A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.
But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.
The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.” This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease. (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)
The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns. By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.
Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.
The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.
There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.
I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.
There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..