Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Help: Discussion Questions

**WARNING** May contain spoilers!! If you haven't read the book-- you might want to wait to read my answers!

1. Who was your favorite character? Why?

This is a tough question! I really liked all of the 3 main characters for different reasons. Even the characters I didn't "like" were very well developed and written. Skeeter might be my MOST favorite character. She was viewed by her friends as awkward, brainy, and reserved. But in reality, she was more confident and courageous than any of them could ever dream of being. Just goes to show how little some people really get to know their "friends."

I think some of my favorite Abileen moments occurred with Mae Mobely. I loved the stories of "Martian Luther King" and how she was always telling MM that she is special and smart. Having taught kids that have grown up in homes like MM's, I know how important these few words can be. I often have students too, who have been brought up in moderately racist homes-- so teaching the Civil Rights era is often eye-opening for some of them. Can I change all of their minds? No. But I do try to make it clear that this is a choice that THEY get to make. This is not one of the things parents can decide for you.

2. What do you think motivated Hilly? On one hand she’s so unpleasant to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes she can’t control her. But she’s a wonderful mother. Do you think you can be a good mother but at the same time a deeply flawed person?

I think overall Hilly is a miserable person. I think she is probably in a marriage that she doesn't really want to be in. Perhaps she never got over Johnny ditching her, and just grabbed the first available "appropriate" spouse-- maybe to make Johnny jealous? She is having kids because that is what is EXPECTED. It helps her keep this "perfect" image. This of course is completely opposite of the route that Skeeter takes. And I view Skeeter as a much happier person-- even though she has to deal with all of Hilly's nonsense.

Yes, I do think a person can be a good mother (or parent) but be deeply flawed. Again, as a teacher, I see this all the time. Unfortunately, these parents tend to teach their children (often through example) to be just like them. And of course, it can work the other way too-- be an amazing person, and a lousy parent.

3. Like Hilly, Skeeter’s mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter – and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives to Constantine is untenable. And most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter’s mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why?

Again, I think she is just doing what is expected of her by society. Unlike Hilly, I don't think she is in a miserable marriage, nor do I think she had children just because she was expected to. But I think she maybe sees Skeeter and is a bit envious of what she is going to be able to do with her life. Instead of being a housewife/ mom, Skeeter can move to the big city and get  a job and be her own person.

Her mother certainly becomes more sympathetic when diagnosed with cancer. But I also think she becomes more who she really is, or rather SHOWS Skeeter more who she is during this time. She seems to become less critical-- maybe because she is just so exhausted, or maybe because she wants Skeeter to see how she really is/ feels. Through all of her silly ways, you can see she just wants the best for Skeeter and for both of her kids to be happy.

4. How much of a person’s character do you think is shaped by the times in which they live?

I think a LOT. Most people do not want to be viewed as different or radical. It is human nature to want to be accepted by others. Luckily we do get the rare people who not only THINK something different, but they try to DO something about it. And I don't just mean opinionated people that always speak their minds-- those people are usually just all talk. I mean the people that risk it all-- career, reputation, even their life to try to make a difference- to try to make society better.

The Civil Rights era brought MANY examples of this- both good and bad. Of course we have Martin Luther King, Jr. but we also had the other side-- governors of these southern states, police chiefs in these towns (like Bull Connor)... I always try to remember that without these "bad" (though I choose to say they are uneducated and ignorant) people, the "good" (educated and brave) people could never have achieved what they did. I very much believe in fate-- everything happens for a reason. Sadly this era brought forth many tragic and seemingly senseless deaths-- MLK of course, but also lesser known african americans and also white "freedom fighters" such as Rev. Jonathan Daniels.

5. Did it bother you that Skeeter is willing to overlook so many of Stuart’s faults so that she can get married, and it’s not until he literally gets up and walks away that the engagement falls apart?

Not really. First of all, even if he had stayed, I don't think it would ever have worked out. Secondly, her mother lay upstairs dying-- I think Skeeter wanted to do SOMETHING to make her mother's last days happy and give her some hope.

6. Do you think Minny was justified in her distrust of white people?

Well, sure! Think of everything she had seen growing up in the deep south. For all the good relationships she might have seen, they were totally overshadowed by the horrible things. And how many times do you think she was lied to through the years-- and lied ABOUT! Sometimes I think that is worse. Lie to me, not good but ok-- lie ABOUT me to others and oh! It's ON!

7. Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, that Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent, or taught?

I totally think Mae Mobley would NOT have been racist-- and I choose to think that because of all that Abileen did for and with Mae Mobley, she STILL won't be racist.

I firmly believe racism is taught. Children hear their parents making racial slurs, telling racist jokes, and making overall negative generalizations about another race. Children look up to and model their parents (and other important adults in their lives). Children are taught to think that their parents know best and are always right. As I said above, I have many student raised in racist environments, and these kids are often SHOCKED when they see videoes and pictures from the Civil Rights era. "How could people treat other humans that way?!" This is usually a response to physical and violent abuse they see. But they are often just as appalled by the verbal abuse. Ironically, this is the same they have grown up with at home.

8. From the perspective of a 21st century reader, the hair shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of “beauty” changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what’s the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent?

HMMmmmm... I guess when I first started highlighting my hair, it was still the pull-through- the-cap method-- which was insanely painful! Nowadays it's the foil method, which really does look ridiculous. I often sit at the salon on color days, looking around at all of us ladies in our aluminum best and wonder, "If an alien walked in, or even a person from a third world country, WHAT would they think?!"

9. The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this?

Abileen tends to keep her thoughts INSIDE her head (instead of OUT of her mouth like Minny). Even Skeeter is expressing her thoughts-- mainly through writing, but even verbally at some points. Abileen appears resigned to her life- at least to people like Elizabeth and Hilly-- but little do they know!

It's like the old saying about always being  aware of the quiet ones!

10. Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships where people of color work for people who are white? Have you heard stories of someone who put away their valuable jewelry before their nanny comes – so they trust this person to look after their child, but not their diamond rings?

Oh sure! And there is still plenty of just old-fashioned racism in the south. Nationally I think a lot of racism, and behavior like mentioned in this question, are focused more on hispanics. Unfortuanately it is hard to trust ANYONE in today's world-- but there are just as many "nice respectable" white folks that do things just as bad as the minorities.

11. What did you think about Minny’s pie for Miss Hilly? Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?

Well, I despised Hilly as a person, so I think the pie was HILARIOUS! Would I ever go that far-- no. I am not nearly as brave as Minny!

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