Subject Material

A Close Study of the Novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Published: 06.08.2012, Updated: 04.03.2017
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A newcomer to the literary genre of Southern fiction, Kathryn Stockett, was born in 1969 and raised in Jackson Mississippi. Her geographical birthplace and firsthand knowledge of the South and its historical legacy of slavery and racism have provided her with the background needed to follow the Southern tradition of literature.

Afro-Americans rallying for civil rights (1960)Afro-Americans rallying for civil rights (1960)As with Southern female writers of the past, i.e. Kate Chopin, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee and Alice Walker, to name just a few, Kathryn Stockett focuses her attention on strong female protagonists. Like her predecessors she uses the oral tradition of storytelling and Southern dialects. In her debut novel published in 2009; The Help, we find many elements inherited from past Southern novels: the historical significance of the town, its landscape and local customs, traditions, pride of heritage, respect for family, the emphasis on community and the role one plays in it, religion, humor, eccentricity, race, the interaction between blacks and whites, and the connection between the past and the present. In The Help the stories of three dynamic women deal with the problems of segregation and race relations taking place in  Mississippi in the 1960’s. The African-American Civil Rights Movement and the momentous historical events taking place at this time create a backdrop for a tale of loving compassion and sacrifice. A young, eccentric, white woman, Eugenia Phelan, and two black maids, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, speak out against inequality, institutionalized racism, cruelty and the lack of human rights. They risk isolation and brutal violence but choose to cross lines and tear down the old barriers between blacks and whites built up from the time of slavery and the establishment of the rigid Jim Crow laws. The publication of their book of interviews demonstrates their unyielding courage and rebellion against old Southern etiquette and traditions in a time of social change.

Comprehension - Close Reading

Chapters 1 and 2 Aibileen
Chapters 3 and 4 Minny
Chapters 5 and 6 Miss Skeeter
Chapter 7 Aibileen
Chapters 8 and 9 Miss Skeeter
Chapter 10 Minny
Chapters 11, 12 and 13 Miss Skeeter
Chapters 14, 15 and 16 Aibileen
Chapters 17 and 18 Minny
Chapters 19, 20 and 21 Miss Skeeter
Chapters 22 and 23 Aibileen
Chapter 24 Minny
Chapter 25 The Benefit
Chapter 26 Minny
Chapters 27 and 28 Miss Skeeter
Chapter 29 Aibileen
Chapter 30 Minny
Chapter 31 Aibileen
Chapter 32 Minny
Chapter 33 Miss Skeeter
Chapter 34 Aibileen

Discussion

Discuss the following with a partner

a) Child neglect and abuse Read more

• Mae Mobley is an example of a child neglected and abused.
• Psychological brain washing

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b) Conflict or tension Read More

• The main conflict in the story
• Other conflicts taking place between the various characters
• Discuss the relationship between Skeeter and her Mother. Why do you think she is forced to lie to her? How are they examples of two different worlds?
• Discuss the scene between Mrs Phelan and Lulabelle Bates. Could the scene have been avoided in any way? How?

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c) Comic relief Read more

• Which scenes or episodes can be said to be both comic and tragic?

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d) Suspense Read more

• How does Kathryn Stockett build up suspense in the novel?
• Which scenes are the most exciting?

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Literary Analysis

Setting

a) Where and when does the story take place?
b) Kathryn Stockett juxtaposes historical and political events with the everyday lives of the characters. Why is this significant?
c) Why does she pay so much attention to seasonal changes and the weather?

Characterization

a) Make a character table using the character traits below of the following characters: Aibileen Clark, Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, Elizabeth Leefolt, Hilly Holbrook, Minny Jackson, Celia Foote, Mrs Charlotte Phelan, Stuart Whitworth, Constantine Bates. Then discuss with a partner why you think a character may be put into the category of stereotype, static or developing. Read more

• Age and physical appearance
• Personality traits
• Language patterns
• Stereotype
• Static character
• Developing character

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Plot and Structure

a) Sum up the plot of the story
b) How is the plot structured?
d) Turning points Read more

There are many small turning points in the novel that Kathryn Stockett uses to stir our interest. i.e., In Chapter 7, Robert Brown is beaten at the same time Skeeter decides to persuade Aibileen to be interviewed.
• Can you find other such examples?
• What chapter would you consider as THE turning point or climax of the novel? Why?

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Narrators and Point of View

a) Who are the narrators of the story?
b) How does their storytelling differ from one another?
d) Does the author speak through them?

Theme

a) Many of the themes in The Help revolve around the story of human suffering and social grievances of Afro-Americans in the 60’s. Choose one of the following themes and write an essay where you discuss and exemplify how the theme is developed in the novel. Read more

• love and compassion
• crossing the lines
• change
• cultural codes

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Style

a) Language Read More

• Kathryn Stockett belongs to a Southern oral tradition of storytelling where the protagonists use rich dialects to tell their narratives. What is characteristic of the way the three protagonists use language? Can you find any stock phrases or expressions that are individual to our narrators?

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b) Symbols Read more

• Minny’s chocolate pie in Chapter 2, and the azalia bush and mimosa tree in Chapter 4 are symbols we find in the novel. What do you think they symbolize? Can you find other symbols?

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c) Irony Read more

• Irony is a manner of expression where the author says one thing but means the exact opposite. Can you find any examples of this in the book?

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Writing

a) Using your character table, write a character portrayal of two of your favorite characters. Discuss Read more

• How have their family backgrounds influenced their actions?
• What do they symbolize?
• What is it that you like or dislike about them?

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b) The Jim Crow Laws in the South were examples of institutional discrimination enacted in the USA from 1876- 1965. They supported the “Separate but equal” status of American blacks. Equally discriminatory is the ignorant prejudice we find in the novel. Do the following: Read more

• Read through the novel and pick out examples.
•Then write an essay where you discuss the concept of ignorant prejudice.
• What must be done to change peoples’ opinions and attitudes towards racism?

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Project Work

a) Go online and find material on the history and conditions for African-Americans during the 50’s and 60’s. Give a brief outline including the following aspects: Read more

• The Civil Rights Movement
• the bus boycotts – Rosa Parks
• school segregation – Little Rock Arkensas
• demonstrations and non-violent action
• protests against Jim Crow laws
• Martin Luther King jr.
• The march on Washington D.C.
• The Civil Rights Act
• The Voting Rights Act
• Black Power

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Then make a digital presentation of your findings to the class including the music of the times, historical photos from magazines and newspapers found online.