“The Help” by Kathryn Stockett: An In-Depth Review
Kathryn Stockett, the author of “The Help,” is an American writer known for her impactful storytelling. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1969, Stockett draws from her Southern roots and experiences to craft narratives that shed light on complex social issues. Her debut novel, “The Help,” published in 2009, became a bestseller and a cultural phenomenon. The book addresses racial inequality and discrimination in the Deep South during the 1960s through the voices of black maids and a young white writer. Stockett’s compelling characters and evocative prose have earned her critical acclaim and a place in contemporary American literature.
“The Help” unfolds in Jackson, Mississippi, commencing in August 1962, with three main narrators: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Aibileen Clark, aged 53, introduces us to the story.
Aibileen, a black woman, works for the white Leefolt family, primarily caring for their two-year-old daughter, Mae Mobley, whom she considers her “special baby.” Mae Mobley endures physical abuse and neglect from her mother, Elizabeth. Aibileen strives to bolster Mae Mobley’s self-esteem and educate her about civil rights and racial equality. Tragically, Aibileen’s son, Treelore, died in a workplace accident several months before her employment with the Leefolts.
At the Leefolts’ home, Aibileen observes a bridge game involving Hilly Holbrook, Skeeter, and Elizabeth Leefolt’s best friends. Hilly discusses her efforts to pass a law mandating outdoor bathrooms for black employees in white households, sparking a feud with Skeeter. Following the bridge game, Skeeter apologizes to Aibileen for their discussion and questions if she wishes for change.
On the bus ride home, Aibileen warns her best friend, Minny Jackson, who takes care of Hilly’s mother (known as Miss Walter or Miss Walters, depending on the speaker), about Hilly’s accusations against Minny. Miss Walter is transitioning to a nursing home, and Minny has been searching for new employment, finally understanding the reasons for her rejections. She hints at a terrible act involving a pie committed against Hilly but refuses to divulge details.
Days later, Minny secures a job at the home of Johnny and Celia Rae Foote. Johnny, Hilly’s ex-husband, and Celia Rae, who resembles Marilyn Monroe, employ her. Celia asks Minny to remain hidden from Johnny, adding to her stress.
Following the bridge game at the Leefolts’, Skeeter returns to her family’s cotton plantation, Longleaf. During her senior year in college, Skeeter’s closest confidante and family maid, Constantine, disappeared mysteriously, and no one explained
Skeeter maintains contact with an editor in New York, Elaine Stein, who encourages her to find a newspaper job and explore controversial topics. She lands a position at the Jackson Journal, writing the Miss Myrna column, despite her limited knowledge of housework and relationships. With Elizabeth’s reluctant approval, Skeeter begins consulting Aibileen for answers to readers’ questions. Skeeter discovers that Aibileen’s son, Treelore, was writing a book about his Mississippi experiences before his death, inspiring her to convince local maids to participate in interviews for a book expressing their perspectives.
Hilly sets up Skeeter on a blind date with Stuart Whitworth, a senator’s son, who insults her while inebriated. The disastrous date results in Skeeter’s reluctance to see Stuart again. In December, Johnny Foote discovers Minny, his wife’s helper, realizing Celia’s secret upon noticing the improved cooking. Johnny asks Minny to maintain the pretence of secrecy.
Aibileen, an avid writer, collaborates with Skeeter on a book recounting the lives of Jackson’s maids, and they spend their evenings together. Eventually, Minny also joins their project. Although Aibileen attempts to involve other maids, their fear prevents their participation. Skeeter takes a pamphlet listing Jim Crow laws from the library.
Three months after their unsuccessful first date, Skeeter and Stuart go on another outing, culminating in a passionate kiss. Stuart becomes a regular presence in Skeeter’s life, unaware of her secret writing project.
In May 1963, Celia suffered a fourth miscarriage, fearing her inability to have children may alienate Johnny. Minny’s attempts to console her lead to the revelation that Minny and Johnny have met. Celia pleads with Minny to keep her ignorant about this secret.
