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There is a traditional character called the “wily slave” in literature; Moliere’s Servant of Two Masters is the dramatic height of a tradition, which starts with Plautus. In prose, the Spanish rogue Lazarillo de Tormes falls under this category. Henry James’ The Master is also an American slave narrative with the kind of role reversal common to all Saturnalia festivals. Sancho Panza in Don Quixote (Cervantes) has many of the characteristics of Lazarillo de Tormes (the picaresque tradition), intelligent, disobedient when confronted with his master’s stupidity, etc. Of course, The Help gives these personality traits to the women servants. But the warmer, more humanitarian tone and characterization of the novel can be compared to any of a number of “sentimental” traditions, in which the basic goodness of human nature prevails over humanity’s weaknesses—greed, pride, etc., especially the damage done by false feelings of superiority based on social “rank” rather than intelligence or humanity. And there is also a tradition of Southern literature, of which this book is a counter-example, a breaker of the mold. The character of Skeeter harkens back to the rebellious (or some would say liberated) daughter who has bigger plans for herself that a ring on her finger and a marriage that would give her husband hegemony over her.
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