The Helpis very critical of the organized racial segregation of the 1960s, but some people have alleged that this novel perpetuates a subtler version of racism. They argue that the novel highlights the ungrammatical speech of the black maids, and makes their story secondary to that of a white woman (Skeeter). Do you think this claim has merit? Why or why not?
I think this claim does have merit. At the end of the novel, Skeeter lands a prestigious job in New York City on the basis of the book she wrote about the maids, but the maids themselves find their circumstances unchanged. Minny's husband has been fired from his job on the basis of her work on the book, and she must leave her family before her husband kills her. Aibileen is fired from her job with the Leefolts due to Hilly's interference. Skeeter and the maids did not benefit equally from the publication of the book. In the same way, the author Kathryn Stockett may have benefited financially and professionally from exploiting the stories of the maids in her own life.
The novel takes place nearly a century after the end of slavery, yet many of the black characters in the book still work extremely demanding and unpleasant jobs. What factors (social, economic, educational, etc.) keep them in these sorts of positions?
Aibileen mentions that her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house-slave. She also says that her mother pulled her out of school in order for her to start work as a maid, because she needed to support the family. Aibileen's parents were not paid a great deal for their work (perhaps because they are black), so their daughter must leave her education in order to contribute to the family. Without education, she cannot move to another job. Additionally, if Aibileen tried to leave her job as a maid for another position, she might be subject to harassment for being "uppity"; we see evidence of this in Hilly's treatment of Yule May, who is one of the most educated maids in Jackson.
The novel depicts very warm relationships between black maids and the white children they care for - Aibileen and Mae Mobley, Constantine and Skeeter. However, these relationships are also marred by racial and economic inequality. Can there be genuine affection in such a complicated and unequal relationship? Can you compare the relationships depicted in this book with your own experiences of caregiving?
I think there can be genuine affection in such a complicated and unequal relationship. After all, an adult must have some tender feelings for the child, or else he or she would just quit the job. Aibileen mentions that she has become a specialist at raising children, which shows that she chooses this line of work because she likes it. Her relationship with Mae Mobley is similar to my experiences babysitting for a local family. Some people might think that just because I was being paid for this work means that I didn't really care for the child, but in fact I worked even harder at this job because I cared so much for the child.
Why does Skeeter give Stuart a second chance after their first date was so disastrous? Do you think this was her own choice, or was she pressured to do this? Would you have made the same choice that she did?
I think Skeeter was under some pressure from her mother, Hilly, and society to give Stuart a second chance. Skeeter's mother was constantly asking why she did not have a steady boyfriend, and Hilly wanted Skeeter to date Stuart in order to further her own husband's political career. Skeeter was also the only one in her friend group who was not yet married, so she was probably more likely to give Stuart a second chance than another woman in a similar situation. I would not have made the same choice as Skeeter, because I believe that Stuart ruined his first impression by being drunk and rude during their first date. Behaving in such a way during a first meeting is not a sign of good things to come.
The Help is often praised for its well-rounded, complex characters. How does the author create such characters, and what sorts of literary strategies does she use? Focus your analysis on one character.
I will look at the character of Minny. To create a unique voice for Minny, the author uses a form of African-American vernacular when writing from her perspective, which differentiates her from Skeeter and other white characters. Unlike the other narrators, Minny frequently makes sarcastic and funny remarks. For example, when she gets the job with Celia, she notes, "Relief hits me. [...] I don't have to move to the North Pole. Won't Santy Claus be disappointed" (pg. 45). Minny is also very reluctant to bring up aspects of her personal life; it is very late in the book when she mentions how violently her husband acts towards her. This gives the reader the impression of a person who likes to keep certain things to herself.
Chapter 25 is the only chapter in the book that is written in the third person. Why do you think the author chose to do this? What does it accomplish? Does this chapter have a different tone than the other chapters?
