In Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help, why does Aibileen thank Hilly for the outside toilet when she feels so demeaned by it?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, recounts the stories of three people: Skeeter Phelan (a white journalist), Aibileen Clark (an older black maid), and Minny Jackson (a middle-aged black maid). Aibileen works for the Leefolts, and it is Elizabeth Leefolt who, at the urging of Hilly, builds an outdoor bathroom for her maid. 

The fact that you have to ask this question is a good thing in terms of the changes that have happened in society since the 1960s, when this story is set. Back then, it was common for white people to see blacks as inferior and therefore somehow contagious. Many restaurants, hotels, bathrooms, and water fountains--especially in the South--would be marked as "Colored" or as "Whites Only." This segregation was due to both ignorance and prejudice.

In this novel, Elizabeth is coerced into building a separate bathroom for Aibileen because her friend Hilly would not use a bathroom in which a black person had been (though you can bet Hilly was happy enough to have her own maid clean her bathroom regularly). The outside bathroom is in the garage; not only does Aibileen have to walk outside to get there, but the room is unheated and of course that makes for an unpleasant bathroom experience especially during the winter. In no way could this bathroom be seen as a meaningful gift. 

In any case, Elizabeth makes quite a production out of telling Aibileen that this is a "gift" for her, so of course Aibileen must thank her. What else could a woman in her position (dependent on Elizabeth for her job and her income) do? Aibileen thanks her employer for the gift, but both women understand the truth about this bathroom. Now Aibileen will now get to scrub the indoor bathrooms with bleach so they will once again be suitable for Elizabeth's white guests, while she will be relegated to the garage.

Kathryn Stockett's favorite lines in this book are:

Wasn’t that the point of the book?  For women to realize, we are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I’d thought.

This bathroom story seems ridiculous, uncomfortable, and even ugly because it demonstrates that the characters--at least the white ones--have not yet come to this realization.