Accept, obey and serve. The reiterated incantation of The Bees by Laline Paull. In a novel that makes comment on class, society and personal determination, Paull personifies bees within a hive to provide an original perspective both inside and outside of a totalitarian community.
Flora 717 is a bee with class mobility. Beginning her life a flora – a cleaning, speechless class – she is immediately identified as different due to her size and colouring. Flora is then placed in the nursery, where she finds herself able to produce honey, unheard of for her kin. From there she meets the Queen Bee, worshipped by all. Expanding her perspective of the hive as a whole, she utilizes her unusual ability to speak, formulates opinions inaccessible to her former kin and goes on to become a forager, successful in flight and anything she turns her hand to. However, the purpose is not to praise Flora’s talents, but rather to highlight the rarity of such social mobility. Flora narrowly escapes death by her own kind many times over.
The Queen’s love demonstrates the all-consuming nature of dictatorship. The walls of the hive carry her scent, a rejuvenating substance that not only provides joy but also keeps the bees sane. No bee is allowed to breed apart from the Queen, each destined to follow only her will. A particularly haunting scene expresses the power of this leadership as the ‘hive mind’ drives the entire female colony to massacre every single male bee, previously respected by all. As the females awake from this trance, their disgust at the blood and violence has to be wiped from their minds by the Sage (another bee kin) in order to prevent uproar, and to keep the bees naively complacent. Throughout, the Queen herself is portrayed as loving and kind; even Flora 717 never doubts her intentions are due to anything other than an instinct protect the hive. Repression within each kinship and Flora’s dedication to authority, despite her personal painful experiences, highlights the powerful nature of totalitarian leadership.
Through Flora’s personal account we are able to experience the intricate world of bees that Paull has created. You would think that picking insects as a case study could make this novel seem hyperbolic and childlike. Talking, walking bees with human-like consciousness – ridiculous right? However, using bees does just the opposite. From our outside human perspective we become aware of how we are physically larger, more advanced beings, and so this type of leadership is not only belittled by the personal travesties caused to Flora, but also by the juxtaposition of the bees in our imagination and the human form holding this novel in its hands.
With rave reviews and a very different perspective on societal leadership, this novel only lets itself down with its ending. Flora’s difference results in her creating a new society as her hive is destroyed and her daughter becomes the new Queen. However, to me this seems like a quickly rounded off ending for the otherwise alternative and creative novel. Flora dedicates the end of her life to her daughter, stripping Flora of her individuality and stubborn revolt. I would rather have seen her defect within her own society than be forced to create a new one – such a imaginative novel deserves a more imaginative ending.