The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a novel about black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. The black maids work with Skeeter Phelan, a white woman, to create a book depicting their lives. The chapters are narrated through the eyes of three main characters: Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter. Descriptions of historical events of the early activities of thecivil rights movement are peppered throughout the novel, as are interactions between the maids and their white employers. The novel is filled with details reminiscent of early-1960s culture in the United States: color televisions replacing black-and-white models, daytime programs with detergent and cleaning product advertisements, and the introduction of the miniskirt and rock-and-roll music add to the authenticity of the background and help make the characters' motivations believable.
Chapter 1 situates the novel in 1962 and is narrated by Aibileen, a black maid working for Mrs. Leefolt by taking care of a toddler, Mae Mobley. Aibileen loves Mae Mobley, as the reader can see by the tenderhearted way she speaks to her, and all the extra care and time she gives to her. Aibileen had a child of her own once, by the name of Treelore, who was accidentally killed at age twenty-four, in an accident at the logging mill. Aibileen shares her story of the logging incident and how she reacted afterward. She was completely devastated by her son's death until her friend Minnie helped her; and she began working with Mrs. Leefolt, taking care of Mae Mobley. This is where the reader learns why Aibileen immersed herself into caring for the child of a white woman; she transferred all her love onto her employer's children.
Aibileen meets Skeeter at Mrs. Leefolt's home, who asks her about cleaning difficult items because she (Skeeter) will be writing a newspaper column on household cleaning. She notices how respectful Skeeter is of her and feels suspicious, but she likes Skeeter and feels she can trust her. In her prayers, she mentions Skeeter. She says:
The thing is though, if I start prayin' for Miss Skeeter, I know that conversation gone continue the next time I see her. And the next..cause that's they way prayer do. It's like electricity, it keeps things going.
Aibileen is very spiritual and her beliefs have kept her hopeful throughout her difficult life. The reader can see that she is a powerful woman.
In chapters 1 and 2, the interactions between the black maids and their white employers are explored. For example, Miss Hilly sits at the head of the Junior League, which represents the high class women in Jackson; she is attempting to institute laws on separate bathrooms for blacks and whites, even in private homes. She wants to go so far as to making it a law so it would be a crime for owners to allow blacks to use white bathrooms. Skeeter thinks this is ridiculous.
Aibileen talks to her friend, Minnie, on the phone who tells her she was fired for stealing but that it is not true. She is worried she will never get another job in Jackson because of Miss Hilly's gossip. The reader can see through the character's dialog and actions how the white women have social power over the black maids by constructing hurtful gossip, to prevent the maids from gaining employment. Most of the white women use their power to control their maids, but Skeeter is different.
Chapters 3 and 4 are narrated by Minnie. She goes for a job interview at Celia Foote's home. She realizes that Celia Foote has not heard the gossip from Hilly about her stealing, so she is relieved. Mrs. Foote is very incompetent as a housekeeper and cook. She wants to hire Minnie but keeps it a secret from his husband so he thinks she is doing the work. Minnie does not like Celia's secrecy but takes the job because it pays $2.00 an hour, which is twice the salary she received at her past position.
Chapters 5 and 6 are narrated by Skeeter. Skeeter is the editor of the Junior League newsletter. She finds herself very different from the other whites her age in Jackson, especially on the civil rights issues. She thinks of the black maids as her equals and believes that the black maid who raised her, Constantine, was more like a mother.
She reminisces a lot about Constantine; it bothers her why Constantine left her household as the maid so abruptly without any explanation. She thinks often about her and even asks Aibilene why Constantine left Jackson unexpectedly. Aibileen says she was fired. Skeeter is confused because her mother told her Constantine left to join her family in Chicago. Skeeter confronts her mother. Her mother gives a lame excuse which Skeeter interprets as prejudice.
Chapter 7 is narrated by Aibileen, who is working at Mrs. Leefolt's home and taking care of Mae Mobley. She and the child are close, almost like mother and daughter. Mrs. Leefolt is strict and judgmental. Aibileen remembers her son Treelore. The anniversary of his death is that day, so she pretends to be sick so she can go home. The next day, Skeeter shows up unexpectedly at Aibileen's house on the poor side of town. She is cautious, wondering why a white woman would come to her neighborhood. Miss Skeeter asks her to help her with the book. She wants Aibileen to tell her about life as a black maid in Jackson. Aibileen politely refuses since blacks are being killed for much less on a daily basis, like using the white's toilet.
