The Help looks at the importance of literature – books, newspaper articles, laws, and bills – in creating, challenging, and changing the racist systems that ruled Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. It also looks at oral and written storytelling (and even written prayers, in the case of Aibileen) as ways to build positive energy and self-esteem while creating a more just society through increased transparency. Narrators Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny collaborate on a book called Help that publically reveals the points of view of the black maids working for white families in Jackson. Though this work puts the women in grave danger, they ultimately feel it's worth it to give voice to their experiences, to tell the truth – the good and bad parts of it.
Race is not a neutral concept in The Help – 1960s Jackson, Mississippi is one heck of a segregated society. Still firmly stuck in the Jim Crow era, there are strict rules, laws, and norms restricting the lives of the black townspeople. These rules also restrict white people who want to cross the color line.
Kathryn Stockett's novel unflinchingly explores the worst of the false stereotypes about black people – that they are lazy, dirty, carry diseases, and are in general less intelligent and less valuable than whites. She shows how these fictions are woven into the fabric of everyday life in Jackson, from the laws to ordinary conversations, and how these beliefs get passed from generation to generation. It shows a deep mistrust of whites on the part of the black community, who have been betrayed by them again and again. It also shows how powerful and how dangerous it can be to challenge the stereotypes and dissolve the lines that are meant to separate people from each other on the basis of skin color.
The Help shows us the inner workings of a segregated society against the backdrop of the growing US Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Although there is some variety in economic and social class, race is the number one determinant of a person's place in Stockett's Jackson, Mississippi. Race also determines who has access to educational, occupational, and economic opportunity. Racial tensions are high as white community members employ violence and coercion to try to keep the Civil Rights Movement from sweeping into their Mississippi town. At the same time, it shows us how, against all odds, Skeeter, a white woman, daughter of a cotton family, joins together with Aibileen and Minny, two black women who work as maids, to challenge the unfair practices that make the lives of the town's black members so difficult.
The Help gives us a chance to peek into the private lives of the citizens of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The novel shows how the dysfunctional social milieu created by segregation and racism influences the home lives of the characters. This society proscribes certain rules for men and certain rules for women. White women, like Elizabeth and Hilly, are expected to not work – neither in nor out of their homes. Black women are expected to work only in the homes of these women, caring for their children and cooking their meals. White women are simply tasked with being involved in social events and supervising "the help."
Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with cooking, cleaning, and caring for children for a living. The maids in the novel take pride in their work. But this work clearly isn't valued in this society. If the maids were being paid well, protected from abuse, treated with respect, and provided safe and comfortable work conditions, things would be different. If these women had access to jobs other than domestic work, things would be different too. The novel shows how complicated employee-employer relationships become, especially those between the black women and the white children they care for.
Deep love and bitter hate are ever-present in The Help, and the lines between the two emotions are often blurry. This is what we might expect from a society that teaches black people and white people to hate each other, but where they also live side by side. The novel is about trying to counteract the hate and irrationality through acts of love and courage. Many of these acts involve storytelling, conversations, interviews, reading, and writing. Through the relationships between Aibileen and Mae Mobley, and between Constantine and Skeeter, we see that lessons of love learned young can counteract lessons of hate. This isn't a highly romantic novel, but Skeeter and Stuart's relationship offers some romantic intrigue, and Johnny and Celia offer us a glimpse of what true love can look like.
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?
The Help looks at rules and norms governing gender in a Mississippi town in the early 1960s. White women are valued in society by their ability to produce children, who are then to be cared for by black women. Few jobs are available for women of both races. Black women are expected to be passive workhorses, and to sacrifice their own homes and family lives for those of their white employers. Through writing and storytelling, Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny all dare to challenge the gender roles society sets up from them and receive greater fulfillment in the process. Their challenges are also steps toward an overall healthier community in many ways.
The Help is what's known as a novel of education, meaning that the main characters undergo a series of gripping adventures that open their eyes to new truths and their lives to new opportunities. In the process, they act as educators, using storytelling, story writing, and devious pranks to effect positive change in their community.
This book also looks at attitudes toward education and the unequal access to education in general for black citizens of Jackson. College for Jackson's white women is more of a place to find a husband than a place to get a good education. Skeeter is even considered a failure at college because she didn't find a husband, unlike Hilly and Elizabeth who drop out as soon as they find their not-so-charming princes. Minny and Aibileen both have little formal education but are both very literate – in terms of literature and current events, more so at times than many of their white counterparts, especially the female ones.
In The Help, justice is often delivered South Park-style – let's just say this is not a fun novel to be a villain in, as Hilly will be the first to tell you. She is made to eat poo pie (yes, you read that right) and winds up with a slew of toilets decorating her front lawn. As funny as all that is, her version of justice is deadly serious. She uses her social status to influence the courts and businesses in the community to punish the black women whom she targets. For many black characters in the novel there is little justice – violence and injustice is committed against them and there is little they can do to fight it. But soon speech, both written and oral, is shown as one means to counteract all this.