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Kathryn Stockett's 2009 novel The Help is a story set in the segregated South of the United States in the 1960s. It centres around three women: a wealthy, young white woman, Eugenia 'Skeeter' Phelan; Aibileen Clark; and Minny Jackson. Aibileen and Minny are two African American maids that work for white households. They are subjected to much suffering in an unequal society. The Help was a successful bestseller and became a box office hit in the 2011 film adaptation.
Content warning: The following text contextualises the lived experiences of the African American community during a period of segregation in the 1960s. The inclusion of certain terms may be deemed offensive to some readers.
Kathryn Stockett's The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi between the years 1962 and 1964. This was a time of racial inequality and segregation.
Segregation is peppered throughout history. In the case of 20th-century America, segregation refers to the effort to keep the races apart. This meant separate housing, schools, public bathrooms, shops, etc. This was discrimination against people of colour, particularly African Americans, and was especially prevalent in the South because of the Jim Crow Laws that made segregation legal.
The Help is narrated in the first person by Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny in alternating chapters. Skeeter is a privileged white woman in her early twenties who has just returned to Jackson, Mississippi from college. She lives on her family's cotton plantation. This setting immediately shows the dynamic between the white and black inhabitants of Jackson. It is likely this plantation once held black slaves. Slavery is outlawed by this time but African Americans are still severely discriminated against. They are forced to work jobs with frequently abusive conditions. This is seen in the treatment of both Aibileen and Minny at the hands of their employers.
Skeeter is a writer and has been in contact with a publishing company. The editor of the company has encouraged her to take any writing job she can find and to write in her spare time about something she truly cares about.
Skeeter has the idea to write about her interactions with Aibileen, a maid working for the Leefolt family. She cares tirelessly for their young daughter Mae Mobley, who is constantly neglected by her mother Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is close friends with Skeeter, bringing her into the company of Aibileen. Elizabeth hosts a bridge party that both Skeeter and their other friend, Hilly Holbrook, attend. Hilly is a strong supporter of segregation. She is trying to get a law passed that would require every white household with black servants to have an outdoor toilet. Skeeter is strongly against this and criticises Hilly for it.
Hilly has her own African American maid, Minny. This is the other narrator of The Help. Minny is outspoken and has lost many jobs by speaking up against her own poor treatment at the hands of employers. Minny has primarily been caring for Hilly's elderly mother, but she is soon going to a nursing home, so Minny needs a new job. This proves difficult as Hilly is spreading rumours that Minny is a thief. Because of this, Minny bakes a pie containing her own excrement and allows Hilly to eat it in ignorance.
In her effort to find a writing job, Skeeter manages to get a position writing a column about housekeeping in the Jackson Journal. This topic is something Skeeter knows little about, so she enlists the help of Aibileen after first convincing Elizabeth, who dislikes the idea. During this time, Skeeter has the idea to write a book about the experiences of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi.
Three things primarily inspire this. The first is her learning that Aibileen's son, Treelore, was writing a book before he died due to neglectful work conditions. The second is reading about the reality of the discriminatory Jim Crow Laws in the local library. The final, and most personal, is Skeeter's concern over the disappearance of her childhood maid and close friend, Constantine.
Skeeter eventually discovers the poor treatment that Constantine suffered at the hands of Skeeter's mother before her death. She realises just how terribly these maids are being treated and wants to do something about this.
Skeeter enlists the help of Aibileen, who possesses the writing talent to positively influence this book. Minny also becomes involved. The three develop a close friendship and have great respect for each other. It is quite hard to convince the other local maids to contribute to the book as they are afraid of the consequences.
This situation changes because of the actions of Hilly Holbrook. Her maid, Yule May, steals a ring from her so she can send both her sons to college. Despite the fact that Hilly actually hates this ring, she has Yule May sentenced to four years in prison and fined $500. This injustice convinces more maids to join Skeeter's book project.
Throughout Kathryn Stockett's The Help, we also see Minny's relationship with the new family she works for. This is the Foote family, consisting of husband Johnny and wife Celia Rae and this section describes one of the few positive relationships between white employers and black maids in Stockett's novel. Celia treats Minny relatively well and does not see her as 'unclean' as Hilly does. She relies on Minny a great deal to help her with household and personal issues, making the maid of great value to the Foote family.
