The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

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What are the conflicts in The Help?

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The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, beginning in 1962, so the setting drives much of the conflict in the novel. The novel is told with three narrators who rotate sharing perspectives in different chapters, and thus most conflict is focused on their internal and external battles.

Skeeter is a young white woman who sees the belittling ways "the help," or the black maids who are employed in white households, are treated. She realizes that this is reflective of deeper racial issues in Jackson and looks for a way to educate a deeply racist white society about the inherent injustices in such treatment. Her primary conflict is with a white society which wants to hang on to tradition and racism. This is embodied primarily in Elizabeth, who employs Aibileen and who is also pressing for more segregation in Jackson, such as requiring white households to build separate outdoor restrooms for their black employees.

Skeeter also finds herself in conflict with her own mother, whom she comes to realize fired her own help (whom Skeeter grew up with and loved) because of her racist beliefs. Skeeter wants to change her hometown but struggles in how to make an impact until she realizes that she can capture the stories of the black maids and thereby make their voices heard. This places her in conflict with her society at large and some of her former friends specifically.

Aibileen, another narrator in the novel, is also laden with conflict. She is a mother silently consumed with the grief of losing her son, Treelore. Only around two years have passed since his accident, and it is her grief over the circumstances of his death which really propels her to work with Skeeter in writing the book that she hopes will change their lives. As an employee of Elizabeth, she also finds herself in a silent conflict in her place of employment, hearing Elizabeth's racist comments with her friends and carrying on with the work of the day in spite of it. Elizabeth is also not a good mother to Mae Mobley, and Aibileen takes the little girl under her wing, showering her with self-affirmation to try to overcome the effects of abuse the little girl suffers at the hands and tongue of her mother. Through the book she helps create, Aibileen finds a voice for all the quiet suffering she has endured in the conflict she has faced.

Minny tells other chapters in the novel, and while she is portrayed as a humorous character, she also faces great conflict. Although Minny is seen as both an extraordinary cook and a strong black woman in her community, she suffers from an abusive husband at home. Minny's propensity for saying what she thinks places her in direct opposition to Hilly, who is the leading force of the restrictive and racist young white women in Jackson. Minny thus includes a chapter in the book which describes how she'd once made Hilly a pie using Minny's own poop—and that Hilly had eaten it. This both provides great vindication for the conflict Hilly has caused her and keeps Hilly quiet about the narrators in the book as she would never want her white society to know what she's endured at the hands of her former black help.

There are many layers of conflict in the novel, but in the end almost all of it is driven by a racist Southern town's beliefs in the years before the Civil Rights Era; change had not yet begun to really reshape the ways African Americans were seen, treated, and valued in some pockets of our country. This novel captures multiple angles of that conflict, from inside the black community to the whites who worked with blacks to push for societal changes to the white resistance to such efforts.

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There are several types of conflicts in The Help, including racial discrimination, social divides, and how secrets can damage families. 

Racial and social divides are the primary conflicts in The Help. The black maids are mistreated by their white employers. Minnie, for example, is fired for stealing -- when she never stole anything. It's a convenient lie to push the blame onto her instead of her former employers. White people with black servants in The Help are prone to using this kind of gossip to tarnish their servants and keep them from finding new jobs if they leave. But the danger to black people in the novel is far worse than that. Aibileen is even reluctant to help Skeeter at first because she knows discussing how the maids are treated could result in someone attacking and killing her.

The unjust attitudes of well-off white women are personified in Hilly, who's working to make sure that bathrooms are extensively segregated, even in private homes. She also jailed a former servant -- supposedly for stealing a ring. The community band together to collect tuition money for the son of that servant. This attitude is also reflected in Skeeter's fiance. Skeeter writing a book about the conditions of the maids causes him to break up with her; he says she's just creating trouble where everything is fine.

The last conflict in The Help focuses on how secrets can break down families. When Skeeter returns home to Jackson, Mississippi, the maid who practically raised her is missing -- and she knows her mother isn't telling her the truth about her departure. She knows from Aibileen that her mother isn't being honest and that something bad happened when Constantine left. It's not until her mother is honest with her that Skeeter is able to know that not only did Constantine leave because of her mother's racism, but that she died after moving away. 

The couple Minnie works for also keep secrets from each other. She hires Minnie without her husband's knowledge; he doesn't want her to know he knows. They both act out of concern for the other, but nothing gets better until the truth is revealed.

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There are a number of conflicts in Stockett's novel. We can identify four main conflicts relating to the four central figures of the novel.

Beginning with Aibileen, we see a conflict relating to perception and caring and how people treat one another. This conflict is embodied in the ways Elizabeth sees and treats both Aibileen and Mae Mobley.

While Aibileen struggles to instill a positive self-image in Mae Mobley and tries to teach her to see past skin color, Elizabeth reprimands and diminishes both Mae Mobley and Aibileen. The loss of her son is also part of Aibileen's conflict as she strives to change the way people see one another in Jackson. 

Minny's conflict is two-fold. She is challenged to learn to be understanding and compassionate and to let her guard down. Initially, Minny takes no chances with people she does not know, but as her character grows through the story, Minny learns to trust Celia and Skeeter. Minny's other conflict is one of confidence and abuse.

While she is a strong person, she also suffers from low self-esteem; and her husband beats her regularly.

She has to find a way to escape the abusive treatment from her husband and learn to trust herself to be alright on her own. 

Skeeter has two conflicts as well and, like Minny, one conflict is internal and the other external. Skeeter has an identity conflict that drives many of her decisions in the novel. She is attempting to navigate her mother's expectations for her as well as her own. This leads her to get a job as a journalist, to write to New York about publishing jobs there, and to undertake the book project with Aibileen.

She perceives herself as different than the other white women in her social group in Jackson. She feels like an outcast.

She does not belong in Jackson, but she tries to fit in. This is her internal conflict. 

Externally, Skeeter is in conflict with Hilly. Hilly's antagonism represents the fourth major conflict in the novel. Not only is Hilly in conflict with Skeeter, she is also in conflict with Minny, Celia, and Aibileen. Hilly's opinions are the force, symobolic and actual, that Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny fight against with their book project. She is a bigot, a hypocrite, and a local power. She is the negative voice of the community that the book project seeks to expose and to temper. 

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