Too Much Honey–A Review of “The Secret Life of Bees”

The Secret Life of Bees

A guest post by Kelly Hamren.

I am the definition of the eclectic reader: I will read pretty much anything that looks as though it might offer food for thought with some entertainment thrown in. And while I generally gravitate toward stories which feature dark, troubled characters and a healthy dose of that spiritual resonance that emerges only out of tragedy, I am not entirely opposed to happy endings. The occasional happy ending is a nice surprise, provided that it grows naturally out of the story. I can develop an avid interest in plots that exhibit no trace of the surreal grotesquerie of a Kafka novel and characters completely devoid of the moral confusion of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov.

Sometimes, however, I run across a story that reminds me why I spend so much time with the Raskolnikovs of the literary world. The Secret Life of Bees, the 2002 best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kidd, was my most recent reminder.

The novel grabbed my interest initially. The setting,  South Carolina during the Civil Rights era, was vivid enough to call up memories I retained from visiting my grandparents –natives of Spartanburg—as a child (several decades later, of course). The main character, Lily Owens, is a fourteen-year-old haunted by memories of accidentally shooting her mother when she was a toddler and plagued by a persistent inability to connect with her emotionally and physically abusive father. Her only friend is Rosaleen Daise, the African-American woman who has taken care of her since her mother’s death. When Rosaleen is assaulted by a gang of local racists, the two of them run away together looking for a fresh start. They end up living with and working for three African-American sisters—May, June, and August—who keep bees for a living and—it turns out—used to know Lily’s mother.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the odds of Lily finding that past connection (the novel does provide a flimsy explanation) and look at some deeper problems. Despite the interesting Civil Rights era backdrop, which occasionally injects some healthy realism into the plot, The Secret Life of Bees is a good example of that brand of popular fiction one might call “heartwarming.” The life Lily enters on taking up residence with the three “calendar” sisters and their friends is one in which the honey-making life of bees becomes a heavy-handed metaphor for her own life and in which the society of African-American women known as “The Daughters of Mary” (a rogue version of the cult of the Virgin Mary that would make orthodox Catholics shudder) becomes her surrogate family and fills every crevice of her soul left hollow by the death of her mother. By the end, the novel gravitates toward the kind of sentimental gushing that reminds one of a Thomas Kinkade painting or a Hallmark movie. It is just a little too sweet to be borne.

But this brings up the question of whether sentimentality is, objectively speaking, a problem or whether the distaste for it is not, in fact, just an instance of intellectual elitism. The question becomes a live issue when one approaches reading with the assumption that there is a moral as well as an aesthetic side to taste, particularly since many morally-concerned readers tend to affirm fiction of the “heartwarming” variety. This tendency is particularly prevalent among evangelicals. If you live below the Mason-Dixon line, try setting foot in a Christian bookstore. Walk past the Thomas Kinkade paintings, the Jesus fish bumper stickers, and the inspirational CDs, and you should be close to the fiction aisle. You won’t find The Secret Life of Bees—too much Virgin Mary and too many four-letter words—but you will find its equivalent: stories which begin by confronting life’s problems and end by solving them a little too easily. It’s escapism, and to their credit, many Christian fiction authors wouldn’t pretend otherwise. That’s the point of fiction, right? To make us feel good about life?

With all due respect, I would suggest otherwise, and for several reasons. It is not just that life does not generally provide such easy solutions—most consumers of sentimental fiction would acknowledge that, after all. But notwithstanding the acknowledgement, a steady diet of easy answers is as unhealthy for the mind as a steady diet of honey would be for the body. Books that do not challenge the reader—even make him or her uncomfortable at times—do little to develop critical thinking skills or awaken moral sensitivity, and developing both is part of honoring God with one’s mind. Literature that forces us to confront problems from a new angle, or to face a new and troubling side of a familiar question, keeps us from settling into a complacent easiness concerning our perspective on problems which are often much more difficult than we make them out to be.

