Set against the volatile backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, The Help looks at how the white community in a Mississippi town uses physical and other forms of violence against its black citizens to try to stop the flow of change. It explores domestic and workplace violence through Leroy's beating of Minny, Elizabeth's beating of Mae Mobley, and through the stories of the maids who have been raped and brutalized on the job by their employers. When Hilly uses her influence to have Yule May sentenced to four years in the state penitentiary, we can see how the legal and penal systems can be used to inflict violence as well.
And the violence doesn't stop there – The Help also looks at the violence of laws and speech that teach hate in the first place, and the power of loving speech to counteract all of that. Although violence is always present in the novel, its major focus is on those kind and loving acts that work to diffuse it. When we say diffuse it, we mean in the big-picture, long-term sense of the word. We would argue that the book Help, featuring the stories of the Jackson maids, works to diffuse violence by exposing it. But all of the women in the book are at risk of some severe repercussions by telling their stories at all. Would you risk your life to bring something important before the public eye?
Questions About Violence
- Is physical violence ever used positively in the novel, such as when Celia saves Minny by beating her attacker with a fireplace poker?
- Why does Leroy say he beats Minny? What part do white women (especially Hilly) in town play in inciting Leroy to beat Minny?
- Robert is beaten and blinded for accidentally using a white bathroom; Mae Mobley gets beaten by her mother for using Aibileen's bathroom. Why?
- Why are white people allowed to hurt black people without punishment in the novel?
- Why are the black maids so afraid to tell their stories? What finally makes them change their minds?
- Do you think The Help can help minimize the violence in the world? Why or why not? If you argue that it can't, are there other books that might be more effective? Which ones and why?
- When Minny laces Hilly's pie with poo, would you consider that an act of violence? Why or why not? Is it justified?