The fiction of The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s popular and controversial novel, The Help, gained more attention last year with its release as a movie.  The book follows the story of Skeeter Phelan, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, as they compile the stories of various African American domestic workers in a sociological book, called Help, and seek its publication among the racial tensions of the 1960s and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.  The novel has been called into question for its authenticity and treatment of the African American experience, but it has also raised my concern by its perpetuation of certain stereotypes and its concluding treatment of Aibileen and Minny.

(Aibileen) “‘I told her, let the regular old history books tell it.  White people been representing colored opinions since the beginning a time.’”  (Stockett 150)

Stockett has been criticized for how she wrote The Help.  In the afterword, she strongly suggests that she modeled some of the characters, namely Minny and Aibileen, on the maid her family hired during her childhood, Demetrie.  However, while the book in the novel is written ethnographically through interviews, Stockett wrote from her memory of growing up in Mississippi.  As Duchess Harris, PhD, notes in The Feminist Wire, since Stockett couldn’t ask Demetrie about her experience, why didn’t she ask “another Black domestic, or at least read some memoirs on the subject”?  She instead “substitutes her imagination for understanding.”  Stockett notes in the afterword that, by writing in New York, she gained “perspective.”  In this way, the authenticity of her representation of African American women is questionable.  If she is merely writing from memory and imagination, how can she truly describe the experience of African American women?  Specifically reviewers have criticized how, at one point, Aibileen describes a cockroach as “Blacker than me” (Stockett 222).

Also in the afterword, Stockett addresses her worry over writing in the voice of an African American person.  This fear seems spread throughout the book, as characters frequently criticize Skeeter, a white woman, for writing about African American women.  Without these in-text examples of disapproval, the novel would not be believable; Skeeter would doubtlessly have been criticized in this way.  However, it could also be argued that Stockett pointedly included so many of these criticisms as a way of either acknowledging the impending criticism aimed at her for doing the same thing, or as her way of covering herself and meeting that criticism before it was voiced.

Actresses from the film, L to R: Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard

(Skeeter)  “Wasn’t that the point of the book?  For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.” (Stockett 492)

Stockett draws attention to this quote in her afterword, calling it a line she prizes.  It is a message that is expressed by the book in general, especially in Aibileen and Skeeter’s, and Aibileen and Mae Mobley’s relationships.  But while this is an important epiphanic moment in the novel, its message seems to fall short in the results of the novel itself.  It also appears to prop up Stockett’s attempts to write African American characters’ voices:  If we are all really so similar, should it be so hard to write across race, and create an authentic representation of another’s experience?  With all the criticism Stockett has received, her worry about writing across race in the first place, and Stockett’s purposeful indication of that line after commenting on this worry in the afterword, it seems impossible to not consider this question.  It’s a different kind of line than those that Aibileen and others in the novel are confronting, but Stockett seems to suggest that they are just as much societal constructions.

But while it is vitally important not to let the line lose its original meaning, Stockett does not handle writing across races in an even manner.  Jessie Kunhardt, writing for The Huffington Post, quoted two review that drew attention to how Stockett divides the characters by use of dialect.  Erin Aubry Kaplan, for Powell’s Books, asked, “Why must blacks speak dialect to be authentic? Why are Stockett’s white characters free of the linguistic quirks that white Southerners certainly have?”  Similarly, The Christian Science Monitor noted “nary a dropped ‘g’” among the white characters.  As a child of the South, Stockett would have known to include such variations in ways speaking for nearly any character; as for myself I know even today speech patterns such as the dropped “g” persist.

Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes

(Minny)  “I just… I want things to be better for the kids,’” I say.  “But it’s a sorry fact that it’s a white woman doing this.”  (Stockett 255)

Harris continues in her article in The Feminist Wire by drawing attention to the concern that “our popular culture obsession is with the ‘largely fictional’ book, The Help,” rather than other, more credible sources, such as Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir of growing up in 1960s rural Mississippi.  Where this focus on a novel could provide an opportunity for deconstructionist critique, Harris notes that it instead becomes exemplary of how African American women were alienated by the second wave of the Feminist Movement.  Skeeter, the “budding feminist” of the novel, “uses the stories of the Black domestics in the name of “sisterhood” to launch her own career, and then leaves them behind.”  Or, as Janet Maslin writes in The New York Times, “It’s a story that purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions.”  Although Skeeter initially doesn’t want to leave because of the increasingly tense response to the publication of Help, she is very easily convinced to leave.  However, because the end of the novel moves through time much more quickly than the rest of the novel, it seems as though Skeeter debates for very little time about leaving.

Jennifer Williams in Ms. Magazine describes the novel as “being marketed as ‘a human story’ that affirms that we are all the same underneath.”  It provides an “escape” for those who believe in “the fantasy of a postracial America,” who “can tuck the history of race and class inequality safely in the past,” while the current recession augments already deep racial gaps in wealth and employment.

