(Written from the perspective of Aibileen.) Still in mourning for her son Treelore (who died in an industrial accident), Aibileen dotes on the sweet-natured Mae Mobley, daughter of a white family. However, she dislikes her employer Miss Leefolt, who is icy, harsh, and frequently neglects her daughter.
One day, Miss Leefolt invites several guests over for a game of cards: Hilly, Hilly's mother Mrs. Walters, and Skeeter. Hilly comments that Mrs. Walters - who employs Aibileen's best friend Minny as a cook and maid - is looking sick and skinny, remarking that Minny must not be doing her job. Aibileen grows anxious because few families will hire Minny due to her sharp tongue and tendency to make sarcastic comments; Mrs. Walters is not bothered by this habit because she is nearly deaf. Hilly also reveals her plan to require all white homes to have separate bathrooms for the black maids, which she claims is necessary to prevent disease. Skeeter reacts to this suggestion with obvious disgust, and later asks Aibileen in private if she has ever wanted to change things. Miss Leefolt walks in before Aibileen can answer, but this peculiar encounter continues to haunt Aibileen.
(Written from the perspective of Aibileen.) The next day Minny calls Aibileen and says that Hilly is sending her mother, Mrs. Walters, to a retirement home. Minny panics that she will be without a job, and her worry intensifies when she finds out Hilly has spread rumors that Minny is a thieving maid. The Leefolt family - Aibileen's employers - argue about the expensive involved in adding another bathroom for the help to use, and Miss Leefolt slaps Mae Mobley when she pulls on the phone cord trying to get her mother's attention. That night at home, Aibileen writes down her prayers as she always does, and she finds herself adding Skeeter to the list for reasons she cannot explain. Minny insists that Aibileen's prayer list has special powers to protect those on it.
The next day, Celia Foote calls Miss Leefolt's house, and Aibileen picks up. Celia says she is looking to speak to Miss Leefolt about the Children's Benefit. Aibileen knows that Hilly and Miss Leefolt hate Celia because she married Hilly's ex-boyfriend Johnny. When Celia mentions she's looking for a recommendation for home help, Aibileen is quick to suggest her friend Minny. She lies to Celia, saying that Miss Leefolt has told her to keep this recommendation a secret because all Miss Leefolt's friends want to hire Minny. Aibileen then phones Minny, who is delighted about this new job opportunity.
(Written from the perspective of Minny.) Minny nervously arrives at the home of Celia Foote, a blonde woman who resembles Marilyn Monroe. Minny is somewhat suspicious when Celia asks her if she'd like to sit down and have a glass of water - no white woman ever offers such courtesy to the colored help. Minny quickly discovers that this is because of Celia's impoverished background growing up in rural Mississippi.
Celia expresses concern that the house will be too much for Minny to clean, but Minny insists she can do it. Celia says that she cannot tell her husband that she has hired a maid, because she wants him to think that she is "worth the trouble" (pg. 44). She also asks Minny to give her cooking lessons. Minny points out that if Celia's husband finds a black woman in his kitchen he is likely to shoot her, but Celia offers Minny such high pay and such reasonable hours that Minny finally agrees to the arrangement.
Minny thinks back to her childhood, when her mother told her the rules for working in white homes: stay out of their business, use separate bathroom facilities and eating utensils, and never talk back to your employers. It's usually the third rule that's hardest for Minny, but lately she's been spending a lot of time puzzling over Celia's life. Celia mostly sits around and reads magazines all day, getting up only to use the bathroom or eat her meals. Most peculiarly, they have no children, despite the fact that they have been married for some time.
(Written from the perspective of Minny.) Minny appreciates her well-paying job working for the Foote family, but she puzzles over the mysterious Celia, who speaks wistfully about her love for gardening but refuses to step outside. It becomes clear that Celia cannot iron or clean (she buys new shirts for her husband so that he won't notice this), and Minny must painstakingly teach her how to cook even the simplest meals. Still she doesn't dislike Celia; the woman is kind and seems a bit lonely, because the other white socialites in town refuse to return her phone calls. When Minnie sees a picture of Celia's husband, she realizes why - Celia has married Hilly's ex-boyfriend, Johnny.
Minny hates the fact that Celia refuses to tell her husband that she has hired a maid, though Celia promises to tell him in a few months. One day when Johnny comes home early, Minny has to hide in the spare bathroom to avoid detection.
The three main protagonists (Aibileen, Skeeter, and Minny) take turns narrating the story; the first two chapters are told from Aibileen's point of view. In order to lend authenticity to the novel, the author uses a form of African-American vernacular English when writing from the perspectives of Minny and Aibileen. Though this technique is meant to give a unique voice to these women, it also results in grammatically incorrect or confusing sentences, which may be puzzling to some readers. It may be helpful to read some sentences out loud, so that the reader can hear what they sound like spoken.
The first four chapters vividly convey the daily indignities of being black in the segregated south. For example, Hilly Holbrook suggests that black people should have to use different bathrooms in white homes because she believes they carry disease, and she says this while Aibileen is present. Hilly does not care how much she offends any black person.
Life as a maid is precarious and difficult. Aibileen must clean the house every day while she also takes care of little Mae Mobley, and this leaves her little time to focus on her own life. Minny, on the other hand, struggles with the consequences of speaking her mind while also being a provider to her five children. As Minny discovers when Hilly decides to send her mother to a nursing home, being a maid is a position with absolutely no job security; a maid can be fired at any time for any infraction, and despite years of service, she might find it difficult to find another position if someone in the white community spreads rumors about her.
The novel also highlights the tender and loving relationships between caregivers and children. Aibileen cares deeply about Mae Mobley, paying much more attention to her than her mother does, and putting her first on her prayer list. Aibileen is infuriated at the cold way Miss Leefolt treats Mae Mobley (slapping her when she tries to get her mother's attention), but Aibileen cannot rebuke her employer; she can only offer love and tenderness to Mae Mobley.
The appearance of Celia Foote introduces class conflict to the previous themes of gender and race. Though she is white, Celia grew up in an impoverished community and has no experience bossing around people of color. This is evidenced by her awkwardness in asking Minny how much she would like to be paid and when she would like to work. Celia adores her husband but also fears him, because he belongs to a social class far above hers and is the reason that she has been pulled out of her childhood poverty. She wants to hide the fact that she has hired Minny because she wants her husband to believe that she is a capable wife and housekeeper.