There are many confrontations between the three narrators and Hilly as she attempts to take them down. She fails, and Skeeter's book, entitled Help, is published. It causes great controversy. Hilly is furious but stops trying to prove the book is about Jackson once she discovers Minny has included the story about the excrement pie. This would ruin Hilly's reputation.
She does tell a lie that puts Minny at risk from her abusive husband but Minny manages to move safely away with her children. She is also offered a lifetime job with the Footes. Hilly also gets Aibileen fired from her job but Skeeter has organised for Aibileen to take over her housekeeping advice column. This is because Skeeter has been offered a writing job in New York. These three women have new lives ahead of them.
Kathryn Stockett's The Help belongs to the genre of historical fiction as it captures a period of time that was long past by the time Stockett wrote the novel. The Help is set in the early 1960s but was written in 2009. However, the novel is not based on abstract history. It is partly inspired by her own Southern upbringing in the 1960s and the African American maid her family employed.
Racial inequality is central in Stockett's The Help. She captures a time in American history when black Americans suffered deeply. This suffering is evident in the treatment of the maids in the town of Jackson, Mississippi, who are regarded as inferior to the white citizens in the town.
White people are usually the ones with the power in this novel, an accurate reflection of the America of the time. As seen with Hilly's bill and Jim Crow Laws, racism is often legalised. This makes it much harder for the maids to fight as they were not only fighting inequality, but the law.
Many of the white characters in the novel, like Hilly, believe in very damaging stereotypes about African Americans. They believe them to be less intelligent and less capable. Hilly even perpetuates the idea that African Americans carry disease.
Such stereotypes are often passed on from generation to generation, as with Elizabeth and Mae Mobley. This makes it much more complicated to disprove these stereotypes but Aibileen does try to stop Mae from being corrupted.
The racist tropes and spurious notions found in the text come from ignorance because society is segregated in Stockett's novel. Black and white people experience the world very differently and often do not interact beyond matters of employment. Interaction and understanding are shown as key when Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny are writing Help.
Skeeter is different from the other white women in the area but she is still white and privileged. Her time with Aibileen and Minny shows her how much they and the other maids suffer in this racist society. They educate her. This is shown as very important for improving race relations and fighting inequality.
Hilly raises her voice about three octaves when talking to black people. Elizabeth smiles like she's talking to a child, although certainly not her own. I'm starting to notice things." - Skeeter (Ch. 12)
Literature is also very important in Kathryn Stockett's text. Writing Help is one of the only times many of the maids gain much power and agency in their lives. By anonymously exposing the poor treatment they have suffered at the hands of their white employers, these maids finally have some power over them. Even though what they are doing is very risky, they deem it to be worth the risk.
Literature is also important in the context of the local library. The literature Skeeter finds there is key in her realisation of how unequal her world is. This literature is a copy of the Jim Crow Laws. Stockett is showing here that racism is quite literally part of the law in this society and knowing this is key to fighting it. It is also very significant that African Americans are not allowed into the library. They are not permitted to educate themselves about the very laws that impact them the most.
Writing and literature are shown as providing solace. Skeeter gains an important writing job in New York from her work on Help. However, her white privilege makes this somewhat less of a major development.
Writing's role in saving Aibileen is much more significant in Stockett's novel. Hilly uses her power as a white woman to have Aibileen fired after Help is published. However, Skeeter has arranged for Aibileen to take over her housekeeping column. This arrangement sets up Aibileen for an entirely new life.
She will be working in a job very different from being a maid. Aibileen will have some agency in this capacity and will not be mistreated. She will likely still face racism but she has an opportunity that was very rare for African Americans at the time.
Can you find any more instances of literature being important in The Help?
Early in The Help, Hilly Holbrook states that she is trying to get a law passed that would require every white household to have a separate outdoor bathroom for their black employees. This is obvious discrimination. Bathrooms were a major battleground in the fight for equality at this time.
Stockett uses bathrooms to symbolise segregation here. Black people in early 1960s America were not permitted to use the same bathrooms as white people. There were white and 'coloured' public bathrooms all over the Southern states. Hilly wants something very similar to be legally required in white homes all over Jackson.
