Hello, my dear strangers! 🙂
When I first began reading The Help, I couldn’t help but be drawn in the story immediately. Having already seen the movie, I just knew I had to get my hands on it and quench my thirst for further details. As the plot progressed, I became more and more mesmerised by it and its wonderful characters.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is the writing style. It bothered me a bit at first, mainly because a) it felt too simplified and b) I felt it broke the sacred show-don’t-tell rule way too often. However, as the novel progressed, I found that it somehow worked. Whether because of its themes or the inexperience and naivety of its characters, anyway – somehow it just worked.
The amount of humiliation these characters went through is enough to make even the calmest person out there foam at the mouth. So much ignorance, so many limitations, so many rules. It’s downright unbearable. It’s interesting to draw parallels between the white and the black women portrayed in the novel and realise that both groups, albeit with drastic differences, suffered similar limitations. None of these characters started out free. They were all bound somehow, by societal norms, by the notions of appropriateness, by the time period, by the backwardness of their small worlds. The author has managed to seamlessly blend in her simple writing style with these, at times horrifying scenes, and give each character a unique voice of their own. Even without the title cards announcing which character’s point of view we’d be following in the next few chapters, you’d be able to guess whose story was about to be pushed to the forefront.
The three main characters – Aibileen, Skeeter and Minny – are all immensely interesting and perfectly planned out. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about character development, looking at my friends, family members, people I know, but mostly myself, trying to identify all those quirky, contrasting traits that make us who we are. We are such spectacular, jumbled up, complex people in reality, but it’s hard to put all that on paper faithfully. For all my effort, my own characters sometimes come across as one-dimensional and devoid of any real personalities. I suppose that’s something most fledgling writers struggle with. Not Kathryn Stockett, though. She managed to flesh out complex, rounded characters that feel so real, you can almost feel the pages breathing under your fingertips. Even minor characters considered too airheaded to hold a thought or think on their own, such as Elizabeth, have dimension to them, little details planted throughout the book that tell us more about those characters and teach us that minor characters need not be underdeveloped or neglected.
Aibileen is a stoic woman who not only lives under the same restrictions all black women lived under at the time, but experiences another, even more unbearable burden on her soul. The callous death of her only child leaves her cold and emotionally distant to almost everyone. From her perspective, the events of the novel may be interpreted not only as her own, personal liberation and unburdening, but also as a means of healing and coming to terms with her son’s death. Even though that’s the kind of sorrow one never gets over, Aibileen still manages to survive her plight and resurface as a liberated woman.
Minny is interesting in her own right. On the one hand, she is a sassy woman few dare to cross. On the other, she continues to walk on eggshells and put up with her brutish husband, despite a previous sour experience with drinkers. When we first meet her, we get an impression that this is a woman who’d never accept to live a certain way, at least until we’re given a peek into her inner insecurity and the quiet paranoia which makes her cling to her abusive partner. It’s not just his unpredictable nature that Minny has to deal with. After getting on Hilly’s bad side, Minny is forced to accept a job with an odd woman whose quietly strange ways make her want to pull her hair out. In the end however, after six children, an alcoholic husband, dozens of families she’s had to work for and an opportunity to express herself and tell the world everything she feels, Minny gets her freedom. Abandoning a husband and taking your kids away from him was, I presume, difficult in those times even for white women, let alone black ones. However, Minny manages to do it and gains her independence and liberation.
Skeeter is a child of privilege. That may not mean much in the 60s, not for a woman, not even for a wealthy, white woman, but Skeeter’s nature allows her to dream for more and fight for more. A twentieth-century equivalent of Jo March, Skeeter is a little girl with big dreams, high morals, a gift for writing and a courage that stretches far beyond the small world she was raised in. She is most probably the one I relate to the most. Even with all the privileges she enjoys, Skeeter still encounters various obstacles on her road to prove her worth, the first and most shackling ones being the societal norms she’s expected to live within. Her mother and her friends have taken it upon themselves to correct Skeeter’s appearance, interests and manners, all for the noble quest of finding her a husband. Skeeter knows that there is a much bigger world out there, a world beyond the cocooned bubble of her surroundings. Out there somewhere is a world where women can work fulltime without being scorned and looked down on, a world where a husband and kids aren’t a priority in one’s early 20s, a world where education and free thinking are encouraged. Skeeter longs to join that world and longs to integrate it into her own town, a place with little resemblance to it. She starts by telling the truth, by acknowledging all the faults that exist in her own backyard and then by working to correct them or, at least, raise people’s awareness about them. By the end of the novel, she’s gone through experiencing a different world so far removed from her own, through first love and heartbreak, through learning more about her mother and is on her way to bring changes. She too has found liberation.
