The black Mary serves several functions in the novel. As the picture, it symbolizes mothers and mother surrogates. Lily carries around a wooden picture of the black Mary, which she found among some objects that once belonged to her mother. This picture literally symbolizes Deborah to Lily, and eventually the picture leads Lily to August, a black woman who will become a surrogate mother. Through August, Lily will learn about Mary, whom August considers to be the mother of all of humanity. Significantly, Lily finds the wooden statue of Mary just seconds before she meets August, another instance of foreshadowing the relationship that will develop between August and Lily. August, along with the members of her group, the Daughters of Mary, worship at the statue every night. As a statue, the black Mary symbolizes the importance of having faith and believing in something larger than one’s self. The black Mary statue also reinforces the importance of storytelling: before meeting August, Lily learned stories from books. But August tells stories, including stories about the origin of the black Mary, to teach Lily important lessons about life.
Over the course of the novel, Lily matures into a young woman. At the Boatwright house, surrounded by the Boatwright sisters, associated with the Daughters of Mary, attended to by Rosaleen and interacting with Zach , Lily at long last becomes a part of a supportive community. She thrives in this environment, learning things about herself and developing a more positive character in general. August inspires her to be more introspective, Zach inspires her to be more sensitive, and the bees inspire her to be more hardworking. By the time she learns the truth about her mother abandoning her, Lily is strong enough in character to understand that it is not her fault. She is mature enough to process the feelings of guilt, anger, and confusion, and she is mature enough to love her flawed, complex mother. This ability to love without guilt or blame is the most important indication of Lily’s maturation. When Lily learns about her mother, she does not run away seeking a new source of maternal support, because she has already found such support in August and August’s community. With this strength and support behind her, Lily confronts her father, the final sign of how thoroughly she has changed and developed. When Lily stands up to T. Ray, she stands up to the world she left behind, the world in which she was a beaten down as an immature girl—and she rejects this world and this old sense of self. At the novel’s end, Lily has taken a proactive role in her own life, on her way to coming of age and to becoming a woman.