The Help Themes
The three main themes in The Help are racial prejudice, slavery, and provincialism.
- Racial prejudice: With the exception of Skeeter, the white characters in the novel are racists who treat the Black maids poorly.
- Slavery: Slavery is mentioned several times by the Black maids as their racial lineage, suggesting that the treatment of the maids is just another form of slavery.
- Provincialism: Skeeter is the only white character who has left Jackson and who is therefore able to examine the social dynamics of her hometown.
The main theme of the book is racial prejudice and bigotry—hate directed toward blacks in respect to their race. All the white characters in the novel, with the exception of Skeeter, are racists, even though many are not aware of it. They treat the black maids poorly because they believe that they are stupid and inferior. Throughout the novel, the whites are always referring to the maids or, blacks in general, in descriptive terms that usually apply to animals, suggesting that blacks have more in common with animals than humans. The whites in the novel build social barriers between themselves and the blacks mainly based upon their fears. Their fears are unfounded, which exposes their raw hatred that in turn is displayed in the daily abuse they inflict on the black maids.
The fact of slavery is mentioned several times by the black maids as their racial lineage, suggesting that the treatment of the maids is just another form of slavery. In addition, most of the maids do not aspire to be treated equally by their employers because they have learned by that inequality is the southern lifestyle. They do not appear to desire equality anymore than the white because of the upheaval it would case in their lives. However, at the end of the novel, they (Minnie and Aibileen) realize that the changes were worth it and a natural progression of living a lifestyle that exemplifies equality.
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. However, Skeeter has left home (Jackson) and returned. She is the only character able to objectively examine the social interactions between the black maids and the white, female employers.
Us versus Them
Throughout the novel, there is a well-defined line between the whites and the blacks. They refer to each other as “us” and “them” as if they are inherent enemies. Their lives do not cross over because there is no real communication between them. They only play out their roles as employer and maid. However as the story unfolds, there are changes; and the writing of the book instigates a challenge to those roles. A couple of the relationships between the white employers and black maids open up and become more equal, for example, between Minnie and Celia.
At the end of the novel, Skeeter comments that they are not so different at all—the black maids and the white employers—when it is evident that they (a few of them) are starting to get along better.
The writing of the book helps to bridge the differences between the white women and the black maids; and they all worked together to dissolve that line between “us and them.” While Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement takes place in the background of the novel, the characters have their own civil rights movement, led by a few courageous black maids and one white woman.
At the end of the novel, a few relationships between black maids and employers are budding. They sit together at the same table and speak openly about their lives. The reader feels at the end of the novel that this will continue and the “us vs. them” dynamic will end.