A very specific stereotype about black people of the time described them as dirty carriers of diseases. Hilly believes this and wants separate bathrooms as a result. Minny cleverly manages to disprove this obviously racist idea, which she does by feeding Hilly an excrement-laced pie.
If Hilly can eat something as disgusting as a person's feces and not become unwell, then there is no way that black people carry diseases. Plus, she will be humiliated if this incident is found out, so Hilly stops trying to prove that Help is about Jackson.
Bathrooms symbolise much of the inequality in Jackson. With the use of cunning means, Minny disproves the stereotypes linked to the need for separate bathrooms.
The segregation of bathrooms was a significant and very symbolic issue in the American Civil Rights Movement. As part of your investigation into The Help, do some research into this movement. Can you find similarities between real historical events and this text?
But it weren't too long before I seen something in me had changed. A bitter seed was planted inside a me. And I just didn't feel so accepting anymore." - Aibileen Clark (Chp. 1)
The 'bitter seed' is a very important symbol for Aibileen throughout Stockett's novel. This seed was planted after the death of her twenty-four-year-old son, Treelore. He was everything to Aibileen, and losing him so young devastated her. She did not leave her house for months after and had to be force-fed by Minny.
Treelore was doing difficult and dangerous work at a mill when he died. It is likely a job that mostly black men did. Stockett tells us Aibileen was always quite an accepting person, despite the racism she faced on a daily basis. Treelore's fate changed this, and she became much more suspicious of white people. This is a common theme amongst the maids. They have a deep distrust of white people because of the abuse they have all been subjected to at different times.
Aibileen's bitter seed fades as she begins to work on Help with Skeeter. She uses her anger, frustration, and bad experiences and channels it all into something positive. She truly believes the writing of this book may change things for the better.
"A bill that requires every white home to have a separate bathroom for the colored help. I've even notified the surgeon general of Mississippi to see if he'll endorse the idea." (Chp. 1)
Hilly explains the racist law she wants passed. This exemplifies the legalised discrimination in Jackson's society and the stereotypes of black people as unclean.
"They raise a white child and then twenty years later the child becomes the employer. It's that irony, that we love them and they love us, yet...' I swallowed, my voice trembling. 'We don't even allow them to use the toilet in the house.'" (Ch. 8)
This shows the motivations behind Skeeter wanting to write Help. She has empathy and wants to use her privilege for good.
"But everybody saying the judge wife be good friends with Miss Holbrook and a how regular sentence be six months for petty stealing, but Miss Holbrook, she get it pushed up to four years." (Ch. 19)
Hilly's privilege as a wealthy white woman in this society is obvious here. She uses this to her advantage to further discriminate against African Americans.
"I'm proud a what I'm selling. I can't help it. We all telling stories that need to be told." (Ch. 16)
Aibileen truly believes in what they are doing and thinks it can make a difference.
"What am I doing? I must be crazy, giving a white woman the sworn secrets of the colored race to a white lady." (Ch. 17)
Minny is not comfortable at first with telling everything to Skeeter. Her abuse at the hands of white people has left her understandably mistrusting of them. This changes throughout Stockett's novel.
Stockett has stated she wrote The Help to deal with missing home. She was writing of what was familiar to her as she grew up in a Southern home with a black maid. Stockett explores the great injustices of this life in her novel.
There are 34 chapters.
No, The Help is fiction but is based on a real historical period and some of Stockett's own experiences.
There are accusations of this but nothing has ever been concretely proven.
Aibileen was a black maid that helped write Help with Skeeter. She lost her job because of this but gained a new one writing a housekeeping newspaper column.
Who wrote The Help?
What year was The Help published?
What genre is The Help?
Who narrates The Help?
Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny
What are two important themes in The Help?
Racial inequality and the Power of Literature
What are two important symbols in The Help?
Bathrooms and Aibileen's 'Bitter Seed'
What does Aibileen's 'Bitter Seed' symbolise?
The suffering she felt after the loss of her son. This changed her and made her much more mistrusting of white people.
Why does Hilly Holbrook want segregated bathrooms?
Because she believes in the stereotype that black people are unclean and carry disease.
Why does Hilly stop trying to prove Help is about Jackson?
Because Minny included the story about Hilly eating the pie with feces.
Why does Aibileen believe Help is so important?
Because she believes it can really change things for the better by giving these maids a voice.
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