Study Guide

The Help 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.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    We want a sequel! We want a sequel!

    There. Just had to get that off our chest (yes, Shmoop has a chest). Don't get us wrong, we find the ending of The Help highly satisfying. We just can't get enough of her writing. OK, then, let's recap:

    The book Help is selling well and providing income for the women whose stories are featured in it. Skeeter Phelan gets a job as a copywriter's assistant (got to start somewhere) at Harper's Magazine in New York City and is stopping off in Chicago to visit Constantine's grave.

    Minny Jackson has a lifetime position with the Footes and has moved out of Jackson to Canton, near the Footes' home. Hopefully, neither her abusive husband Leroy, nor her arch-nemesis Hilly will be able to hurt her now.

    Aibileen is finally retiring from her lifelong career, and using her expertise to write the Miss Myrna column. She leaves the Leefolts satisfied that she's provided young Mae Mobley with the self-love and other skills she needs to survive in her society and, hopefully, to resist the racist ideas being drilled into her. Since Aibileen stays in Jackson, she's close enough to keep tabs on Mae Mobley and be there if the girl needs her, one way or the other.

    What We Want to Know

    But, there are still so many loose ends! We've come to love these characters so much that it's painful not knowing the rest of their stories – every little bit of it. We want desperately to find out what happens when Skeeter goes to visit Constantine's grave. Will she meet up with Lulabelle, Constantine's daughter who's about Skeeter's same age? What love, what heartbreak, what adventures will she have in the Big Apple?

    We want to get to know Minny's kids – Leroy Junior, Benny, Felicia, Sugar, and Kindra – better and see what they are like as grown-ups. We want to stay a while longer with Minny and Celia in the kitchen, and to know all Minny's latest adventures, trials, and tribulations. We want to know which books Aibileen will write, and if she, in her newfound leisure time, will find the romance she's given up on. We also want to follow Mae Mobley, to see where life takes her, and to see how her relationship with Aibileen impacts her life.

    Part of why we are so eager to follow these characters is because the ending focuses on their clearer vision and on their real potential for renewal, for change, for rejuvenation. Starting a new life is always intriguing and exciting. On that note, we'll leave you with the last lines of the novel, with Aibileen's final thoughts as she walks home after being fired by Elizabeth and parting from Mae Mobley:

    Maybe I ought to keep writing, not just for the paper, but something else, about all the people I know, and all the things I seen and done. Maybe I ain't too old to start over, I think and I laugh and I cry at the same time at this. Cause just last night I thought I was finished with everything new. (34.231)

    Now that's good stuff! The ending of The Help wants us to believe that it's never too late to follow our dreams and get a fresh start, as long as we have a little help from our friends.

    Can't get enough of The Help? Wish you could read a book like Help? Try Telling Memories Among Southern Woman In The Segregated South by Susan Tucker. Kathryn Stockett cites the book, which features oral histories of women like those featured in The Help, in her acknowledgments page.

  • Setting

    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…

    Medgar Evers

    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 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.

  • Writing Style

    The richness and variety of language is part of what makes this book so appealing and intriguing. Kathryn Stockett, a white woman from Mississippi, takes a bold step. Two of her three narrators are black women who tell their stories in African American English or African American Vernacular. Contemporary linguists argue that these dialects of English are no more or less valid than "standard English" or any other dialect of English, and that they contain distinct features and operate under distinct grammatical systems.

    Some critics take issue with Stockett's use of these dialects. Check out what Janet Maslin of the New York Times has to say:

    Here is a debut novel by a Southern-born white author who renders black maids' voices in thick, dated dialect ("Law have mercy," one says, when asked to cooperate with the book project. "I reckon I'm on do it"). (source)

    You might be wondering what Stockett has to say. Here are her thoughts on the matter:

    I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. […] What I am sure about is this: I don't presume to think I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi in the 1960s. […] But trying to understand is vital to our humanity. (source)

    These are just a few perspectives on the linguistic experiment Stockett attempts. They bring up lots of interesting questions about language and race – always hot-button, endlessly debatable issues. (Readers and scholars are still arguing about Mark Twain's use of dialect in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – over 100 years later!) The Help will give you a chance to figure out where you stand.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Toilets and Bathrooms

    But then I realize, like a shell cracking open in my head, there's no difference between those government laws and Hilly building Aibileen a bathroom in the garage, except ten minutes' worth of signatures in the state capitol. (13.92)

    You can hardly find a page in this book without some reference to toilets and bathrooms. In some ways, toilets and bathrooms symbolize all that is wrong with the society depicted in the novel. The prevailing belief among most white people here is that black people carry diseases. Apparently the main way to get one of these diseases is to use a toilet a black person has used.

    This obviously false claim is used to justify segregated bathrooms, which become a huge issue in the novel. Robert Brown is beaten and blinded when he accidentally uses a white bathroom. Her mother beats Mae Mobley when she uses Aibileen's bathroom. Hilly Holbrook's major project is to have a law passed requiring white families to build outside bathrooms for their black employees to use.

    When Skeeter encounters the Jim Crow laws in the public library, she begins to grasp all these different discriminatory and racist practices she sees. Kathryn Stockett uses toilets and bathrooms to symbolize the dirtiness of the tactics used to maintain a racist status quo in this Mississippi community in the early 1960s, and to inject wicked comic relief into a sometimes heartbreaking book.