I think the author chose to do this in order to show the scene from a neutral perspective. If she wrote it from the point of view of one of the narrators, that narrator would add her own opinions and perspective to it. For example, if Aibileen or Minny wrote it, they would focus on the catering work they were doing rather than on the events unfolding. Likewise, if Skeeter narrated it, she might hone in on the exclusion she felt from the other members of the League, and may not have paid much attention to what was happening with Celia.
Many of the main characters in The Help are social outsiders; for example, Skeeter is considered something of a misfit for being more interested in writing than boys. However, in other places and times such behavior would be considered normal. How much of a person's character is shaped by the time period in which he or she lives?
I think a great deal of a person's character is shaped by the time that she or he lives it. It is possible that some personality traits are inherent and would hold true anywhere, but those traits will be perceived differently in various societies. For example, Minny's sharp tongue might have made her a famous comedian if she had been born today; but in 1960s Jackson, her acerbic wit is just a liability. The cold reception she receives makes her more bitter and angry, which in turn makes her say harsher things.
Choose one historical event mentioned in the novel (The assassination of Medgar Evers, the march on Washington, the invention of the birth control pill, the war in Vietnam, etc.) and research it. What was the impact of this event on society at the time? How did people react to it? How do the reactions of the characters in The Help compare to the reactions of real people?
The invention of the birth control pill was hailed as a revolution for many women, despite the fact that it was initially prescribed only for married women. Like many people, Skeeter marveled at this incredible new technological development. There were a number of religiously based objections to this medicine when it was introduced, but this historic development is not reflected in The Help. Minny does not make mention of the birth control pill, but it could have changed her life by allowing her to limit the size of her family.
There are many instances of revenge in the book - Skeeter's prank with the toilets, Hilly's imprisonment of Yule May, Minny's "Terrible Awful," the way Hilly ostracizes Celia. Which is one example of revenge that goes too far, and what is one example of revenge that you think is justified? Why?
I think that the bid that Miss Walters placed on the pie at the Benefit is an example of revenge that is justified. By placing the bid, she reminded her daughter of the "Terrible Awful," but did so in a way that would not be apparent to anyone who did not know the story. Miss Walters was angry with her daughter for placing her in a retirement home, and this was a clever way to remind her that Miss Walters knew her darkest secret. One example of revenge that went too far was Skeeter's prank with the toilets on Hilly's lawn. Though this was a humorous scene, Skeeter should have known that it would have major consequences.
The women of The Help deal with a variety of problems related to sex/gender and sexism, but their experiences differ due to race, class, and age. Choose two characters from the novel and compare the types of sexism that they struggle with.
Skeeter struggles with demands that she marry and give up her professional ambitions. She wants to keep working, but her family and her friends would rather she settle down. On the other hand, Minny was married at a young age and is forced to continue working as a maid to support her family; unlike Skeeter, Minny does not struggle to work outside of the home.
Racism manifests in the lives of the black maids in a number of ways: they are denied opportunities for educational or professional advancement, they perform repetitive work for white families, they must curtail their speech to prevent violence, and they must use separate facilities. Perhaps most damaging of all, black people are constantly exposed to social messages telling them that they are dirty, lazy, and in all respects less than white people.
Even the way the book is written hearkens back to this central theme. When writing from the perspective of the black maids Aibileen and Minny, Stockett uses an antiquated form of speech. While this is meant to lend authenticity to their voices, it also makes them sound uneducated and makes it somewhat difficult to relate to them.
The Helpalso suggests that it is possible to cross this racial divide. In addition to anecdotes about rude or abusive employers, we hear stories of maids who have very close relationships with the white families for whom they work. Through her efforts to be a mouthpiece for the black maids of Jackson, Skeeter develops a close friendship with Aibileen and Minny. It's possible, through effort and understanding, to begin to heal the wounds of racism.
Mothers and daughters have difficult but deeply loving relationships. The Help examines several different types of mother-daughter relationships.
