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Kathryn Stockett

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English Literature

Kathryn Stockett is an American writer best known for writing The Help (2009). This is a text that captures the lives and struggles of African American maids in 1960s segregated Mississippi. It went on to become an international bestseller.

Below, you find Kathryn Stocketts biography. We will also look at her literary career, focusing on The Help. And we will explore Stocketts writing style and her importance in the canon of English literature.

Kathryn Stockett: Biography

Kathryn Stockett was born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi. Her parents divorced when she was young, and she grew up with her grandparents. They had an African American maid named Demetrie, who played an important role in raising Stockett and was a source of comfort for her. Demetrie passed away when Stockett was sixteen.

Stockett attended the University of Alabama and graduated with a degree in English and Creative Writing. She then moved to New York and worked in magazine publishing and marketing for sixteen years.

Kathryn Stockett was living in New York during the 9/11 crash of the Twin Towers, which had a profound impact on her. She began writing The Help because of this experience. Stockett felt homesick and upset after the tragedy of 9/11. She began writing in Demetries voice to comfort herself. This made her think about Demetrie and the difficult life she must have lived. The Help developed from this speculation.

It took Stockett five years to complete The Help. She also struggled to get it published, having sixty rejections before a literary agent would accept her story. When The Help was published, it was a huge success, popularising Stocketts name in literary circles. In the first two years alone, Stocketts novel sold seven million copies and spent 100 weeks at the top of the New York Timess Bestsellers List. The Help has been translated into forty-two different languages, and Stocketts novel spawned a film adaptation in 2011 starring Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis. This became a box office hit.

Although The Help was very successful, Stockett has not published anything since. She is divorced and currently has one daughter. Stockett has now moved out of New York back to the South.

Books

Currently, Kathryn Stockett has only published one book, The Help, which is our focus here.

Content warning: the following text contextualises the lived experiences of the African American community during a period of segregation in the 1960s. The inclusion of certain terms may be deemed offensive to some readers.

The Help

The Help was published in 2009. It is a historical fiction novel set in the town of Jackson, Mississippi, in the early 1960s. This was a time of segregation and racial discrimination.

In 20th-century America, segregation refers to the effort to keep the races separate. This meant separate housing, schools, public bathrooms, shops, etc. for people of colour, leading to discrimination, particularly against African Americans. This was especially prevalent in the South because of the Jim Crow Laws that made segregation legal.

The Help is narrated in the first person by three alternating narrators. These are Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackon. Skeeter is a wealthy young white woman who has had a privileged upbringing. She is beginning to recognise this privilege and wants to write a book about the experiences of black maids in Jackson. Aibileen and Minny are both black maids that Skeeter recruits to provide their experiences. Aibileen is much more willing to participate initially than Minny, who is wary because of the abuse she has suffered at the hands of white people.

Both eventually agree, and more local African American maids are recruited along the way. It quickly becomes clear that these women are poorly treated. They do hard work for very low pay and are constantly discriminated against. The Jim Crow Laws legalised this discrimination and made it very hard to get a job.

The Helps three narrators face much opposition from the novels main antagonist, Hilly Holbrook.

An antagonist in a story is the storys main villain. They usually act as an opponent to the main characters.

Kathryn Stockett uses Hilly as a representative for those that supported segregation. Hilly is in favour of segregation and believes in harmful stereotypes about black people. She believes they are unclean and carry disease. This leads to Hilly fighting to have separate bathrooms for black employees in every white household in Jackson, and she is furious when she finds Minny using a bathroom in her home. Hilly attempts to thwart Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny throughout The Help. She has some victories, but their book, Help, is published. Stocketts three narrators end the novel much better than when they started it.

The Help deals with themes of racial inequality and injustice. Stockett is writing here about a society she grew up in. She shows how cruel 1960s America was to its African American citizens. Stockett exposes the inequalities and abuse that prevailed during this time. The Help became a popular novel for its realistic depiction of segregation.

Themes

As Kathryn Stockett has only published The Help, we will focus on that here.

Racial injustice

The theme of racial injustice is integral to The Help. Stockett explores how African Americans were severely discriminated against in 1960s America by writing from the perspective of black maids. This discrimination is omnipresent in The Help. The Jim Crow Laws, which Skeeter finds in the local library, legalised segregation and made it much easier to discriminate against black people.

There is a power imbalance in Stocketts book. The white citizens in Jackson have all the power and privilege, whereas the black citizens have almost none. This is seen especially in the character of Hilly Holbrook, who often abuses her white privilege to preserve segregation. Racial injustice is most obvious in The Help in the law Hilly wants to be passed. This law would make it a legal requirement for every white household to have a separate bathroom for their black employees. This was because of the stereotype that black people were dirty and carried disease.

In writing Help, Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are trying to dispel these myths about black people. They are also exposing their poor treatment at the hands of their white employers. They are fighting racial injustice.

Hilly raises her voice about three octaves when talking to black people. Elizabeth smiles like shes talking to a child, although certainly not her own (Ch. 12).

Ignorance

Ignorance is key in The Help. It is made clear that this is where much racism stems from, and Skeeters book aims to dispel this ignorance. Segregation has led to little mixing between the races outside of employment. This has caused the white citizens of Jackson to believe negative stereotypes about African Americans and to treat them as inferior.

As Skeeter works with Aibileen and Minny, her own ignorance is challenged. Stockett shows how important education and tolerance are in fighting ignorance. In The Help, the only way to fight inequality is to fight the ignorance that has produced it.

