and conflicts that persist in their society. August stands out as the mother figure among the women at the Boatwright house, probably because she was the closest to Lily’s mother. She is depicted as a patient, kind, and religious woman who does not judge Lily for perpetrating deception in order to stay in the house (Emanuel). The fact that she knew from the onset who Lily was and went ahead to welcome her into the house is an indication of motherly attributes. Through her guidance and encouragement, Lily is able to forget her troubles for a moment and feel that she is part of a family that loves her. August is presented as an understanding and patient mother figure who, through her wisdom, allows Lily to stay and reveal her true agenda in her own time (Emanuel).

August as the Head of the House

The narrative portrays August as the mother figure not only for Lily but for the rest of the Boatwright sisters. Her love is unconditional, especially in dealing with the challenges that April presents, and she has a high tolerance for June’s narrow-mindedness. In addition, she does everything in her power to relieve May’s pain as much as she can. August is presented as the head of the house since she determines which chores are to be done and guides Lily in collecting honey and taking care of the bees. Through her flashbacks, the reader becomes aware that August knew and took care of Lily’s mother when she was a girl until she got married to T. Ray. Her persistent love for Lily’s mother is illustrated through her care and understanding of Lily’s current situation. As such, she offers a shoulder to cry on and advises Lily that she should become her own mother. August realizes that while Lily had her for a mother figure, the situation will not remain the same for long; hence she must be prepared to take responsibility and take care of her own needs as a mother would (Emanuel).

Symbols of a Mother Figure

Significantly, the picture and statue of Our Lady Mary are also presented as symbols of a mother figure in the narrative. The discovery of the picture of Mary guides Lily to search for answers only to find a group of women who place their trust and faith in religion. The author presents the Boatwright women as educated, knowledgeable, and civil, yet they cannot secure meaningful employment in society because of their skin color. Racism causes the black women’s value to be diminished significantly in spite of their abilities.

The symbolism of “Our Lady of Chains for the daughters of Mary” presents a mother figure for dejected women who are bound by societal chains that limit their progress beyond the position they are relegated by social norms of the day (Harken 8). Essentially, the Boatwright sisters create a religious community that uses a black Mary figurine to represent a higher motherly deity whom they can present their sorrows, desires, and ambitions to in life (Harken 9-10). The creation of the black Mary aims to present a godly mother figure that the women can identify with considering the white religion has not done them any favors. Essentially, the reference to chains illustrates the universal condition of women being subjected to patriarchal societies that place little value on women; hence the figurine represents a mother figure that all women can identify with.


The concept of a mother figure is widely presented in the narrative to illustrate the need of a child to be nurtured under the care of a mother. The author presents a situation where the concept of a mother figure transcends prevalent social prejudices of race and ethnicity. The fact that the white young girl finds mother figures among black women represents the author’s notion of social integration and elimination of racial prejudices. The mother figure is presented in the narrative as a universal concept that is not unique to the protagonist but it is applicable to all people in need of guidance and solace. Lily’s search for the truth about her mother leads her to identify other mother figures who guide her from a frail and frightened young girl to a budding young woman ready to face the world. The search for a mother figure was not only successful, but it also gave Lily the closure that she needed in order to move ahead as she prepares to become a mother figure herself.

Works Cited

Emanuel, Catherine B. The archetypal mother: The black Madonna in Sue Kidd’s the Secret Life of Bees. West Virginia University Philosophical Papers 51. Web. 5 December 2015.

Harken, Amy Lignitz. Unveiling the Secret Life of Bees. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005. Print.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. London: Headline, 2011. Print.

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