Study Guide

The Help Themes

  • Literature and Writing

    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.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why does Skeeter assume Aibileen won't be a good writer? Does she change her mind over the course of the novel?
    2. Why does Aibileen tell Skeeter that she writes down her prayers, while she keeps this fact a secret from the rest of the community?
    3. Members of her community consider Aibileen's prayers particularly effective. Does this have anything to do with the fact that she writes them down?
    4. What roles do the written laws play in the construction of the society featured in The Help?
    5. Elaine Stein, the New York literary agent, tells Skeeter, "Don't waste your time on obvious things. Write about what disturbs you; particularly if it seems to bother no one else" (6.8). If you were going to follow Stein's advice, what would you write about?
  • Race

    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.

    Questions About Race

    1. Why is Lulabelle, who looks white, but comes from a black family, ostracized by both the black and white communities? What impact does Lulabelle's appearance have on her identity? Why is Charlotte so offended that Lulabelle pretends to be white by going to a DAR meeting?
    2. Are the racial stereotypes shown in the novel dead and gone, or do they live on? Can you give any present-day examples of such stereotypes?
    3. How are Minny and Aibileen's views on white people different? How are they the same?
    4. How is the legal system used to harm black characters in the novel?
    5. Why are the white characters in the novel able to harm black people physically without punishment?
    6. How does Skeeter's father feel about black people? How might this have influenced her views on race?
    7. How does Skeeter's mother feel about black people?
    8. Why does Mae Mobley color herself black in a drawing at school?
    9. By the end of the novel, has any progress been made in Jackson toward dissolving racial stereotypes?
  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. When Aibileen gets the Miss Myrna job at the end of the novel, does this signify that the society is changing?
    2. Celia doesn't even seem aware of false stereotypes about black people. Why?     
    3. How does Celia's past poverty influence her views on social class? Does she get over wanting to join Hilly and the gang by the end of the novel?   
    4. How does this community compare with your own? What are the similarities? The differences?
    5. How has Jackson, Mississippi changed since the 1960s when The Help was set?

  • The Home

    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.

    Questions About The Home

    1. How would you describe Aibileen's home life?
    2. What would life be like for Mae Mobley without Aibileen? What will it be like for her now that Aibileen has been fired?
    3. How do Minny's children help take care of the family while Minny is working? How successful is Minny at balancing her home and work lives?
    4. Why does Minny stay with Leroy for so long, even though he makes their home a place of violence and tension? What gives her the strength to finally change her mind?
    5. Why does Skeeter want so badly to leave home? How would you describe her home life? Do you think she will be homesick for Jackson once she's off in New York City?
    6. How does Celia Rae Foote's home life change over the course of the novel?
  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. What would you say about Minny and Aibileen's church in the context of the theme of love?
    2. How can Hilly be such a loving mother, yet such a hateful person? Can she be considered a loving mother if she teaches her children to hate others?
    3. Why does Minny love Leroy, even after he's beaten her for so many years? Does she still love him when she leaves him?
    4. Johnny seems to really love Celia, but it's not so clear how she feels about him – or is it? What's your take on their relationship?
    5. What are some of Aibileen's motivations for teaching Mae Mobley to love herself?
    6. How does Skeeter's relationship with her mother change throughout the novel?           
    7. Were you surprised that Skeeter and Stuart's relationship doesn't last? Did you like them as a couple?
  • Violence

    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

    1. Is physical violence ever used positively in the novel, such as when Celia saves Minny by beating her attacker with a fireplace poker?
    2. Why does Leroy say he beats Minny? What part do white women (especially Hilly) in town play in inciting Leroy to beat Minny?
    3. Robert is beaten and blinded for accidentally using a white bathroom; Mae Mobley gets beaten by her mother for using Aibileen's bathroom. Why?
    4. Why are white people allowed to hurt black people without punishment in the novel?
    5. Why are the black maids so afraid to tell their stories? What finally makes them change their minds?
    6. 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?
    7. When Minny laces Hilly's pie with poo, would you consider that an act of violence? Why or why not? Is it justified?
  • Gender

    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.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Judging from the want ads that Skeeter looks at, how would you describe the job market for women in town? How would you describe the job opportunities for black women in town?
    2. How does Celia Foote challenge the definition of "woman" in Jackson? Why is it that Jackson's women have a problem with her, while Jackson's men don't?
    3. Why is Constantine Skeeter's biggest female role model?
    4. How do Charlotte's goals for Skeeter change over the course of the novel, in terms of her extreme desire for Skeeter to get married, pronto?
    5. How would you analyze Skeeter's relationship with her mother?
    6. Take the theme of gender and apply it to some of the men in the novel – say to Treelore, Stuart, or Johnny Foote. What are the roles and norms for men in that society? How do they differ depending on social and economic class?
  • Education

    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.

    Questions About Education

    1. What are some important truths that each of the main characters learns? 
    2. What are white children taught by their parents and community about black people?
    3. What does Constantine teach Skeeter? What does Aibileen teach Mae Mobley?
    4. What do Aibileen and Skeeter teach each other?
    5. How does Mae Mobley resist the racism she encounters in school?
    6. How does Aibileen educate herself when she has to drop out of school to work?
    7. What reason does Hilly give for refusing to loan Yule May the money she needs for her sons' college education? What do you think of her argument? Have you ever heard it before?
    8. What do Minny and Celia learn about each other over the course of the novel?
  • Justice and Judgment

    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.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. What, if anything, will stop Hilly from hurting others?
    2. Does Minny's pie bring justice for herself and/or the other maids?     
    3. Will Jackson become a more just society as a result of the book Help?
    4. Why does the death of Aibileen's son Treelore make her more focused on the injustices she sees being done to herself and to others?