To Kill a Mockingbird and Boo Radley
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's classic novel about a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a Southern town in the 1930s, was published in 1960, two years before The Help opens in late 1962. Basically, in this novel, reading To Kill a Mockingbird is a hint that a character is one of the good guys. Skeeter finishes it while she's getting her hair defrizzed with the Shinalator, as she gets all dolled up for her first date with Stuart. At Aibileen's request, Skeeter gets her a copy of it from the library. Minny notices that Johnny Foote is also reading it, and admires the fact, because it's a book in which black people are represented in a time and place where that was pretty rare.
Kathryn Stockett is definitely paying homage, crediting Lee's work with influencing her and paving the way for her and many other writers.
Interestingly, Skeeter specifically identifies with Boo Radley, a character in Mockingbird. After being fired from her position as editor of the Jackson Junior League newsletter, she's driving around upset. She knows she was fired because she's suspected of being in favor of racial integration, and because she decorated Junior League president Hilly Holbrook's lawn with toilets. She thinks, "I've become one of those people who prowl around at night in their cars. God, I am the town's Boo Radley, just like in To Kill a Mockingbird" (27.101).
Boo Radley is a mysterious character in Mockingbird who stays in his house all the time and is an object of frightened fascination for the young people in Maycomb, Alabama. Scout Finch, Mockingbird's narrator, relates some of Boo's back-story to readers (which she heard third- or fourth-hand) early in the novel.
Here's the quick and dirty version (or head to Shmoop's plot summary for the longer, meatier version – up to you): Apparently, when Boo was a teen he started hanging out with the wild kids, riding around in cars, acting crazy, drinking, and whatnot. One night, he and some other kids resisted arrest and charges were brought. Boo's dad was so embarrassed that he brought Boo home and basically permanently grounded his son – for fifteen years and counting... Rumor has it, Boo stabbed his dad in the leg with scissors, too. Hmm.
So how does this connect with Skeeter? (Nope, not the scissor part.) What happens to Boo is maybe Skeeter's worst fear of what could happen to her. She could be ostracized because of her unacceptable actions (exposing secrets). She could somehow wind up living at home permanently, locked away from the outside world, making mad swings at people with sharp objects. Boo is basically a symbol of the consummate outsider.
Like Skeeter, Boo crosses the line of what's acceptable behavior for a person in his Southern society and his family. But he pays for his action (which weren't necessarily noble, but not that awful either) with his freedom. Skeeter, by contrast, leaves town before something bad happens to her. Interestingly, even after the death of Boo's father, Boo stays in the house.
It's interesting that Skeeter would identify with Boo, rather than with Scout's father Atticus Finch, an awesome attorney, or with Scout herself. Like Skeeter, Atticus tries to defend black people against the injustices of southern society, even when it puts him and his family at risk. Like Skeeter, Scout learns to value and respect African Americans through the black woman who cares for her, Calpurnia. So, why does Skeeter feel more aligned with Boo?