The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

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Describe the setting of The Help.

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The Help is set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi. The novel examines in detail how different Jackson is for its white and black residents.

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The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. Much of the action takes place in the houses of middle-class white people in a neighborhood called Belhaven, but as seen as from the point of view of the black maids.

Part one, for example, is told from the perspective of Mrs. Leefolt's maid Aibileen. She lays out the general Jackson setting for us early on, noting that the whites in this city of two hundred thousand have room to spread out and grow into the suburbs, while the segregated blacks are ever more crowded into sections that don't expand:

Six days a week, I take the bus across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to where Miss Leefolt and all her white friends live, in a neighborhood call Belhaven. Right next to Belhaven be the downtown and the state capital. Capitol building is real big, pretty on the outside but I never been in it. I wonder what they pay to clean that place. Down the road from Belhaven is white Woodland Hills, then Sherwood Forest, which is miles a big live oaks with the moss hanging down. Nobody living in it yet, but it’s there for when the white folks is ready to move somewhere else new. Then it’s the country, out where Miss Skeeter live on the Longleaf cotton plantation. ... But the colored part a town, we one big anthill, surrounded by state land that ain’t for sale. As our numbers get bigger, we can’t spread out. Our part a town just gets thicker ...

What gives the settings their energy is the black perspective: as we see in the quote above, Aibilene, for instance, is an acute observer of life all around her. Unlike the whites, she has a broad vision of what Jackson is like outside of a purely white enclave.

Further, we see the world from the subaltern point of view (that is, the view from below): the maids dodge being run over as they drag trashcans to the curb and describe themselves in grease up to the armpits as they stick their heads in the ovens to clean them out—or they dodge into the kitchens to stay out of the way of the whites. Aibilene, for example, evaluates the houses she works in based on the number of bathrooms they have, foreshadowing the theme to come when the white women start building separate bathrooms for "the help." The fewer bathrooms, the better, is Aibilene's point of view:

I’m used to working for young couples, but I spec this is the smallest house I ever worked in. It’s just the one story. Her and Mister Leefolt’s room in the back be a fair size, but Baby Girl’s room be tiny. The dining room and the regular living room kind a join up. Only two bathrooms, which is a relief cause I worked in houses where they was five or six. Take a whole day just to clean toilets.

Beyond the houses where the black "help" work, the growing civil rights movement becomes an important backdrop to the novel.

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As the previous responses to this question have pointed out, Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. There is much significance in this choice of time and place. 

The setting is in the so-called "deep South" at a time when segregation was strictly enforced there. This is also an area where where civil rights leaders focused a good deal of their work. 

Medgar Evers, NAACP field secretary, was a civil rights leader who lived for a time in Jackson, Mississippi. His racially-motivated murder is part of the story in The Help and the circumstances of his death are certainly a considerable part of the setting of the novel.

We might say that both the violent racism and the positive activism that contributed to Evers' death are on display in the novel, as background and as foreground. What are now clearly antiquated and bigoted views on race and social equality function as important (and characteristic) aspects of the novel's cultural setting.

While Jackson is a city of many people, it is not a center of cultivation, of mixed view-points, or of socially progressive thought. Contrary to contemporary perspectives on cities as places of diversity and social progress, Jackson is depicted as culturally myopic, resistant to change and hegemonic (i.e., ruled by a single entrenched way of thinking) - at least as far as the people in power are concerned.

The women featured in the text, on both sides of the social, cultural, and philosophical divide clearly represent conflicting approaches to social thought. 

"The white characters are women who have never really left their hometown. They do not confront the social beliefs of their parents or ancestors because they have not separated enough to gain any perspective on the lifestyle that everyone appears to conform to in Jackson." (eNotes).

The resistance to discrimination and prejudice shown by the black maids and by some of the white women of Jackson (like Skeeter and Miss Foote) plays directly into the active elements of the setting in terms of Southern social-politics, social policies and the civil rights movement taking place in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.

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The setting of "The Help" is in 1962, a pivotal point in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  While the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, and the March on Washington in 1963 have yet to occur, they are importantly, just over the horizon. 

Importantly, the settings of the houses of white women in Mississippi is important.  While History treats this time as one of great change, with characters such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks making forward advances in the rights and perceptions of Black Americans, to the characters within the novel, life goes on as normal.  Mississippi is a long way from the politics of Washington, both geographically and socially.

The juxtaposition of working in more privileged households, while the story is being told from within a Black woman's house itself, is enlightening.  This changes the balance of power in a very "social history" context.  This becomes the story of those without a really strong position in society itself, from subjugated women who live to raise families and please husbands, to black women striving to make ends meet in a very discriminatory world.

The white women within their households wield all the power they can, but it is their black maids that ultimately win out, overthrowing society as we know it... right on the cusp of a national change in political policy.

Further Reading

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Kathryn Stockett's novel, The Help, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Although events relating to the Civil Rights Movement are flashed back to throughout the novel, the main action of the novel takes place in the homes of the white women who have hired black maids to clean and care for their children.

Much of the novel depicts life typical for African American women of the period. Readers are offered descriptions of business and homes which clearly uphold inequality. At one point in the novel, the question of black maids using their white employers' bathrooms becomes quite an issue.

Overall, although set in Mississippi, readers can easily assume that life for African Americans during this time was very similar throughout the South. Stockett's attention to detail (regarding commercials and segregation) is immaculate. While the novel could have taken place in any town in the South, it could not have been placed in a more tumultuous place than Mississippi.

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