More importantly, however, literature which provides easy solutions ends by cheapening the solutions themselves. For instance, Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor once defended her decision to employ violence and the grotesque in her fiction by suggesting that there is a necessary and moral authenticity in demonstrating how grace emerges—not without scars—out of ugliness, since in a world twisted and ravaged by sin, that is the only way grace can manifest itself. She went so far as to compare sentimentality to pornography, since both turn something priceless and sacred into a cheap and easy commodity. This argument has resonance when one considers that grace was able to enter the world only through a violent execution. It was then, as it is now, neither cheap nor easy. There was too much darkness around the cross for a Thomas Kinkade painting to cope with, and one could argue that focusing only on the light without first contemplating the darkness would be like focusing on the resurrection and forgetting about the crucifixion. Resurrection has meaning, after all, only if one appreciates the horror of death.

All of this bears on The Secret Life of Bees in particular because the novel pretends to deal with questions of death, abuse, violence, etc. Watching the characters wrestle with these difficulties leaves one more than usually disappointed when they are dealt with less than honestly. Honey, after all, can cheer one up after a hard day at work, but there is no point pretending it will cure cancer. And no matter what reason one has for opening the honey jar to begin with, after a few spoonfuls, one will usually need something more substantial.

Now, where did I leave Crime and Punishment?

Kelly Hamren graduated from Liberty University and has a master’s degree in English literature.


About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on July 14, 2011, in Book Review, Books, Christianity, Cliches, Guest Bloggers, Literary Criticism, Social Commentary, Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think I like Flannery O’Connor comparison. I would also compare it to drinking straight syrup: sure, it’s sweet, but there’s a point when something is so sweet it just makes you want to gag, and living off it will kill you. It may be nice to drizzle on some good, hearty pancakes, but should never be taken by itself.

  2. Wayne the Shrink

    So I read history as a hobby. Sweet swarmy feel good stuff has never attracted me. Hard science fiction, the old kind that was hard science based and had moral and political thought involved was engaging. TV is very much the same. Very little engages thought or challenges the viewer.

  3. I think with tv that depends, to a large degree, on both the show and the viewer. I know some people that can watch anything and get nothing but a vegetative state out of the viewing. On the other hand I know people, like myself, who purposely look for the messages and ideologies presented in whatever I’m watching. Of course some things are easier to find this in than others…

    • As with most things, I think you get out of TV what you put into it. If you sit down on the couch and turn your mind off, you’re not going to get anything substantial out of it. But if you engage with the program and keep an active mind, you can get something from just about anything you watch (even if all it is, is learning how NOT to write a story, haha). The problem is most Americans take the first approach.

      • I think it’s a combination of the two. There isn’t much to be gotten out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer other than some good laughs and an understanding of Hollywood (or wherever) morality. Trinity Blood, on the other hand, has a bit more to it.

      • If you look into it deep enough, there are actually some good philosophical discussions that can be had based on Buffy. In fact, there’s even been a book published on the subject:

        Whether it is simply a money-grubbing scheme trying to capitalize on the franchise name or a legitimate application of philosophy I can’t say as I’ve never really watched the show, nor read the book. But I think it goes to show you can (at least try to) get something thought-provoking from almost anything.

        While I’ve never really watched Buffy, I enjoy some of Joss Whedon’s other shows, and even wrote a paper on some of the philosophy in his most recent (albeit short-lived) show, Dollhouse.

  4. All I can say is that if I see one more novel with a pensive looking Amish girl on the cover and a plot involving the choice between her world and the outside world (aka: hot Amish working man or slick city-dwelling businessman) I will do something drastic that will make books everywhere shiver with terror.

    That being said, I think that those of us who have to work very hard to appreciate a good novel if the themes are more dark really have to be careful not to swing too far the other way and indulge in too much of the cotton candy. My compromise has been to carefully sequester “fun” reading and “academic” reading so that I can enjoy Crime and Punishment for its good writing and themes, but pick up a good bit of young adult fluff and enjoy that in a whole different manner. The best books happen when “fun” and “academic” coincide, such as when I get to pick up a fun bit of Shakespeare or Chaucer.

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