Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228
As she stands on the back porch of a country mansion, Minny Jackson is determined to keep her mouth shut, to do whatever it takes to get this job. A woman who resembles Marilyn Monroe answers the door and introduces herself as Celia Rae Foote. She is covered in flour from her hair to her false eyelashes to her “tacky pink pantsuit.” Inside, the kitchen is in even worse shape.
Miss Celia explains that she is not very good in the kitchen. Minny has to bite her tongue to refrain from making a sarcastic comment. Miss Celia is twenty-two or twenty-three (ten or fifteen years Minny’s junior) and is wearing no shoes. This makes her a “fool” in Minny’s eyes, someone from way in the country, “like some kind of white trash.” She wears more makeup than most other white ladies and has more bosom than most; she is skinny and Minny hopes the woman is an “eater” since she is a “cooker.” Miss Celia just smiles and washes her hands in her sink full of dishes before offering her a seat and something cold to drink. Now Minny knows for sure that something “funny” is going on here.
Three days ago when Miss Celia called, Minny thought the woman must be crazy or stupid to want her despite the stories of theft—and now this. Minny has never had a white woman offer to serve her, so she tells Miss Celia perhaps they should tour the house first. It is a huge, old Confederate general’s home and is filled with antiques. Miss Celia is from Sugar Ditch, Mississippi (a place known as being the poorest of the poor, even for white folks), and she would rather have everything done in white with gold trim, but her mother-in-law will not let her redecorate. It is Miss Celia’s first time to hire a maid (which is obvious to Minny), and she called Minny because Miss Walters gave her such a positive recommendation, especially because of her wonderful cooking.
The house is enormous, with five bedrooms and five bathrooms plus a pool and a poolhouse. Minny is thrilled at how much money she will likely earn, and she is not afraid to work. Miss Celia opens a closet the size of Minny’s living room in which she keeps all the family silver, and Minny is suddenly afraid she will be confronted with the rumors of her stealing a silver candelabra. Instead, Miss Celia apologetically shows her the high windows. Back in the kitchen, Miss Celia is convinced Minny will not take the job because the house requires too much work, which is what the other prospective maids have said. Minny assures her that she will take the job and they work out the details. Minny will arrive Monday through Friday at eight o’clock, two hours after Mr. Foote leaves for work, and she will leave at three o’clock, two hours before he arrives home from work. Miss Celia does not want her husband to know she has hired a maid because she wants him to think she can cook and clean on her own. She has tried and failed, but she wants him to think she is “worth the trouble.” Minny will earn two dollars an hour—twice as much as she made with Miss Walters.
When she was fourteen, Minny’s mother sat her down and told her the rules about working for white folks: Do not share personal problems with the employer; never let a white woman see her black maid on the same toilet she uses; never taste white people’s food and then put the spoon back in the pot; use the same eating utensils every day and keep them separate from the rest; eat in the kitchen; do not hit white children because they prefer to do that themselves; and “no sass-mouthing.” At her first job, Minny followed every rule but the last one—and was promptly fired.
On her first morning at Miss Celia’s, Minny parks down the street and finds her new employer sitting in bed, dressed and reading a magazine. The room appears neat and tidy but something is not quite right about it all. Minny makes Miss Celia promise to tell her husband she has a maid by Christmas—116 days from now—and then shoos her out of the bedroom so she can work. Just as she suspected, all is not as it seems. The closet is stuffed to overflowing; dirty clothes are crammed under the bed; there is a pile of new, boxed shirts so Mister Johnny does not know she has not been doing the laundry; and there is a giant rust-colored stain under a mismatched rug.
That afternoon the two women sit down to plan menus for the week and Minny does the grocery shopping the next morning, although most white women prefer to do that themselves. Every day, Miss Celia reads her magazines as Minny cleans new parts of the house. After the kitchen, she cleans the formal dining room and sees a wedding picture of Miss Celia and Mister Johnny. She is shocked to see he is the man Miss Hilly dated before she married Mister Holbrook. Her fears intensify, for that tells her plenty about the man for whom she is secretly working.
The cooking lessons begin one afternoon, and Minny asks her what she already knows how to cook. Miss Celia is embarrassed to explain that she only knows how to make corn pone, boil potatoes, and cook grits over an open flame because she did not have electricity growing up—but she is ready to learn. Minny has never told a white woman what to do, but she gathers herself and begins the lessons. Minny instructs her on all the uses for Crisco and then shows her how to fry a chicken, asking how Miss Celia will explain the sudden improvement in her cooking. The younger woman is suddenly afraid, having never thought of this before, and refuses to answer when Minny asks her why she cannot tell her husband she has hired a maid. As the chicken browns, Miss Celia has tears in her eyes as she places her hand on Minny’s arm and tells her she is grateful that Minny is here. The maid moves away from the touch and reminds her she has much more here to be grateful for than a maid. Miss Celia agrees, saying she has never been happier in her entire life, though Minny thinks she looks pretty unhappy underneath all her supposed happiness.
Aibileen and Minny talk on the phone that night. Aibileen tells Minny that Miss Hilly was asking if anyone knew where Minny was working. Minny is terrified, remembering the “Terrible Awful Thing” she did to Miss Hilly and knowing the woman would love to get her fired immediately if she could. Aibileen reminds Minny she is in the perfect position: Miss Celia needs to keep her secret so Minny’s secret is also safe. Aibileen asks Minny what she thinks about Miss Skeeter, and Minny says she is “white, just like the rest of em.” Aibileen starts to explain that Miss Skeeter asked her about wanting things to change, but Leroy needs Minny so Aibileen tells her it was nothing, just “nonsense.”