The Help is 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.