The Help is set in the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi, and told primarily from the first-person perspectives of three women: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Aibileen is a maid who takes care of children and cleans. Her first job since her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, died from an accident on his job, is tending the Leefolt household and caring for their toddler, Mae Mobley. Minny is Aibileen's friend who frequently tells her employers what she thinks of them, resulting in her having been fired from nineteen jobs. Minny's most recent employer was Mrs. Walters, mother of Hilly Holbrook.
Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan is the daughter of a white family whose cotton farm employs many African Americans in the fields, as well as in the household. Skeeter has just returned home after finishing college and wants to become a writer. Skeeter's mother wants her to get married, and thinks her degree is just a pretty piece of paper. Skeeter is curious about the disappearance of Constantine, her maid. Constantine had written to Skeeter while she was away from home in college saying what a great surprise she had when she came home. Skeeter's mother tells her that Constantine quit and went to live with relatives in Chicago. Skeeter does not believe that Constantine would leave her like this; she knows something is wrong and believes that information will eventually come forth. Everyone Skeeter asks about the strange disappearance of Constantine pretends it never happened and avoids giving her any real answers.
The life that Constantine led while being the help to the Phelan family leads Skeeter to the realization that her friends' maids are treated very differently from the way the white employees are treated. She decides (with the assistance of a publisher) that she wants to reveal the truth about being a colored maid in Mississippi. Skeeter struggles to communicate with the maids and gain their trust. The dangers of undertaking writing a book about African Americans speaking out in the South during the early 1960s hover constantly over the three women.
The story opens when Skeeter returns from four years at college; when Aibileen begins working for Mrs Elizabeth Leefolt; and when Minny is let go from her job working for Mrs. Walters and begins working for Celia Foote. When Skeeter rejoins her friends at their weekly bridge club meeting at Elizabeth’s house, Hilly Holbook asks Skeeter to place an advertisement in the Junior League’s newsletter about the benefits of installing a separate bathroom for the “colored help.” Skeeter is offended by the suggestion that domestic workers of color need a separate toilet, but does not confront her friend about this. Instead she simply does not place the ad in the paper. Before Skeeter leaves the brunch/card game, she asks Aibileen if she would like to see “things change?” Aibileen does not know what Skeeter means, and is suspicious of the young woman’s motives for making such a statement.
Eventually Skeeter wins Aibileen’s trust through a friendship that develops while Aibileen helps Skeeter write a household tips column for the local newspaper. Skeeter accepted the job to write the column as a stepping stone to becoming a writer/editor, as was suggested by Elaine Stein, editor at Harper & Row, even though she knows nothing about cleaning or taking care of a household, since that is the exclusive domain of ‘the help.’ The irony of this fact is not lost on Skeeter, and she eventually offers to pay Aibileen for the time and expertise she received from her.
Elaine Stein had also suggested to Skeeter that she find a subject to write about which she can be dedicated to and passionate about. Skeeter realizes that she wants to expose to the world in the form of a book the deplorable conditions the maids in the South endure in order to barely survive. Unfortunately such an exposé is a dangerous proposition, not just for Skeeter, but for any maids that agree to help her. Aibileen finally agrees to tell her story, but she cannot persuade any of her friends to join in the project.
Yule May, Hilly's maid is arrested and sentence to jail for four years for stealing a ring, which she stole from Hilly to pay her twin sons’ college tuition after Hilly refused to lend the money. The other maids decide that they are willing to take a chance with their jobs, and their safety, and join the book project that Aibileen and Skeeter are working on.
Thus the thrust of the book is the collaborative project between the white, privileged Skeeter and the struggling, exploited “colored” help, who together are writing a book of true stories about their experiences as the ‘help’ to the white women of Jackson, Mississippi. Not all the stories are negative, and some describe beautiful and generous, loving and kind events; while others are cruel and even brutal. The book, entitled “The Help” is finally published, and the final chapters of “The Help” describe the aftermath of the books’ appearance in Jackson.