The Help is a novel that will provide useful insights about the social climate of the civil rights movement. This book explores the racial tensions that existed in 1960s Mississippi through the relationships of the maids with the households for whom they work. This novel should be accompanied by an in-depth look at the segregation in the country, specifically the South, and the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Providing this context will allow the student to fully understand the fear that initially prevents the maids from collaborating with Skeeter and the lack of support Skeeter receives from her friends and family.

While The Help will act as a great introduction to segregation in the 1960s, many critics have claimed that it is not realistic enough. Pairing this novel with a work of nonfiction about the civil rights movement or its leaders will give students a more realistic look at the struggles of African Americans during this time period. Comparing the conflicts surrounding race in the 1960s to the conflicts present today will provide for interesting classroom discussions on social class, prejudice, and justice in society.

Summary

In 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, 22-year-old Skeeter Phelan returns home from the University of Mississippi with dreams of becoming a writer. She lands a job writing a household tips column in the paper and requests the help of her friend's maid, Aibileen. With the hope of getting published, Skeeter is encouraged by her editor to find a topic she is dedicated to and passionate about on which to write. She chooses to write about and expose the appalling treatment of the African American maids in white households, a dangerous task. After listening to the experiences of various maids in her town, Skeeter publishes her book entitled The Help, an eye-opening collection of stories that cause a ruckus in Jackson.

Content Warning

The Help contains some drinking, sexual references, violence, and profanity.

Objectives for Teaching The Help

  • Discuss the significance and the meaning of the novel's title, The Help.
  • Identify the major turning points in the plot.
  • Make predictions about the fate of the two main characters.
  • Explain how the use of multiple first-person narrators serves to support some of the novel's themes.
  • Discuss examples of racial policies, practices, and concerns of the people of Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s.
  • Identify the symbols in the novel and explain the meaning and significance of each one.
  • Discuss Skeeter's role in the novel and her impact on the maids.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Dialect
  • Diction
  • Figurative Language
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Point of View
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Race — Race is a major theme in this novel. Jackson, Mississippi was deeply segregated during the 1960s when the Jim Crow laws restricted the rights of African Americans. The novel deals with discrimination of African Americans during this time period by exploring the relationship of the maids with the people for whom they work.
  • Social Class — This novel examines the gap between upper-class white families and the lives of the lower-class African American maids they hire to take care of their children. Skin color determines treatment and place in society. Skeeter aims to recognize the horrible way the maids are treated by writing a book full of their experiences working for an upper-class household.
  • The Role of Women —  In the early 1960s, a woman's place was considered to be in the house—cooking, cleaning, tending to the children, and doting on her husband. This ideal is represented in most of the female characters, except for Skeeter. Skeeter returns from college, ready to pursue a career in writing, not worried about marriage or any of the conventions women are supposed to follow.

Related Works

Theme of Race

 

Theme of Social Class

 

Theme of the Role of Women

Key Facts

  • Length: 544 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 730
  • Publication Date: 2009
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • Amazon's Best Books of the Year
  • Orange Prize Longlist
  • Indies Choice Book Award
  • Townsend Prize for Fiction
  • Exclusive Books Boeke Prize
  • SIBA Book Award
  • International IMPAC Dublin Library Award Longlist
  • Christian Science Monitor Best Book

Movies

A movie adaption of The Help was released in 2011, starring Emma Stone as Skeeter Phelan. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, and Octavia Spencer won Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. Critics felt that the racism and violence were toned down in the film adaptation.

Watch the Film Trailer

Your students will love:

  • The three viewpoints from which the story is told
  • Plot twists that surprise the reader

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding the context of the time period and controversy surrounding equality and segregation
  • The dialect of a few of the characters

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.