In July, Hilly’s maid, Yule May, steals a ring of no value that Hilly despises. Yule, a mother of twin sons, needed an additional $75 to send both of her sons to college instead of just one. After Hilly refuses to loan her the money, Yule takes the ring. Hilly, upon discovering the theft, uses her influence to impose a $500 fine and a four-year prison sentence on Yule May. Outrage over Hilly’s actions, along with Minny’s persuasion, convinces eleven more maids to share their stories for Skeeter’s book.
Skeeter and her family dine at Stuart’s parents’ residence. The dinner conversation repeatedly revolves around Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, Patricia Van Devender, who was unfaithful to Stuart as a white civil rights activist. At the dinner’s conclusion, Stuart ends his relationship with Skeeter.
Hilly pilfers a list of Jim Crow laws from Skeeter’s bag and refuses to return it unless Skeeter, as the Junior League newspaper’s editor, publishes a notice about Hilly’s bathroom project. Skeeter complies but also takes the opportunity to print a notice asking people to deposit their old toilets on Hilly’s lawn. She further arranges for children to deliver numerous toilets to Hilly’s property, resulting in her isolation from her former friends. Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids fear Hilly will discover their involvement in the book.
At the Jackson Junior League Annual Ball and Benefit, Celia Foote, inebriated, seeks acceptance into the high-society ladies’ circle, ultimately damaging Hilly’s dress and vomiting on the floor. Following this incident, Celia contemplates leaving Johnny, believing she is unworthy of him, but Minny persuades her to stay.
We learn that, during her final days caring for Hilly’s mother, Miss Walter, Minny prepared a chocolate pie laced with her faeces, which Hilly unwittingly consumed. This is why Hilly is determined to tarnish Minny’s reputation. Minny convinces Skeeter and Aibileen that including the pie story in her section is the best protection against Hilly. Even if Hilly recognizes Jackson as the setting, she would never admit to eating the pie.
In December, Skeeter learns of Constantine’s death after she moved to Chicago with her daughter, Lulabelle, following a confrontation with Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte. Skeeter pieces together the story of Aibileen and her mother. In the same month, Skeeter and Stuart reconcile. By the end of December, Skeeter mails the book manuscript, titled “Help,” which contains the maids’ stories, to Elaine Stein in New York City.
In January, Stuart proposes to Skeeter, but upon revealing her involvement in “Help,” Stuart retracts his proposal. In the same month, Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and the other maids discover that “Help” is going to be published, creating anticipation.
Upon the book’s release, Hilly immediately suspects that it is set in Jackson and campaigns against the maids she suspects are involved. However, when she reads the last chapter, written by Minny and featuring the pie story, she changes her stance, claiming the book is not about Jackson. Nonetheless, she confronts
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Aibileen is one of the central protagonists and narrators in the novel. She is a black woman who has worked as a maid from a young age, caring for seventeen white children. Aibileen’s life is marked by the tragic loss of her son, Treelore, and the deep-seated bitterness that grows within her as a result.
Minny is another central protagonist and narrator, known for her bold nature. She’s been Aibileen’s best friend, a mother of five, and a maid since her teenage years. Minny’s culinary skills and outspokenness often lead to trouble, but she struggles to stand up to her abusive husband, Leroy.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan:
Skeeter, the third central protagonist and narrator, is a recent college graduate aspiring to become a writer. Her open-mindedness and curiosity set her apart from the traditional white women of Jackson, although she soon realizes her naivety about the harsh realities of the world.
Hilly, a childhood friend of Skeeter, serves as the novel’s chief antagonist. She portrays herself as a model housewife but openly displays racism and cruelty. Hilly’s primary goal is to create segregated bathrooms for maids, perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
Celia is the woman Minny begins working for after her dismissal by Hilly. Hailing from a rural background, Celia desperately tries to fit into Jackson’s high society. Her deep insecurities stem from multiple miscarriages, raising concerns about her ability to bear children.
Elaine, a senior editor at Harper & Row, corresponds with Skeeter and offers guidance in her writing endeavors. She understands Skeeter’s desire to enter the working world without relevant experience and provides constructive criticism.