    Poo Pie and an L-Shaped Crack

    Sounds like the start of a very dirty joke, no? Actually, these are the two biggest clues that Help (the book within The Help) is set in Jackson, Mississippi. The fact that Minny baked a poo pie that Hilly ate is left in Help intentionally, to keep Hilly from spreading the word that the book is about Jackson. If she admits the book is about Jackson, she admits she ate Minny's poo…and lived. (The big irony, of course, is that Hilly claims to believe that white people will come to harm if they use the same toilets and dishes as black people. If a white person can eat a black person's poo and not even get sick…we'll leave you to finish that sentence.)

    By contrast, Aibileen's inclusion of the fact that the Leefolts' dining room table has an L-shaped crack in it is totally unintentional, and a sign of Aibileen's attention to detail (at least in her descriptions, though perhaps not her editing). But, the inclusion might have an unintentionally beneficial result. We could look at Aibileen getting fired as a good thing – after all, she gets the Miss Myrna job and income from Help. Moments after she's fired, she frees herself to begin planning her new writing career.

    The inclusion of the L-shaped crack might also have benefits for Elizabeth. Until Hilly points out the detail of the crack, Elizabeth somehow doesn't recognize herself in Aibileen's story. Now she'll be forced to deal with Aibileen's vision of her. Perhaps this will help her with some of her problems and issues. This detail also gives her some power over Hilly – something she's never had, or never felt she had before. When Hilly clues in Elizabeth that she's featured in the book, Hilly, by implication, admits that she too is featured, as the woman who ate Minny's special chocolate pie. Seeing Hilly as fallible might help Elizabeth stop idolizing and following the woman, and learn to think for herself.

    White Ladies' Tools

    No, white womans like to keep they hands clean. They got a shiny little set a tools they use, sharp as witches fingernails, tidy and laid out neat, like the picks on a dentist tray. They gone take they time with them. (14.63)

    Several black characters in the novel suggest that the white women in general might be more harmful to them than the white men are – a white man might use violence, but a white woman will ruin your life. Hilly Holbrook, in all her villainy, is the symbol of this type of woman.

    Aibileen's chilling passage quoted above dramatizes a certain type of violence. She uses "witches fingernails" and dentist tools to symbolize such violence, which often consists of using power and influence to have people fired, evicted, imprisoned, fined, or even subjected to physical violence. (We discuss this issue more under the "Themes: Gender.")

    By contrast, through her relationship with Skeeter, Aibileen learns sees that some white women use nicer tools for nicer purposes. Skeeter uses books, writing, conversation, speech, and pranks to counteract the tools of vicious women like Hilly. Of course, the tools Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and the women who contribute to Help use also incite Hilly's wrath, and strict penalties are paid. But all of the women seem to feel it's worth this risk.

    November 8th

    Three years ago today, Treelore died. But by Miss Leefolt's book it's still floor cleaning day. (7.100)

    November 8th is the date of Treelore's senseless death. For Aibileen, it symbolizes the lowest day in her life, and the months of depression that followed. It also symbolizes the beginning of a change in her. After Aibileen loses her son, her vision of her society sharpens, and she becomes more critical. This change in vision makes her receptive to Skeeter's idea for a book about the lives of the black women who work in the homes of white families. Aibileen sees the book as a chance to speak the truth, and, perhaps, make things better for people in her community.

    For Elizabeth, the date symbolizes (ironically) nothing but approaching Thanksgiving. She doesn't consider giving thanks for Aibileen, or how it must feel to be working oneself to the bone to cook food for people who take the cook for granted. Somehow, this moment brings home the complete disconnect between Elizabeth and the woman who cares for every aspect of her home and family. It highlights Elizabeth's blindness, her numbness, and her view of Aibileen as less than human.

    To Kill a Mockingbird and Boo Radley

    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?

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    The Help features three first-person narrators: Aibileen Clark (eleven chapters), Minny Jackson (nine chapters), and Skeeter Phelan (thirteen chapters). Author Kathryn Stockett says,

    I started writing it the day after Sept. 11. I was living in New York City. We didn't have any phone service and we didn't have any mail. Like a lot of writers do, I started to write in a voice that I missed. I was really homesick – I couldn't even call my family and tell them I was fine. So I started writing in the voice of Demetrie, the maid I had growing up. (source).

    This voice became the voice of Aibileen. Some of the things Aibileen tells Mae Mobley Leefolt to boost her self-esteem are things Demetrie (who died when Stockett was sixteen) told Stockett. The voice of Minny is inspired by actress Octavia Spencer (perhaps most famous for her role in Ugly Betty) and who plays Minny in the film version. The Telegraph reports,

    Her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. "And then I read it and I couldn't stop reading it. It was brilliant." (source)

    As we discuss in "Characters," Skeeter has parallels with Stockett herself. She seems to be the last of the narrators to come to life. Motoko Rich of the New York Times reports,

    She added Skeeter, she said, because she worried that readers wouldn't trust her if she only wrote about black characters. "I just didn't think that would ever be allowed to sit on the shelf," she said. "So I threw Skeeter in the mix and I felt a little better about it, because I was showing a white perspective as well." (source)

    Chapter 25, "The Benefit" (the only chapter with a title) is the only chapter told in the third person. This third-person perspective is necessary for that chapter. It is most concerned with Celia Foote – how others react to her extreme sexiness and her extreme nervousness. We would have loved to get a glimpse inside Celia's head, but Celia wouldn't have been able to capture all the nuances the third-person narrator captures, since Celia herself isn't aware of much of what's going on in the scene. Plus, Celia wouldn't have been able to reveal that it's Hilly's mother who punks Hilly with Minny's auctioned chocolate pie.