Thursday, May 20, 2010

Kathryn Stockett's The Help

I liked Kathryn Stockett's The Help, but I wanted to love it. I wanted it to creep into my bones like so many other works about Southern women and their problematic relationships. I wanted it to be risky and a little more painful than it actually was. I wanted a villain that was sympathetic and revealing, and protagonists whose lives were more developed. I wanted the book to have heavy consequences for me.

It didn’t do those things. It was engrossing; I read it in about 6 hours, deeply drawn in to the story and invested in the characters. My heart pounded at the end and I ached for the villain to get a much needed comeuppance despite knowing that good novelists never let the villain get overtly punished. The book understands its world, perhaps a little too well – it sees the ways that humans turn on each other and revile each other. It witnesses the ways that people will search for anything that degrades that which they fear and will stop at nothing to control their own lives and the destinies of others. We see a lot of this in the character of Hilly, who is, SPOILER, the villain. Hilly is manipulative; she takes great pleasure in inflicting Skeeter’s punishment, and it is apparent from the start that Hilly is looking for someone to punish or scapegoat. She reveals her foul plans in front of those who will be most harmed, daring them to speak against her, and she fantastically overestimates her own power and charm. Hilly is made to be hated, and that’s part of the problem.

Hilly’s exist; no one can question that. There are women who cannot even begin to fight off the urge to control people and damage those who resist their control. But not all racists were or are like Hilly, who is motivated by a need for political or social power, or like negligent Elizabeth, who simply seems to want to not rock Hilly’s boat, or like desperate Celia, who mistake the relationship of employer and employee as well as basic human kindness for intimacy, or even like Skeeter, who is so invested in Constantine without ever knowing anything about her. Part of this may be Stockett’s point – all of these women are deeply implicated in the pattern of oppression they live in the middle of. But Hilly is singled out as the worst, and consequently, she is the least developed character.

Hilly is cruel even to her mother, and no explanation is given. There’s no real insight into Hilly’s psyche other than the idea that it is driven by evil and is a place of dark schemes. Hilly’s cruelty makes for high drama, and keeps the reader engrossed in the novel, shocked and disgusted by what she will do next, but Hilly’s cruelty is not examined for reasons that might make her sympathetic, that might make her a relatable bitch, an insight into the bad person in all of us that makes us cringe when we realize we’ve thought something terrible. This is one thing that would have elevated The Help to absolute greatness: a connection to the worst person, making us feel her thoughts and abhor them, making us live racism for a little while, letting us feel it and how it shapes cruelty, rather than simply observe it and feel shocked that people like Hilly exist.

The other major concern I had about the book was the use of dialect. In the book, the black women are all written as speaking in a fairly authentic dialect. However, the white women are not written as having an accent – something which would not be historically true. After all, this is 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. There’s definitely a dialect spoken by everyone who lives there. It might vary based on race, class, and locale, but it would still be there.

Writing women of different races and classes having different dialects of an accent simply represents accuracy. Writing women of an oppressed race as having an accent where their oppressors have none, and are written in “standard” English, rubs me the wrong way.

Really, in spoken English, there is no “standard.” The idea of a standard English really has to do with the way in which we communicate in writing. We use a standard grammar and vocabulary to ensure that an audience with a reasonable understanding of the language in which we are writing will understand us. However, we don’t speak this way. We have accents and dialects and particular ways of speaking that can be represented in writing.

There’s a long history of using dialect to represent the way that people from the South speak, both black and white. Twain, Chestnut, Allison, Faulkner and many more used a written representation of dialect to attempt to more realistically capture the environment that inspired them. Stockett only does this halfway – by only writing the voices of black women in dialect, she (hopefully unintentionally) presents the voices of white women as “standard,” a doubly problematic issue in a novel in which black women’s voices are also being published by a white woman.

While most of Skeeter’s work is focused on transcribing the stories written and told by the women she meets, Stockett creates all of the voices in her book. When creating these voices, she has doubled the power dynamic that already exists between her characters.

The Help, Stockett’s first novel, sticks a toe in the ocean, but doesn’t take a swim in the deep water. The novel does portray women crossing lines, it does show the shadow of racism, and it is an interesting read. But, if it went further, if it took the risk of humanizing Hilly, if it gave the accent fair treatment, it might have been a great novel.

1 comment:

  1. I'm agreeing with a lot of things you say.

    I'm about halfway through the book (listening on cd while I'm driving back and forth between Jackson and Oxford).

    Everyone has told me it's amazing and maybe it's just talked up too much and maybe it's just me listening to it instead of reading, but I'm just being underwhelmed.