Aibileen’s employer and Skeeter’s childhood friend, Elizabeth, is plagued by insecurities about her family’s economic status. She obsesses over appearances and fluctuates between cruelty and neglect toward her daughter, Mae Mobley.
Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte, embodies traditional gender norms and desires her daughter to conform. Although she loves Skeeter, her actions sometimes reflect the prejudiced values of Jackson society.
Constantine served as the Phelan family’s maid throughout Skeeter’s childhood, offering love and kindness. Her unexplained departure to Chicago leaves Skeeter questioning her sudden absence.
Constantine’s daughter was given up for adoption to protect her from racial prejudice. Lulabelle reunites with Constantine after Skeeter goes to college, now a strong-minded young woman.
Mae Mobley Leefolt:
Mae Mobley, Elizabeth Leefolt’s daughter, forms a close bond with Aibileen due to her mother’s neglect. She longs for maternal affection, often turning to Aibileen.
Stuart Whitworth, Jr.:
Stuart, the son of a state senator, has an on-and-off relationship with Skeeter. Initially hung up on a broken engagement due to his fiancée’s affair with a civil rights activist, Stuart is intrigued by Skeeter’s writing but struggles to accept her criticism of the Jim Crow South.
Yule May Crookle:
Aibileen and Minny’s friend and Hilly’s maid, Yule May, face legal troubles when she steals an unused ring to cover her twin sons’ college tuition. Her imprisonment sparks other maids’ participation in Skeeter’s book.
Lou Anne Templeton:
An acquaintance of Skeeter and a Junior League member, Lou Anne initially appears as one of Hilly’s followers. However, Skeeter discovers Lou Anne’s kindness in her treatment of her maid, Louvenia, and the depth of Lou Anne’s depression.
Louvenia is Lou Anne’s maid and the grandmother of Robert Brown, who suffers brutal beatings and blindness after accidentally using a white bathroom.
Minny’s former employer and Hilly’s mother, Miss Walters, finds amusement in a certain chocolate pie, subtly disapproving of her daughter’s actions and beliefs.
This character list provides a detailed overview of the key figures in “The Help,” each contributing to the novel’s exploration of racial inequality, courage, and friendship in 1960s Mississippi.
The Influence of Writing and Storytelling
In “The Help,” an intricate web of concealed expectations, societal norms, and unspoken regulations governs the lives of its characters. These silent but universally acknowledged codes of conduct underpin the prevailing prejudice. Nevertheless, the act of committing this concealed knowledge to paper poses a substantial threat to those who perpetuate the prejudiced underpinnings of society. The central conflict of the novel revolves around the book Skeeter aspires to write and the fear it instills in the maids who contribute their stories. At first glance, the book’s focus on the lives of black maids working for white women may seem unremarkable or uncontroversial. Yet, when the racist and frequently abusive behavior of white women is documented in writing and immortalized for anyone to read, these women forfeit a fraction of their power. Writing not only lays bare the system of prejudice for all to witness but also serves as a source of shame for those women who fear exposure and the repercussions of dismissing their maids who have dared to speak.
The potency of writing finds expression in more intimate dimensions as well. Inspired by her teacher during her early departure from school to enter the workforce, Aibileen transcribes her prayers rather than vocalizing them. Remarkably, her written prayers often yield responses, infusing them with a sense of heightened significance to her friends. Aibileen harnesses her aptitude for writing to convey her stories to Skeeter, allowing her to surmount the challenge of reciting them solely from memory. This demonstrates how writing provides Aibileen with the confidence and power that broader society seeks to suppress. Skeeter initially harbors doubts about Aibileen’s plan to commit her stories to writing, likely due to Aibileen’s lack of formal education. However, Aibileen’s written words leave a profound impression on Skeeter, underscoring the notion that anyone, regardless of race or background, can wield power through the medium of writing or storytelling, provided they have a meaningful narrative to share.
