by Kathryn Stockett
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
We think the title is brilliant – so much meaning packed into two little words. It refers to "the help" – the black women who provide childcare and maid service to the white families in Jackson, Mississippi, during the early 1960s. It also refers to Help, the title of the book that Aibileen Clark, Skeeter Phelan, and Minny Jackson collaborate on. In Help, Aibileen, Minny, and eleven other maids tell stories about their experiences working for the white families in Jackson.
The book these courageous women write – "courageous" because it could get them fired, run out of town, or even killed – is also a cry for help. While working for white families, they are often subjected to rape, physical and verbal abuse, and general degradation. They also must be silent witnesses to plenty of child abuse and neglect. Their stories also reveal the sacrifices they have to make where their own children and families are concerned, while they spend their days working for the families of others.
These women also experience much love and kindness. Skeeter observes, "There is undisguised hate for white woman, there is inexplicable love" (19.223). Help hopes to influence white families, particularly white women, to be more sensitive toward the black women who sacrifice so much to work for them, often for little pay. By daring to tell their stories, the maids present themselves in a much more human light than most of their employers see them. Some women also present their white employers in a more human light as well, including stories are about deep and lasting friendships.
Some of the white women, like Elizabeth Leefolt, don't even recognize themselves in the book. For others, reading Help is a totally eye-opening experience. Minny tells Aibileen that after reading Help, a woman named Miss Chotard asks her maid Willy Mae "if she treats her as bad awful as that awful lady in the book" (34.32). This finally results in a real conversation:
"Then Willie Mae tell her what all the other white ladies done to her, the good and the bad, and that white lady listen to her. Willie Mae say she been there thirty-seven years and it's the first time they ever sat at the same table together." (34.34)
Help starts a dialogue that will hopefully result in better working conditions for the maids and more respect for Jackson's black community in general. Of course, race relations are really, really unstable in Jackson. Help is only one step in the direction of changing this, but, for the women involved, it's one big step. Being able to give public voice to their experiences, and to receive pay for doing so, is a big deal for the women whose stories make up Help.