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The Help, written by Kathryn Stockett, follows the lives and perspectives of three women in a Southern American town in the early 1960’s. Jackson, Mississippi is a stereotypically conforming small town with clear racially discriminative norms where coloured maids work for white households. The Help was written by Stockett to raise the issue of civil rights and racial segregation, recounting where Stockett grew up. It is a work of fiction although it is based on her personal experiences of living in Jackson. It raises thoughts and awareness of social injustice today. The idea of racial inequality is explored thoroughly through the novel through the ideas of the characters’ values and expectations, bathrooms and raising children.
The first idea Stockett explores is the theme of racial inequality which is displayed through the different values and expectations of the white and coloured through irony and symbolism. These expectations of the coloured housemaids are completely different to those for the white families they serve. Stockett uses the technique of irony to highlight inconsistencies in the way coloured people are thought of and treated as human beings. After having her clothes complemented at a league meeting, Skeeter thinks I wouldn’t dare wear old clothes to a meeting and neither would you. The concerns of white women seem trivial, where attitudes towards keeping up appearances is universal. White women don’t work to support their families, the men are expected to have office jobs to support the household. Symbolism is shown through the coloured maids have white uniforms by covering them in a familiar colour to make them feel more familiar. Stockett juxtaposes the expectations of what the maids believe they can or cannot do with their lives with the aspirations the white have. The white female members of ‘The League’ are happy to send money to PSCA’s (the Poor Starving Children of Africa) who may have the diseases they are so afraid their coloured maids may ‘have’. They use diseases as another excuse not to be close or not to be directly associated with their maids and to put themselves on a pedestal above them. The white and coloured people’s working conditions and prospects for advancement are very different. The coloured women must work and be away from their families to look after the white families they serve. Aibileen’s family and the community on Gessum Avenue where she lives on the other side if the bridge has a sense of real family, community and belonging. The differences of values and expectations between races further demonstrates the theme of racial inequality in the novel.
The second idea explored in the novel to explore racial inequality is the idea of bathrooms through the convention of narration and technique of symbolism. The unique style of narration provides perspectives on bathroom segregation allows the reader to understand the extent of the discrimination against the coloured. This evokes emotion in the readers by being able to empathise with the characters. Even in their place of employment, coloured maids are still discriminated against. The white families who employ them lack trust when cleaning their expensive belongings and use of their bathrooms by maids. The maids cannot enter the house through the front door when there are guests – a rule that ensures the maids feel they are in a lower class. The maid’s uniforms symbolise the constant fear of what will happen to them if they break any of these segregating ‘rules’ – some written, some not. They are just expected to conform, and rule breakers/disrespect will be punished. “I read through four of the twenty-five pages, mesmerised by how many laws exist to separate us.” said Miss Skeeter after discovering a book of Jim Crow laws in the coloured section of a library. Social behaviour made racism seem acceptable as a way of life. Throughout the novel, Skeeter realises that a change in the Jim Crow laws may still not be the right way for people to implement inclusive social behaviours in their lives. To change social behaviours, more than a change of laws is needed.
The final idea of racial inequality explored in the novel is raising children through the techniques of irony and foreshadowing. Stockett uses irony to show although the coloured maids are not trusted, they are required to effectively raise the white children which is a significant responsibility. not trusting them/ thinking they are different/ inferior but letting their children be raised by them. After witnessing her daughter use the coloured bathroom in her home, Miss Leefolt decidedly said “I did not raise you to use the coloured bathroom!” Aibileen though to herself “Lady, you didn’t raise your child at all.” Which further displays the level of segregation between them. The racial segregation extends to supermarkets where the coloured can only use a specifically white supermarket while in their uniform purchasing food for the family they work for. Living on the other sides of town separated by a bridge and being completely out of place if a person is ‘out of place’ in the other community but can be accepted if it is clear their purpose of ‘crossing the line’ (figuratively and literally).
Foreshadowing is used through the raising of Mae Mobley doesn’t like her mother as much as she appreciates Aibileen, which she is used to after having raised 17 white children. “Aibee, you’re my real mother.” Mae Mobley says to Aibileen. Mae’s innocent love for Abilene shows discrimination is a learned negative behaviour. This innocence foreshadows the moment when all white children begin to become like their mothers future mother daughter relationships although the white children all turn out like their mother, as the role of the mother is very different.
This is demonstrated in Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley’s relationship throughout the book. No matter how much of a mother figure Aibileen is for Mae Mobley, she too will also turn out like her mother and the women in the league.
Throughout The Help, Katherine Stockett uses a range of literary techniques and conventions such as irony to explore the character’s values and expectations, narration and symbolism to explore the representation of bathrooms and foreshadowing when exploring the ways in which children are raised. The ideas are explored through these literary techniques in detail to address the overarching issue of racial inequality in Jackson, Mississippi.
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