(Gretchen)  “Look at you.  Another white lady trying to make a dollar off of colored people.”  (Stockett 304)

Another way Stockett has been criticized has been the credit and benefits of the book.  With the real-life woman, Ablene Cooper, who claims Aibileen is modeled after her, it is interesting that Stockett makes such a point of the maids in the book profiting from Help’s publication as much as Skeeter.  However, despite all the ways that Cooper, who worked for Stockett’s brother’s family for twelve years, resembles the Aibileen of Stockett’s novel, Stockett is fighting the claim.

Maybe I should be careful. She might hunt me down for writing this post.

(Aibileen)  “The only thing that bothers me is the who-it-be-by part.  It say by Anonymous.  I wish Miss Skeeter could a put her name on it, but it was just too much of a risk.”  (Stockett 462)

In the book, it seems as if Aibileen contributes toward the writing and editing of the book as much as Skeeter does; however, she does not wish she could see her own name on the cover along with Skeeter’s.  The reader is meant to assume that, because Skeeter had the idea and started the project, Aibileen sees her as the primary contributor.  But it is noted several times that the project would never have moved forward without Aibileen’s help.  Without her, there would be no book, only Aibileen and Skeeter’s stories; Aibileen also does a great deal to help with the editing of the book, since from the beginning Skeeter notes Aibileen’s beautiful style of writing.  Denying her own equal contribution to the book, along with Aibileen’s comparison of her color to the cockroach’s, both seem to be passages that present Aibileen as unconsciously devaluing herself and her work.  Because Stockett calls no attention at all to these considerations, it is suggested that she is unconscious of them as well, thereby indirectly reinforcing the issue of the devaluation of African Americans in general.

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(Minny)  “We don’t talk about me leaving Leroy.  Plenty of black men leave their families behind like trash in a dump, but it’s just not something the colored woman do.  We’ve got the kids to think about.”  (Stockett 366)

(Minny)  “They think big strong Minny, she sure can stand up for herself.  But they don’t know what a pathetic mess I turn into when Leroy’s beating on me.  I’m afraid to hit back.  I’m afraid he’ll leave me if I do.”  (Stockett 485)

Stockett brings up a highly charged issue with Minny’s abuse.  She also includes current elements of it—such as how Minny is assumed to be the stereotypical strong, black woman.  This stereotype today makes it difficult for some women to escape abusive relationships, due to the idealization of the stereotype and the pressure to fulfill it.  I think it is really important that Stockett brings this issue up, even if it is only given as one element of the story and is not fully examined; I have not found any articles myself that fully delve into its inclusion in the novel.  People’s reactions to realizing Minny is abused, such as Aibileen’s, and their uncertainty of whether or how they should address it, is authentic and believable.  However, I take issue with how Minny’s abuse is resolved in the ending.

(Minny)  “Leroy don’t know what Minny Jackson about to become.”  (Stockett 515)

(Aibileen)  “Maybe I ain’t too old to start over.”  (Stockett 522)

I dislike how in the end of the novel each of the three main women are “freed.”  Although Skeeter splits the proceeds from the book evenly among herself and the maids, she is given full credit for its compilation and editing, despite being published as “Anonymous.”  Elaine Stein, and likely some other workers at Harper & Row, know only Skeeter as the book’s source.  Skeeter reaps the benefits of this in being rewarded with a job in New York.  Aibileen, who contributed almost as much as Skeeter, gets only Skeeter’s old job at the newspaper, for which she will receive no recognition because of the nature of the job and because she is African American.  While much of this is a result of the time period and discrimination, Skeeter benefits much more from the publication of Help than any of the other contributors do.

Viola Davis (L) as Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer (R) as Minny Jackson in the film

“Aibileen shakes her head.  ‘I used to believe in em.  I don’t anymore.  They in our heads.  People like Miss Hilly is always trying to make us believe they there.  But they ain’t.’”  (Stockett 367)

However, Minny and Aibileen do benefit in some ways.  Both women gain a sense of accomplish and relief in the publication of Help.  The book gives them both the confidence and, partially, the means to “free” themselves.  But in many ways, it seems that book, and Skeeter by extension as its primary benefactor, are the main sources of this freedom; neither woman frees herself, but is freed by the book.

Aibileen, fired because of her involvement and contributions, is left with only the job that Skeeter procured for her and with the monetary benefits of the book for which Skeeter received recognition.  The novel ends hopefully, as Aibileen contemplates writing other things on her own, but Aibileen is still financially unstable because of the book, despite what Skeeter has given her.