Chapters 8 and 9 are narrated by Skeeter. She tells her impressions of Aibileen's neighborhood as she approaches in her Cadillac. The neighbor's are cold and Aibileen only looks down at the ground when she is speaking. Skeeter does not realize why she is so uncomfortable. She returns to her home and receives a phone call from the publisher who likes her idea about a book on the black maids. She is excited. Then she goes to the Wednesday bridge club at Hilly's home; and she goes into the kitchen to talk to Aibileen. She offers Aibileen money in an envelope for helping her with the Miss Myrna letters on housekeeping, but Aibileen thinks it is a bribe to work on the book so she refuses. In chapter 9, it is the day of Skeeter's date. The date begins at 6 p.m. at Hilly's home but since Skeeter has not told her mother, she has to leave in regular work clothes; and she has to take her father's truck with a tractor on it. When she gets to Hilly's, her date, Stuart, has been waiting. He is drunk and sees her truck and tractor and thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever seen. She is...
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Jackson, Mississippi, August 1962 – late 1964
Stockett follows in a long tradition of southern writers– including William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Richard Wright, and John Grisham (to name a few) – who cast critical and loving eyes on their native South, striving to capture its complexity. In the essay at the end of The Help (which you can also read here), Stockett says she wants people to understand the problems of Mississippi, but also to see the good in it. She says, "Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too." Stockett reports driving this point home to a non-southerner with "the stiletto portion of [her] shoe." So, if you meet her, be careful what you say!
She sets The Help in her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. On this she says, "I grew up in the 1970s, but I don't think a whole lot had changed from the '60s. Oh, it had changed in the law books – but not in the kitchens of white homes" (source).
Things are certainly different in Mississippi. According to NPR, "Once the leader in the number of lynchings in America, today Mississippi leads in the number of elected black officials" (source). Nonetheless, Stockett says that Jackson is "still one of the most segregated towns in the U.S" (source).
The novel shows that segregation doesn't just mean that black and white people must live apart. It means that they can only interact in certain situations (mostly in which black people are serving white people in some capacity) and there are strict rules and norms about how they can act toward each other. Aibileen's description of the layout of Jackson helps us understand another aspect of segregation:
So Jackson's just one white neighborhood after the next and more springing up down the road. But the colored part of town, we one big anthill, surrounded by state land that ain't for sale. As our numbers get bigger, we can't spread out. Our part of town just gets thicker. (2.4)
Because black people were considered inferior by most whites, and by the law, they were only allowed access to inferior living conditions, products, and services. And because the jobs and educational opportunities for black people were few, slices of that economic pie were hard to get hold of. Segregation negatively impacts every aspect of the lives of the black characters.
Want to dig deeper into the history surrounding The Help? Check out these Shmoop US History guides:
The Times They Are A-Changin'
In December 1963, Skeeter hears the "drunk sounding" (27.102) voice of Bob Dylan for the first time. The song that provides her intro is "The Times They Are A-Changin'", the title song of Dylan's third album of the same name. (Listen to the song here or read the lyrics.) Here's a sample of the lyrics:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'
Skeeter definitely has a moment after the song:
I lean back in my seat, stare out at the dark windows of the store. I feel a rush of inexplicable relief. I feel like I've just heard something from the future. (27.104)
Wow. The song really hits us too.
Dylan is one of rock and folk music's most famous pioneers. He also used music as a vehicle to agitate for change in America. Music is considered by many to be an integral part in the Civil Rights Movement, and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" is considered a "protest classic" of that era.
Interestingly, it wasn't actually released until 1964, so Skeeter, if she wasn't a character in a book, couldn't have heard it in December 1963. This isn't an error on Stockett's part. She admits to playing around with dates to make things fit. She needed to have Skeeter hear the song in December 1963 because that's when Skeeter realizes that she might not get the draft of Help to her editor in time.