Elizabeth Leefolt has a strained relationship with her mother, who is aloof and demanding; she continues this unhealthy dynamic by being neglectful and critical of her own daughter, Mae Mobley. There's also an indication that mother-daughter relationships are not necessarily dependent on blood ties. For example, Aibileen acts as a mother to Mae Mobley, not only taking care of her day-to-day needs but also teaching her to be kind to others and to always have respect for herself.
Skeeter has a difficult but loving relationship with her mother, who is constantly pressuring her daughter to dress better and catch a man. Skeeter later discovers that this critical edge is tempered by love; her mother has cancer, and she wants to make sure her daughter has a good life after she is gone. Though Skeeter's mother often bosses her daughter, she also stands up for her at critical moments, such as during her conflicts with Hilly and Stuart.
The Help takes a close look at many types of love, some of them unlikely and fraught with difficulties. The close bond between black caretakers and white children (Aibileen and Mae Mobley, as well as Skeeter and Constantine) show that nurturing love is not limited to blood relationships. As we see later in the book, this bond is often unfairly complicated by the strictures of a racist society.
Because of her new consciousness regarding race, Skeeter causes a rupture in her friendships with Hilly and Elizabeth Leefolt. Through a series of events (the discovery of the Jim Crow materials, the toilet prank, Hilly's comment about Stuart), these lifelong friendships are torn apart. But we also see how new friendships can emerge out of the ashes of old ones: it is Aibileen and Minny with whom Skeeter celebrates her new job in New York City.
The novel also focuses on different types of romantic love. Despite his affection for Skeeter, Stuart cannot get over the betrayal of his fiancée, Patricia van Devender, and his attempts to build a new relationship with Skeeter continuously fail. On the other hand, Celia and Johnny have a deeply loving relationship, triumphing over class differences, infertility, and social disapproval.
What does it mean to be a writer? The journey to publish the book is not an easy one. After an initial stroke of luck in catching Elaine Stein's attention, Skeeter struggles to develop her ideas, conduct interviews, write the book, and find a publisher. Each step is fraught with difficulties; for example, she must complete the book in only a few weeks in order to send it in for the annual editor's meeting. Skeeter spends many long nights typing until her hands are covered with ink and paper cuts, but she ultimately prevails.
Skeeter is not the only prospective writer in the book. Despite her academic excellence, Aibileen was forced to drop out of school to support her family. However, she writes down her prayers every day, continuing to build her skills in writing. Assisting Skeeter with the book about the maids gives her the chance to showcase her writing skills, and she eventually becomes the first black author of the Miss Myrna column. At the end of the novel, she thinks about developing her writing career even more.
The varying difficulties faced by women constitute another major theme in the book. In the workplace, Minny struggles with the possibility of being fired due to her outspoken personality; at home, she is violently abused by her husband. Aibileen must cope with the sorrow of her son's untimely death at the same time that she tries to support the neglected Mae Mobley. Skeeter is struggling with a world that does not value her professional ambitions and tries to force her into the narrow roles of wife and mother. Celia Foote deals with a series of miscarriages and her social isolation, which is worsened by her desire to be a capable wife to her beloved husband. Each of these women struggle to overcome these difficulties, but they also forge close bonds with other women over shared problems.
Even when everything in the world is trying to tell you what to do and what to believe, you need to make your own path. The central protagonists recognize that the current state of race relations is wrong, and work to correct it. Aibileen strives to teach racial equality and acceptance to Mae Mobley. Minny persists in working on the book about the maids despite the danger it puts her in with her own husband and Hilly. Skeeter continues working towards racial justice despite the rift it causes between her and her two best friends.
The Help is a window onto the mid-century south, giving the reader vivid impressions of the beautiful landscapes and warm culture. This includes positive qualities such as friendliness and generosity; we see these close social ties in the ways that family members treat one another. Yet it also includes racism, segregation, and misogyny, which are evident in the violent enforcement of the separation between races, and the lack of professional options for white women.