The Nuances of Human Beings and Relationships
At the outset of “The Help,” many characters perceive one another through a simplistic, predefined lens, relegating individuals to societal categories. However, as Skeeter embarks on her quest to pen her book, she discovers the complexity of human beings and the intricacies of relationships, transcending the confines of these categories. A pivotal revelation for Skeeter arises from her interviews with the maids, who exhibit a complex array of emotions toward those they work for. While their disdain for white women like Hilly is palpable, they simultaneously harbour genuine affection for the white children they care for. In some cases, these contradictory sentiments may coexist for the same person. Skeeter herself grapples with such complexity in her relationship with her mother, Charlotte. Despite Charlotte’s frequent coldness and her role in Constantine’s dismissal, Skeeter’s love for her mother remains unwavering, rendering her unable to expose her mother’s actions in the book.
As Skeeter delves deeper into these intricate relationships, she discovers the multifaceted nature of individuals, even those she believed she comprehended thoroughly. For instance, she once regarded her friend Lou Anne as a typical society woman, another of Hilly’s followers. However, the publication of the book reveals Lou Anne’s battle with depression, which she conceals to avoid societal judgment. Her close friendship with her maid, Louvenia, remains another hidden facet of her life. Skeeter’s experience emphasizes the futility of attempting to pigeonhole individuals based on their race or economic status, highlighting the value of celebrating the diverse qualities that make each person unique. This celebration of individuality has the potential to enrich society by fostering greater understanding and unity.
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The Fallacy of Superficial Judgments
“The Help” vividly illustrates that racial categorization is the most conspicuous and fundamentally flawed criterion by which people are evaluated. Hilly Holbrook’s character embodies the prejudiced views held by many white people of her time, seeing black individuals as dirty, diseased, and unintelligent. This perspective served as the impetus for the segregation policies enforced by the Jim Crow laws, which segregated both public and private spaces. Nevertheless, the relationships and characters in “The Help” compellingly expose the fallacy of assessing people solely based on their outward appearance.
Skeeter herself serves as a powerful counterexample as she confronts her mother’s unrelenting reminders about her unconventional appearance. Her tall stature and unruly hair set her apart from conventional standards of beauty, but her open-mindedness challenges the prevailing norms, underscoring the notion that an individual’s worth cannot be dictated by physical appearance. Both Aibileen and Constantine inculcate this lesson in the girls under their care, emphasizing that inner qualities hold greater significance than outward looks. Regrettably, this critical message often eludes many members of Jackson’s society.
Celia Foote, initially subject to superficial judgments by Minny and others, vividly exemplifies the fallacy of assessing people based on their appearance. Celia, perceived as “white trash” due to her rural upbringing, heavy Southern accent, and unfamiliarity with certain societal conventions, is ostracized by Jackson’s white women. Yet she transcends these stereotypes by embodying kindness, openness, and a lack of prejudice. Her valor in defending Minny during a home intrusion highlights her true strength, proving that there is far more to her character than what initially meets the eye. In essence, “The Help” underscores the idea that genuine understanding necessitates transcending superficial appearances and acknowledging the multifaceted nature of every individual.
In “The Help,” Kathryn Stockett delves into the profound influence of writing and storytelling in challenging societal norms, revealing the intricacies of human relationships, and exposing the fallacy of superficial judgments. Through the compelling narratives of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, Stockett sheds light on the power of the written word to disrupt entrenched prejudice. Aibileen’s prayers, transcribed instead of spoken, and her collaboration with Skeeter demonstrate how writing can empower marginalized voices. Meanwhile, the novel unfolds a tapestry of complex relationships, revealing that people are not easily confined to societal boxes. The juxtaposition of love and contempt within these relationships, such as that between Hilly and the maids or Skeeter and her mother, emphasizes the multifaceted nature of individuals. Lastly, the characters of Celia Foote and Skeeter challenge the fallacy of superficial judgments, highlighting that one’s true character cannot be determined by appearance alone. “The Help” ultimately underscores the potential for writing and storytelling to shape society, unravel the complexities of humanity, and dismantle superficial stereotypes. Kathryn Stockett’s work stands as a powerful testament to the enduring impact of literature.