Racism manifests in the lives of the black maids in a number of ways: they are denied opportunities for educational or professional advancement, they perform repetitive work for white families, they must curtail their speech to prevent violence, and they must use separate facilities. Perhaps most damaging of all, black people are constantly exposed to social messages telling them that they are dirty, lazy, and in all respects less than white people.
Even the way the book is written hearkens back to this central theme. When writing from the perspective of the black maids Aibileen and Minny, Stockett uses an antiquated form of speech. While this is meant to lend authenticity to their voices, it also makes them sound uneducated and makes it somewhat difficult to relate to them.
The Helpalso suggests that it is possible to cross this racial divide. In addition to anecdotes about rude or abusive employers, we hear stories of maids who have very close relationships with the white families for whom they work. Through her efforts to be a mouthpiece for the black maids of Jackson, Skeeter develops a close friendship with Aibileen and Minny. It's possible, through effort and understanding, to begin to heal the wounds of racism.
Mothers and daughters have difficult but deeply loving relationships. The Help examines several different types of mother-daughter relationships.
Elizabeth Leefolt has a strained relationship with her mother, who is aloof and demanding; she continues this unhealthy dynamic by being neglectful and critical of her own daughter, Mae Mobley. There's also an indication that mother-daughter relationships are not necessarily dependent on blood ties. For example, Aibileen acts as a mother to Mae Mobley, not only taking care of her day-to-day needs but also teaching her to be kind to others and to always have respect for herself.
Skeeter has a difficult but loving relationship with her mother, who is constantly pressuring her daughter to dress better and catch a man. Skeeter later discovers that this critical edge is tempered by love; her mother has cancer, and she wants to make sure her daughter has a good life after she is gone. Though Skeeter's mother often bosses her daughter, she also stands up for her at critical moments, such as during her conflicts with Hilly and Stuart.
The Help takes a close look at many types of love, some of them unlikely and fraught with difficulties. The close bond between black caretakers and white children (Aibileen and Mae Mobley, as well as Skeeter and Constantine) show that nurturing love is not limited to blood relationships. As we see later in the book, this bond is often unfairly complicated by the strictures of a racist society.
Because of her new consciousness regarding race, Skeeter causes a rupture in her friendships with Hilly and Elizabeth Leefolt. Through a series of events (the discovery of the Jim Crow materials, the toilet prank, Hilly's comment about Stuart), these lifelong friendships are torn apart. But we also see how new friendships can emerge out of the ashes of old ones: it is Aibileen and Minny with whom Skeeter celebrates her new job in New York City.
The novel also focuses on different types of romantic love. Despite his affection for Skeeter, Stuart cannot get over the betrayal of his fiancée, Patricia van Devender, and his attempts to build a new relationship with Skeeter continuously fail. On the other hand, Celia and Johnny have a deeply loving relationship, triumphing over class differences, infertility, and social disapproval.
What does it mean to be a writer? The journey to publish the book is not an easy one. After an initial stroke of luck in catching Elaine Stein's attention, Skeeter struggles to develop her ideas, conduct interviews, write the book, and find a publisher. Each step is fraught with difficulties; for example, she must complete the book in only a few weeks in order to send it in for the annual editor's meeting. Skeeter spends many long nights typing until her hands are covered with ink and paper cuts, but she ultimately prevails.
Skeeter is not the only prospective writer in the book. Despite her academic excellence, Aibileen was forced to drop out of school to support her family. However, she writes down her prayers every day, continuing to build her skills in writing. Assisting Skeeter with the book about the maids gives her the chance to showcase her writing skills, and she eventually becomes the first black author of the Miss Myrna column. At the end of the novel, she thinks about developing her writing career even more.
The varying difficulties faced by women constitute another major theme in the book. In the workplace, Minny struggles with the possibility of being fired due to her outspoken personality; at home, she is violently abused by her husband. Aibileen must cope with the sorrow of her son's untimely death at the same time that she tries to support the neglected Mae Mobley. Skeeter is struggling with a world that does not value her professional ambitions and tries to force her into the narrow roles of wife and mother. Celia Foote deals with a series of miscarriages and her social isolation, which is worsened by her desire to be a capable wife to her beloved husband. Each of these women struggle to overcome these difficulties, but they also forge close bonds with other women over shared problems.
Even when everything in the world is trying to tell you what to do and what to believe, you need to make your own path. The central protagonists recognize that the current state of race relations is wrong, and work to correct it. Aibileen strives to teach racial equality and acceptance to Mae Mobley. Minny persists in working on the book about the maids despite the danger it puts her in with her own husband and Hilly. Skeeter continues working towards racial justice despite the rift it causes between her and her two best friends.
The Help is a window onto the mid-century south, giving the reader vivid impressions of the beautiful landscapes and warm culture. This includes positive qualities such as friendliness and generosity; we see these close social ties in the ways that family members treat one another. Yet it also includes racism, segregation, and misogyny, which are evident in the violent enforcement of the separation between races, and the lack of professional options for white women.
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.