Minny, whose job is secure, is only able to leave her husband because of the proceeds from the book, and because the book gives Aibileen the ability to encourage Minny to leave.  This I take the most issue with.  Along with the other considerations stated above on the treatment in the novel of Minny’s abuse, this ending seems to suggest that Minny would have stayed with her abusive husband if Skeeter had never had the idea for the book.  Minny’s moment of strength is belittled by its dependence on Help.  I believe her character deserved a more personal development toward being able to leave Leroy.  In this way, I am also critiquing the hasty conclusion of a book that spent so much time leading up to a great change.  We get all the build up, but only a quick period of resolution.

I am not suggesting that Minny needed to fill the stereotype of “strong, black woman” more and simply find the strength suddenly to leave on her own.  I think Minny is an incredibly strong character who deserved an ending worthy of her strength.  She is the kind of character who would have been able to free her own self, and be even stronger because of it.  Readers are forced to follow closely the progression of Skeeter’s anticipation, her mother’s illness, etc., and therefore we get little, if any, of Minny’s thought process in her decision to leave Leroy.

It is notable that while Stockett’s novel is called The Help, the book within the novel is simply called Help.  As a reader I anticipated the characters changing this, but they never did.  By simply being called Help, the book seems unsuitably like a cry for help from the maids whose stories fill its pages.  Additionally, the book is presented as the unerring beacon that frees Aibileen and Minny, two strong characters who deserved the agency Stockett denies them in this ending.

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I don’t only find fault with Stockett’s novel.  I believe it is a well-written novel, despite its obvious flaws.  As Miss Jenkins points out in her blog post on the book, “Did she get it 100% right? Probably not. But then again, I have never been a black maid in Jackson or anywhere, so I can’t say for sure.”

However, unlike Miss Jenkins, Stockett was unable to truly take me “out of my reality.”  I was forever confronting this reality, and Stockett’s treatment of it.  If Stockett’s novel succeeds in any way though, it benefits readers by bringing up the questions I’ve tried to raise in this blog post, both about the reaches of literature and literary voice, and about our society in general.  Perhaps more than a few readers will now reach for more authentic accounts of the fictional lives they sought to read about in Stockett’s novel, and in this way they will reach deeper into the truth, past the “harsh yet still comfortable, reader-friendly world.”

Have you read Stockett’s novel or seen the movie?  What questions did it raise for you?  What did you like/dislike about it?

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Remembering Adrienne Rich

I meant to post something earlier to commemorate Adrienne Rich‘s life; her work greatly impacted me during my study abroad program.

This will be an unusual post, and I’m probably crossing a few of the “don’ts” of blogging.  Below is excerpted part of a piece I wrote for my final undergraduate English class, including MLA citations.  I feel it accurately expresses some of the things that have been on my mind about Rich since her recent death.  As this is a writing blog, I don’t intend for it to become too political.  However, feel free to discuss Adrienne Rich and her work in the comments section of this post.  How has her work impacted you?

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Adrienne Rich published her first book of poetry in 1951.  W.H. Auden described the poetry therein as “neatly and modestly dressed”; like much of Rich’s early work, it was notable for its formalism and “emotional containment” (Cook 503).

Rich had first developed as a writer by reading primarily canonical poetry.  In “Blood, Bread, and Poetry,” she noted that her world view was shaped by such poetry as that by white Anglo-Saxon men (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 506).  The resulting aesthetic ideology Rich originally adhered to led her to believe in all art, and poetry in particular, as “the expression of a higher world view,” an achievement of “universality” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 506).  In this way, Rich tried to think and act like poetry was a gender-neutral space (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).

However, as she began to read more philosophical texts, many of which connected freedom to revolt, Rich began to “taste the concrete reality of being unfree, how continuous and permeating and corrosive a condition it is, and how it is maintained through culture as much as through the use of force” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 509).  In this time, poetry became to Rich something less general, and more personal.  Rich became more aware of how patriarchal society induced a kind of mental fragmentation.  This realization led Rich to the conclusion that “Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant culture is at risk from this mental fragmentation”—in her case woman from poet—“and needs an art which can resist it” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).

Rich with Audre Lorde (L) and Meridel Le Sueur (M) in 1980

Rich communicates this idea in her poem “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” which quotes Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist thinkers: “To have in this uncertain world some stay/ which cannot be undermined, is/ of the utmost consequence.” (qtd. in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2624).  For Rich, this “stay” or stronghold for feminism became the art of poetry, through which Rich establishes strength and voices resistance to male dominance and chauvinism.

Mary Wollstonecraft, credited as as one of the founding feminist philosophers

Rich’s new way of writing was criticized at first.  She engaged such major political events as the emergence of feminism (Cook 503).  In 1963, when she published Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, a book influenced by her new consciousness of sexual politics, Rich was “told, in print, that this work was ‘bitter,’ ‘personal’; that [she] had sacrificed the sweetly flowing measures of [her] earlier books for ragged line and a coarsened voice” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 510).

