Honey of the Heart: Food as Spiritual Nourishment in The Secret Life of Bees
by Maggie Rutherford
The worker bee musters courage to leave her haven hive. She hovers above the earth in a mid-afternoon haze, seeking a home in the harsh summer heat. She lands upon the petals of some fair flower and crawls into her nectar heart. She makes haste, returning to her queen in the hope of gifting her world with her sacred honey. The transformative nature of honey’s production is often allotted to its consumption: honey heals. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Exodus 3 recounts Moses’ journey to saving the Israelite slaves from Egyptian rule. He approaches a burning bush—a sight that encapsulates God’s power and cannot be tolerated by mortal eyes—and is promised by God that the Israelites will be delivered to “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily begins as a troubled fourteen-year-old with a dark past. Her identity is transformed to a confident woman like a flower’s nectar into honey through what appears to be divine intervention. In this film, the Black Mary honey embodies food’s religious healing power and catalyzes Lily’s spiritual restoration.
In the opening scenes of the film, Lily is pictured pressing a relic of her late mother—an image of the Black Madonna—to her bare body. T. Ray, Lily’s abusive father, finds his daughter in this disheveled state and assumes her behavior to be concealed eroticism. To escape unmerited punishment enacted upon herself and her housekeeper Rosaleen, the pair seeks refuge in a neighboring town. Lily happens across the Black Madonna on a honey jar label and discovers its source at the home of the Boatwright beekeeper sisters.
Lily begins her stay with May, June, and August Boatwright believing herself to be unloved. As she becomes well-versed in the art of beekeeping, August teaches Lily to “send the bees love,” claiming that “every little thing wants to be loved.” One afternoon, Lily inquires into the secretly ever-familiar Black Madonna pasted on the honey jars. The sisters enlighten Lily by holding a religious service conducted in their living room to the lulling hum of Amazing Grace, recounting the story behind their Moses-like wooden Black Mary who severed the chains of slavery to bring freedom and light to the oppressed. As Lily reaches out to touch the figure’s heart with flashbacks of her mother’s death resounding in her fragile mind, she faints. Just as Moses approaches the burning bush in Exodus and cannot look at it for fear of God, this moment is the pinnacle of Lily’s pain and initiates the healing of her emotional wounds.
Lily’s second encounter with death—that of May Boatwright—aids her in taking further steps towards spiritual bolstering. Both August and June, wrought with grief over the death of their sister, sing the following words over May’s body:
“Place a beehive on my grave
And let the honey soak through.
When I’m dead and gone,
That’s what I want from you.
The streets of heaven are gold and sunny,
But I stick with my plot and the pot of honey.
Place a beehive on my grave,
And let the honey soak through.”
Clad in a white dress amidst a sea of funeral black, Lily silently listens to the melodic proverb. Its purity penetrates her soul as the sisters’ strength, evidently rooted in the transcendent honey of their Mother Mary, breathes life into our heroine’s feeble frame. Lily figuratively clings to the words of this song as the Israelites prayed for their deliverance into the land of milk and honey throughout the Old Testament.
Lily’s final liberation takes place when T. Ray arrives at the Boatwright’s home, angrily determined to leave with his daughter. Lily’s strength seems to derived from the wooden Black Mary, as her outstretched arm reaches behind Lily’s back throughout the entire scene. Lily stands steadfast in her new might and is rewarded by her father’s permanent exit. In the frame displayed above taken from the film’s final scene, Lily’s environment—the curtains, a vase, her journal, and her very name—is saturated with flowers, prepared for future honey production. An image of her mother and the Black Madonna watch over her with gentle authority as she writes the story of her life. Lily tucks her honey of the heart into the stone wall, empowered by the tears and broken chains of her predecessors. Her renewal is reminiscent of nectar’s transformation into sugary sap, and the Boatwright’s haven serves as Lily’s “land of milk and honey,” delivered unto her by the Black Mary.
The Secret Life of Bees. Dir. Gina Prince-Blythewood. Perf. Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2008. Amazon.com.
“Exodus.” BibleGateway. 27 Feb. 2015. <www.biblegateway.com>.