In a sense, racism will never truly be eradicated in our society; we are programmed to categorise people and notice these variations of humanity. The Help by Katherine Stockett (2009) is a novel which depicts the segregation and racial prejudice present during the 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi. The novel contains both factual and fictional elements which bring together a powerful narrative, displayed through the different perspectives of the characters. Main characters in the novel include Aibileen: a wise, reserved black maid, who has helped raise seventeen white children in her lifetime, Skeeter: a young, white college graduate who comes from a wealthy Southern family and Minny: a mother of five who refuses to restrain her outspoken personality, even though it gets her into trouble. The novel focuses on its main characters, led by Skeeter who writes a book depicting the lives of the ‘coloured’ help. Through a variety of different narrative conventions and my understanding of context, I can reflect on the characters’ situations during the time of the 1960s. Conventions such as point of view, character development, setting, conflict and characterisation, have been used to make me respond to certain events and characters within the novel.
Through my knowledge of historical context during the 1960s; an era of social injustice and prejudice, I can respond to the character of Aibileen as she depicts a warm, compassionate woman who bares racial oppression with a quiet resilience. The narrative conventions of conflict and my understanding of Mississippi both cause me to respond in a respectful manner towards Aibileen. Despite the social oppression inflicted on ‘coloured’ people and acted upon by ‘white’ people, Aibileen still manages to love and care for ‘white’ babies as if they are her own. For example, the lessons Aibileen tries to give to Mae Mobley (a white child she cares for) revolved around ideas such as self-love and racial equality. In The Help, Aibileen desires to “stop that moment from coming – and it comes in every child’s life – when they start to think that coloured folks ain’t as good as whites” (Page 96). Aibileen tries to break the cycle of racism by presenting Mae Mobley with alternative ways of thinking about race, as she believed that people aren’t born with racist ideas, but rather they are passed from generation to generation. Aibileen took the risk of educating Mae Mobley about civil rights and racial equality, even though it was considered unlawful to transgress the “Jim Crow Laws”: laws of racial segregation directed against black people, which could have resulted in physical and social penalties. This caused me to feel respectful, as Aibileen is an inspiring character within the novel, promoting racial equality with a quiet reproach. Similarly, using the narrative convention of setting, I can interpret and respond to events that occurred within The Help, particularly the part where Aibileen received a new, segregated bathroom, located outside of the house. The introduction of the novel gives readers a sense of who Aibileen is in society and even though Aibileen does not directly mention that she lives in Mississippi, her dialect suggests a Southern, lower-class setting. Aibileen alludes to the tensions between Southern maids and “mamas”, who coexist in the same homes yet are divided by institutionalised personal racism. The most blatant sign of this personal racism occurred when Hilly Holbrook; a white housewife, forbids maids from using the bathrooms in the home, due to the irrational reasoning that black people carry diseases. This event itself is better understood by the setting, as it reflects factual events that occurred during the era of the 1960s. The representation of the setting, as well as the factual events, both caused me to respond in an appalled manner towards the situation Aibileen faced along with other coloured people. Through the narrative conventions of conflict and setting, I can interpret both the character of Aibileen and the events involving racial inequality and segregation. These aspects are better understood, due to my contextual understanding of historical events that occurred during the 1960s in Mississippi.
