Helpful Questions

I found a new way to end a book I’ve read, by answering the discussion questions offered in the last few pages. I have just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

help

  1. Who was your favorite character and why?
    • For me, without a doubt, it was Minny Jackson, influenced in no small way, I’m sure, by Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of her in the big screen version of this novel. I like Minny because she is real: Despite the outward appearance of strength, she is flawed. Her strength comes from anger and fear, not love, with the possible exception of her own children. But even her children may be born of fear–she admits that Leroy doesn’t beat her when she is pregnant, so that is when she is safest at home. Her revenge on Hilly was meant to be a secret, and the act itself as well as the revelation of it to her victim came about from angry impulse, not constructive thought. Afterward, she lived in constant fear of what she had done; the potential consequences being the Terrible Awful yet to come.
  2. What do you think motivated Hilly? Do you think that one can be a good mother, and, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?
    • Absolutely! Part of the motivation to be a good parent is so that you can shape your children to be just like you. That, in turn, may lead others to question the quality of your parenting, when it is actually only a question of your character. I think Hilly was deeply concerned for her own family, as everyone is, but her approach was misguided and influenced by hate.
  3. Do you think Skeeter’s mother was a sympathetic or unsympathetic character?
    • Sympathetic, but again, our sympathies are not universal. Our deepest sympathies tend to be for those to whom we are closest, usually our families and then our friends. Those sympathies may be bone-deep, and as such they limit our  capacity for sympathy to those outside our network. Skeeter’s mother had feelings for Constantine, of course, but when forced to choose between her black maid and the white elites eyeing membership for her own daughter, she made the choice she felt the most secure with. We are afraid to take chances when we perceive our loved ones’ welfare to be at stake.
  4. How much of a person’s character would you say is shaped by the times in which they live?
    • Initially, when they are young, most of it. That comes from our need to be accepted, not just by our parents, but by society as a whole. Most of us have grandparents when we are young, to give us another perspective because they grew up in a different time. As we get older, we have opportunities to surround ourselves with others who have had different experiences, but this was not the case in 1960s Jackson, and instead of embracing differences, the women of The Help surrounded themselves with their own clones, be it through a college sorority, or a women’s league.
  5. Did it bother you that Skeeter was willing to overlook Stuart’s faults so she could get married?
    • Not at all, because she had been alone for so long. It’s what people do when they glimpse a happier, romantic life. She was lucky the engagement fell apart quickly, and things didn’t take a turn for the worse years down the road, after they were married and had other responsibilities together. I guess her telling him about her work was to uncover in him the one flaw she could not overlook, if it was there.
  6. Do you believe Minny was justified in her distrust of white people?
    • Yes, and this ties into my answer of question 4. She had only known white people to be unpleasant to her until she worked for Celia, and even then she was convinced her employer was crazy. By the time she sat down with Skeeter, how could she not be skeptical? Why, all of a sudden, does some white woman want to help her?
  7.  Do you think racism is inherent or taught?
    • Certainly it is taught, but not necessarily by books, school, or parental intention, though all of those things can have an impact. It is the subtle things we do and say that teach our children what to think. The day they realize that they live in a neighborhood that is not racially diverse, they assume that is by design, and things they hear and see in the neighborhood will support that assumption.
  8. What is the most ridiculous beauty regimen you’ve undergone?
    • Is it sexist of me to believe this question was written only for women? No, because I have paraphrased it–the actual question was much more gender-specific. I would not presume to go near this question on behalf of any of the women in my life, but I suppose I have had times in my life where I have dressed up for an occasion only to fit in, rather than to feel good about myself by the act alone. It must be 1,000,000 times more challenging for women!
  9. How do you think the author paints Aibeleen with grace and wisdom?
    • Mostly by surrounding her with contrasting characters. He gentleness is enhanced by the extreme personalities of Minny and Hilly, who have little control over their impulses and cannot help but speak their minds. Also, the book abounds in stories of the family and children, while Aibeleen has a unique perspective, having lost hers. The other characters seem to take their love and their families for granted.
  10. Do you think there is still racism in situations where people of color work for people who are white?
    • The impulse is to say, “Yes, of course,” but what about when the race roles are reversed? I think to avoid any overtones of superiority or inferiority–be they racist or not–employment relationships must be respectful in every way. Some of these relationships in The Help are respectful on the surface, but then someone is asked to use a separate bathroom in the garage, and you might as well stop pretending there is really any intention of decency at all.
  11. What did you think of Minny’s pie and would you have gone that far?
    • I thought it was epic and critical to the story. Ultimately, in that situation, Hilly was defeated by her own prejudice. Hell yeah I would have done it, but I, too, would have not meant to tell her I did so. I’m not that brave. But Minny let it slip, and worried endlessly about it afterward. But she was right about Hilly never telling anybody!

 

 

 

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