There are many other characters that go through liberation in this novel, such as Celia and Skeeter’s mother and then there are those who remain the same people they’ve been on page one. Her fleeting moments of lucidity aside, Elizabeth proves to be a weak person, one unable to cross over into a better existence. She’s likely to stay Hilly’s lapdog for the remainder of her life, a person dominated by rules and regulations, her mother and her bleak friendships. All her life, Elizabeth’s allowed to be pushed around by others, unable to carve her own path and yet, unable to say ‘no’ to the things she wasn’t ready for. She is too immature to handle a family, yet finds herself with a husband and two kids because that was the kind of thing she was expected to do.
Hilly, with all her domineering ways, is herself trapped. Trapped by her fear of change, trapped by society’s expectations, trapped by the very burden of being Hilly Holbrook. The very persona she had created for herself is slowly becoming her prison cell. The reputation she had fought to establish is beginning to drown her. By the end of the novel, she is still crude and hard on the surface, yet desperate and more frightened than ever on the inside. The world is changing before her very eyes, yet she isn’t capable of embracing this change and keeps running into dead ends. The reader is left to wonder what will happen to the youngest characters in the book, the ones whose opinions are still not set in stone. Little Mae Mobley (what a stupid name) has plenty of time to grow and mature and we can only hope Aibileen’s teachings will prevail over her mother’s influence.
It is difficult to look at people we love and realise just how flawed they are. Skeeter’s perspective of the two maternal figures in her life changes drastically over the course of the novel. Her love for Constantine and Charlotte is still there, perhaps stronger than before, but her perspective has definitely shifted. Skeeter comes to learn more about them, about their decisions and their regrets. At times, these revelations make her think less of them, perhaps even question her own feelings for them, though all of this gets pretty much smoothed out before the end. However, Skeeter adopts a new, more mature way of thinking and realises that both immense love and immense cruelty may exist within a same person.
Skeeter’s reaction to what her mother’s done to Constantine is particularly captivating, as it captures perfectly that fine balance we all experience, that moment when you finally see the person you love for who they really are. No more walls, no more pretences, only truth. Skeeter can’t help loving Charlotte, especially with her being so sick and frail, yet cannot reconcile herself to accepting her own mother was capable of such deplorable actions. Those are the hard truths we must live with for the sake of people we love. Loving them, sometimes even against our better judgement, means living with the awful things they’ve done, loving them despite those actions.
The most sobering fact about this novel is that, while it may be a work of fiction, inspiration for it was drawn from reality. Women faced practically insurmountable odds in their quest to find themselves and many succumbed to the life that had been planned out for them. It’s interesting that the plot of the novel is set in a time which represents the first rebellion, somewhere between the deeply ingrained family values of the 50s and the rebellion and breaking out of the 60s. The golden age of Hollywood-like dresses and hairdos is slowly being left behind, with people aching to usher in a new era in which anything is possible. It’s certainly an exciting time, but I glad I’m not there. I’d be too exhausted to wage wars every single day, trying to make my surroundings liveable for the kind of woman I want to be, having to wait for decades before any real, tangible change comes. Circumstances are still not perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a woman today than it was fifty years ago.
The Help is a wonderfully written novel teeming with serious themes and downright heart wrenching scenes. Norms are challenged, characters pushed to the brink of sanity. The novel offers many difficult questions, some of which are still under debate, even today. One thing is certain, though. There are no easy answers in it, only a mature portrait of a world in which there are two sides to every story, a world in which we are faced with perplexing events every day, a world in which nothing is ever black and white.
Keep reading 🙂