Reflecting in the 1980s on this earlier stage of her writing, Rich noted in “Blood, Bread, and Poetry” that things had not changed much.  Then, as before, “the reading of poetry in an elite academic institution is supposed to lead you… not toward a criticism of society, but toward a professional career in which the anatomy of poems is studied dispassionately” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 507).

Despite her detractors, Rich continued to write politically, becoming an indispensable voice for feminism.  She resisted “the apparent splitting of poet from woman, thinker from woman, and to write what [she] feared was political poetry.  And in this [she] had very little encouragement from the literary people I knew” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).  Rich drew inspiration from the generation of African American writers that grew from the Civil Rights Movement and the “poetry readings [that] were infused with the spirit of collective rage and hope” (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 510).  This tone of rage and hope remains notable in much of Rich’s poetry, but especially in “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.”

Prior to publishing Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, Rich strove to draw together the fragmented identities of poet and woman, and thinker and woman (“Blood, Bread, and Poetry” 508).  Like Leda, the “thinking woman sleeps with monsters” to gain knowledge and power (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2623).  By writing such expressive and political poetry, Rich would seem monstrous to many critics; however, she also gained power and stature.

Plate depicting Samuel Johnson; Dr. Samuel “Pomposo” Johnson, the “Tenth Muse, Lately Sprung From Lichfield”

In Rich’s nod to the thinking woman towards the end of “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” she quotes Samuel Johnson’s remark on women’s public speaking:  “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs.  It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all” (qtd. in note 5, “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” 2625).  This comparison of women to animals cannot fail in contemporary times to bring to mind arguments such as that made by Republican Representative Terry England before the Georgia House of Representatives in March.

England compared women to farm animals while advocating a bill that intends to prohibit a woman from having an abortion after 20 weeks; however, the bill would also force women carrying stillborn fetuses to carry to term, regardless of the physical and emotional health risks that would entail (Owens).  This and other recent efforts by many Republican politicians in recent months have focused on limiting or repealing altogether many rights women won during the 1960s and 70s, namely rights to birth control and abortion.  While such attempts against women’s reproductive rights have been cloaked in claims of supporting “family values,” in truth they can limit women’s access to education and employment, access that was more fully opened during the 1960s and 70s.  Former presidential nominee Rick Santorum claimed in It Takes a Family that “Respect for stay-at-home mothers has been poisoned by a toxic combination of the village elders’ war on the traditional family and radical feminism’s misogynistic crusade to make working outside the home the only marker of social value and self-respect” (qtd. in Brown).  While it is unclear who these “village elders” are, Santorum turns to the familiar demonization of feminism.  In reality, reproductive rights that freed women from the home allowed them the ability to choose domesticity, careers, and sometimes both.

Due to the current political climate, and how it seems to stand aimed in direct conflict with the advancements gained for women’s rights in the 1960s and 70s, it is disheartening for proponents of both literature and women’s rights to have so recently lost Adrienne Rich.  One must question, what would she have written in such a time?  

If anything may be taken from Rich’s work, it is her constancy and passion for pushing boundaries, for revolting against restrictions maintained by culture.  Carruthers, after noting critics’ attacks against poets such as Rich for writing “propaganda,” admitting to understanding their blindness.  After reading Robin Morgan’s Monster, Carruthers “regarded it as prosy and propagandistic” (Carruthers 306-7).  It was in hearing Morgan recite the poems that Carruthers “remembered that poetry is, in the most complete sense of the word, re-creative, it moves and persuades” (Carruthers 306-7).

Adrienne Rich struck a new path in poetry, creating bold, moving, and persuasive works.  By setting such an example for the inheritors of her writing, it should then not be a question of what Rich would write in response to current events; rather, what raging, enlightening, mold-breaking, hopeful verses will these successors compose?

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What ever you write, I hope you do it passionately.  Keep at it.

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  For more about Adrienne Rich:
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/49

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/adrienne-rich

Read “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” here.

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Works Cited

Brown, Maressa. “Rick Santorum’s Beliefs About Women Should Terrify You.” The Stir. Cafe Mom, 14 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://thestir.cafemom.com/in_the_news/134547/rick_santorums_beliefs_about_women&gt;.

Carruthers, Mary. “Imagining Women: Notes towards a Feminist Poetic.” The Massachusetts Review 20.2 (1979): 281-307. Print.

Cook, Jon. “Adrienne Rich.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 503. Print.

Owens, Leigh. “Terry England, Georgia Republican Lawmaker, Compares Women To Farm Animals.” The Huffington Post. 03 Sept. 2012. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/terry-england-farm-animals_n_1335976.html&gt;.

Rich, Adrienne. “Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet.” Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Ed. Jon Cook. Malden: Blackwell, 2004. 504-13. Print.

—.  “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed. NY: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2008. 2622-2625. Print.