The song gives her hope and relief from the tension she's feeling. There is also some irony here, because in Jackson, things are a-changin'…very, very slowly – too slow for Skeeter, in fact (hence the move to New York City). The song helps awaken Skeeter to the possibility of life in a place where change doesn't take quite so long. What do you think of her decision to move? How would you feel if she'd stayed instead?
While you are thinking about that, digest these juicy tidbits. Did you know Dylan performed the song at the White House in 2010 in a concert entitled "In Performance at the White House: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement"? (source). And get this: the handwritten lyrics to the song (penned in 1963) were auctioned in 2010 for over four hundred thousand smackers (source). One last thing: The song "Only A Pawn In Their Game" (also from The Times They Are A-Changin' album) is about murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers is the subject of our next portion of the setting discussion, so read on…
Mississippian Medgar Evers (a.k.a. "The Man in Mississippi") is a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He's also an important figure in this novel. Since he's a black man living in Jackson in the 1960s of The Help, he, of course, lives in the black part of town. He lives not far from Aibileen and Minny, both of whom know him and his family.
Evers grew up in Mississippi's segregated society, experiencing and witnessing its hostility directly. In 1955 he participated in the investigation of the tragic 1955 lynching of fifteen-year-old Mississippi boy Emmett Till. Evers's passion for improving conditions for black people in Mississippi was also inspired by his overseas service in the U.S. Army during World War II. A biography from Medgar Evers College (founded in 1969) has this to say about how the experience influenced him:
Although he was serving his country against its foreign enemies, Evers soon became disillusioned by the fact that while he was supposedly fighting for freedom of people halfway around the world, his own nation was rooted in the unequal segregationist ideology of separation and white supremacy. Evers' experiences of the racist sentiments of white citizens as an African-American soldier demonstrated to him the need for action. (source)
Evers went on to become Mississippi's first Field Secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was active in the Mississippi Regional Council of Negro Leadership. You might remember this moment from early in The Help (Chapter 6).
Back to the book, then. Skeeter is watching the news at home and she sees a snippet of the University of Mississippi being forced to enroll Air Force veteran James Meredith as its first black student. (Check out this video to see something like what Skeeter was watching.) Evers played a big part in making this happen, though Skeeter is not aware of this fact. She has limited access to civil rights news at home, even though it's all over the TV – her mother won't allow such discussions in the home. Aibileen reports the same attitude toward news at the Leefolt house. By contrast, Minny and Aibileen keep close watch on civil rights news.
The Evers bio on America.gov provides an overview of his civil rights work in Jackson and elsewhere in Mississippi:
He launched a series of boycotts, sit-ins, and protests in Jackson, Mississippi's largest city. Even the NAACP was occasionally concerned with the extent of Evers's efforts. When Martin Luther King Jr. led a high-profile civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, Evers stepped up his Jackson Movement – demanding the hiring of black police, the creation of a biracial committee, the desegregation of downtown lunch counters, and the use of courtesy titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss) by whites who dealt with black shoppers in downtown stores. (source)
Many of these events are woven seamlessly into the novel in discussions and ruminations by the narrators. While these activities brought hope to members of the black community, they made Evers an enemy of whites wanting to preserve Jackson's status quo. He was constantly on the receiving end of death threats, and Evers, completely aware of the danger he faced, was shot to death in his driveway on June 12, 1963. His killer, Ku Klux Klan member Byron De La Beckwith, was, finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison 31 years later, in 1994 (source).
This is an important event in the novel, seen mostly through Aibileen's eyes. She comes home late from work from the Leefolts' on the night of Evers's assassination. She listens to the news of his death on the radio at Minny's. His assassination is important to the setting of the novel because it marks an increase in the racial tensions in Jackson. In terms of the major plot of The Help, this makes the book Aibileen and Skeeter want to write (Minny isn't on board at this point in the novel) much more dangerous for them, but also much more important. Like Evers, Skeeter, Aibileen, and, eventually, Minny agree it's worth the risk.
The death of Evers also helps show the differences in the way the black and white communities of Jackson perceive current events. For the black community, Evers's death is a major historical event. For the white community, it's not something to even be discussed. Even Skeeter doesn't seem to really get its importance. This also contrasts Jackson (or at least the parts of Jackson we see) with some other communities – our narrators do make mention of the many white people involved in civil rights activism elsewhere in the US.