In the novel, Stockett also highlights the issue of social hierarchy that occurred for women during the 1960s. Through my contextual understanding, I can respond to the character of Skeeter within The Help, as she reflects a self-determined and independent woman, defying social norms. The narrative convention of point of view and my contextual knowledge of Mississippi, both cause me to respond in awe and admiration towards Skeeter as, despite the limitation of interactions between ‘white’ and ‘black’ people as set by the Jim Crow Laws, her attitude towards them remained humane and respectful, regardless of having a minor understanding of their situation. For example, in Skeeter’s perspective when Aibileen describes her life story, Skeeter thinks, “I expected the stories to be sweet, glossy. I realised I might be getting more than I bargained for” (page 151). Skeeter realises that the nature of the lives of these ‘coloured’ maids is not at all what she had expected; what she thought would be trivial stories of cleaning and child rearing turn out to include rape, abuse and humiliation. Skeeter’s time spent writing the book with Aibileen helped to develop a real friendship, as she notices the demeaning ways in which her friends treat their ‘help’ and develops an understanding of the perspectives of the black women, causing a distaste for her white, socialite ‘friends’. This encouraged me to feel admiration for Skeeter, as she is not influenced by the other white women, who are only in support of segregation in their community for social power and status. Similarly, through the use of the narrative convention of character development, I am able to interpret and respond to events that occurred within The Help, particularly the part when Skeeter was thrown out of ‘The League’. The League consisted of white housewives who claim to advocate for the children of Africa through charity events and benefits. In the novel, due to Skeeter’s ‘malicious’ actions, as claimed by head member; Hilly, she was no longer welcome to be part of The League. These events all began after Skeeter edits a newsletter announcement so that members of the League drop off ‘old toilets’ instead of ‘coats’ at Hilly’s house. This event itself is better understood by Skeeter’s character development; as the novel progresses, Skeeter transformed from who she was raised to be, to an independent, brave woman who chooses her own path – despite the danger she may experience. This character development and the unexpected events, cause me to respond in awe towards Skeeter, as I understand the boundaries of white and black people during the era of racial oppression. Skeeter defied the social norms in her community and took a stand for what she believed was right. Through point of view and character development, I can interpret both the character of Skeeter and the event that lead to her exclusion from The League. These aspects are further understood due to my contextual understanding of the issues, that occurred for women during the 1960s.
Knowing the contextual information depicted in The Help, which includes the issues of both segregation and social hierarchy, I can respond to the character of Minny, as she is illustrated as having a mix of strength and vulnerability. The narrative convention of characterisation and my understanding of Mississippi in the 1960s, both cause me to respond in a proud manner towards Minny as, although her strong personality gets her in trouble, she is willing to stand up against the injustices she experiences. For example, as Minny stands at her employer, Celia’s, door, she stated to herself, “Tuck it in Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind, too. Look like a maid who does what she’s told” (page 30). Due to having difficulty finding a job, Minny tries to behave herself, in order to be employed by Celia. Minny is not a maid who does what she is told. Unlike Aibileen, who sometimes says things she doesn’t want to, just to keep out of trouble, Minny’s attitude clashes with what her mother tried to teach her. However, Minny’s tough, sarcastic exterior hides her vulnerability. This causes me to feel proud of her character as, despite being vulnerable, Minny remains fiercely determined to provide for her children and to give them a better life. Similarly, using point of view, I can interpret and respond to the events that occurred within The Help, particularly when Minny gave Hilly a ‘taste’ of her own medicine. In the novel, Minny’s point of view on the situations in their community differs from Aibileen’s, as Minny took it to another level of revenge. Minny uses her pies to subvert the power dynamics in the home. After Hilly jeopardises Minny’s chances of ever finding work again, Minny makes a pie including a “special ingredient” of her own faeces, and watches Hilly savour two slices before telling her the truth. In this event, Minny humiliates and degrades Hilly as an act of revenge, but also gains power over her. This act also targets Hilly’s racist belief that black people carry diseases. By feeding Hilly two slices of excrement pie without her getting sick, Minny illustrates the truth that black people do not carry racially-specific diseases. This event causes me to feel in favour of Minny’s actions, as Hilly was deserving of that ‘special pie’. Through characterisation and point of view, I can interpret both the character of Minny and the event, and these aspects are further understood due to my understanding of the historical context of the 1960s in Mississippi.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett, is a powerful novel that contains both factual and fictional events which occurred during the 1960s, displayed from the perspectives of different characters. Through my understanding of the historical context of Mississippi, as well as the use of different narrative conventions, I am able to respond to the characters and the events presented in the novel. Through the use of conflict and setting, I was encouraged to respond to the character of Aibileen in a respectful manner, but also felt outraged due to the extreme inequality experienced by African-Americans. Point of view and character development were used to present the character of Skeeter, and depicted the issue of social hierarchy, causing me to respond in admiration towards Skeeter’s character and her ability to stand up for what she believed was right. Finally, through the use of the narrative conventions of point of view and characterisation used to portray the character of Minny, I responded in a proud manner, as, despite the social oppression in their community, she remained strong and fiercely determined. Through reading the perspectives of characters and my own understanding of the historical context, I am now more respectful towards African-Americans, not only to those who lived during the 1960s, but also to the people in our modern society.
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