Kathryn Stockett’s writing style

The Help is historical fiction, which are narratives that are set in a certain historical period and/or have historical characters as either protagonists or secondary characters. Stockett aims to accurately capture a specific period in time. Her writing style imitates the spoken language of that time.

Kathryn Stockett also makes use of dialects in The Help. Her three narrators narrate in the first person. Skeeter, as a wealthy Southern white woman, speaks and writes in an appropriate, grammatically correct dialect.

Aibileen and Minny, however, speak quite differently. Stockett has them speak in AAVE (African American Vernacular English). This is an entirely different dialect of English spoken by African Americans all over the United States. There are many versions of this dialect. Minny, AIbileen, and the other maids would have spoken in the Mississippi variation. At the time, many white people would have looked down upon them for speaking this way. It was seen as improper and grammatically incorrect. Today, AAVE is beginning to be recognised as a dialect with its own specific rules and structures.

Kathryn Stockett has been criticised by some for writing in AAVE as a white woman. There have been claims that she is not in a position to ever fully understand it. What do you think about the complications of a white woman writing as a black woman using AAVE?

Kathryn Stockett: Facts

  • Sixty literary agents rejected The Help before it was eventually picked up.

  • Stockett looked at advertisements on the back of an old phonebook to help her capture the time period of the 1960s in The Help.1

  • Many of the anecdotes in The Help came from Stocketts own grandfather.

  • Stockett has admitted that she was very nervous when The Help was published. She was concerned that, as a privileged white woman, she had crossed a line in writing from the perspective of African American women.

  • Kathryn Stockett credits her creative writing professor in college for teaching her how to capture dialects accurately. This is key in The Help.

The importance of Kathryn Stockett’s work

Despite publishing only one novel, Stockett has had a significant impact on the canon of English literature. The Help, which became an international bestseller, was a hugely successful text. In writing her novel, Stockett raised many important issues about race. She questioned discriminatory stereotypes about black people. Stockett also made the important point that all these prejudices, which divide the races, are false. This is exemplified by the understanding that is eventually fostered between Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny. The Help is known for its ability to illuminate what unites people rather than what divides them.

Wasnt that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as Id thought (Ch. 33).

Kathryn Stockett - Key takeaways

  • Kathryn Stockett was born in 1969 in Jackson, Mississippi.
  • Her grandparents African African maid Demetrie had a big impact on her childhood.
  • Stockett has currently only published one book: The Help.
  • The Help is about racial inequality in 1960s Mississippi and became an international bestseller.
  • Two key themes in Stocketts work are racial inequality and ignorance.
  • Stockett uses a writing style that captures different dialects.

References

1 Kathryn Stockett Interview, BookBrowse.

Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett was born in 1969 and is, therefore, currently 53.

Stockett initially wrote The Help in the voice of her childhood maid, Demetrie, to comfort herself after 9/11. She then began to realise the racism Demetrie must have suffered, which became the main theme of her novel.

Stockett has currently written only one book, The Help.

The Help is important because it tackles issues of racial inequality. It promotes tolerance and understanding to fight racism.

The Help is about three women and their efforts to write a book that exposes the poor treatment of black maids in 1960s Mississippi.

Final Kathryn Stockett Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Help?

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Kathryn Stockett

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What year was The Help published?

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2009

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What genre is The Help?

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Historical fiction

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Who narrates The Help?

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Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny

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What are two important themes in The Help?

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Racial inequality and the Power of Literature

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What are two important symbols in The Help?

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Bathrooms and Aibileen's 'Bitter Seed'

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What does Aibileen's 'Bitter Seed' symbolise?

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The suffering she felt after the loss of her son. This changed her and made her much more mistrusting of white people.

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Why does Hilly Holbrook want segregated bathrooms?

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Because she believes in the stereotype that black people are unclean and carry disease.

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Why does Hilly stop trying to prove Help is about Jackson?

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Because Minny included the story about Hilly eating the pie with feces.

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Why does Aibileen believe Help is so important?

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Because she believes it can really change things for the better by giving these maids a voice.

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What genre is The Help?

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Historical fiction

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What are two important themes in The Help?

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Race and Justice

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What is the most important aspect of historical context in The Help?

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Racial inequality in 1960s America

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Why is the historical context of The Help so important?


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Because it is historical fiction

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What kind of society is Jackson?

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A segregated one

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What laws legalised segregation in America?

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The Jim Crow Laws

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What is one example of injustice in The Help?

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When Hilly influences Yule May's sentence

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Who is the main antagonist in The Help?

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Hilly Holbrook

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What historical movement does writing Help have links to?

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The Civil Rights Movement

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What was segregation?

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Segregation was when the races were kept separate. This meant different schools, housing, bathrooms, etc. In the time period Stockett was writing about, this was used to discriminate against African Americans.

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What year was Kathryn Stockett born?

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1969

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How many books has Kathryn Stockett published?

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One: The Help

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What is The Help about?

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It is about three women and their efforts to write a book exposing the abuse that black maids faced in 1960s Mississippi.

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What are two important themes in Stockett's work?

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Racial Inequality and Ignorance

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What does Stockett use in her writing style?

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She uses different dialects

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What dialect do Aibileen and Minny speak in?

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AAVE (African American Vernacular English)

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Why did Stockett originally start writing The Help?

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To comfort herself after the trauma of 9/11

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Whose voice was The Help originally in?

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Stockett's childhood maid, Demetrie

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What degree did Kathryn Stockett receive from the University of Alabama?

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English and Creative Writing

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What does The Help promote to fight racism?

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Tolerance and Understanding

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