Doors are often used metaphorically as portals between two worlds, but Katherine Stockett’s The Help takes the imagery further. Two cultures coexisting in a semblance of civility meet at the screen door, the porous barrier that lets in the refreshing breeze and keeps out the flies.
In 1960 Jackson, Mississippi, where white women attain their lifelong ambition by becoming wives, Skeeter dreams of establishing herself as a writer in New York City. Aibileen, her counterpart in the black community, has assumed her expected destiny, working as a maid and nanny for one of Skeeter’s friends. Though the maid is reluctant, the two women eventually connect on a personal level as Skeeter, pursuing her goal, enlists Aibileen’s aid.
Stockett shows members of both communities speaking to the other through the screen door. If a black person gets fired, the yellow slip will be tucked into the screen door. On one occasion, a frightened and angry Gretchen says to Skeeter, “Say it, lady, say the word you think every time one of us comes in the door. Nigger.” She then leaves, giving Skeeter one last look through the screen door.
The scene that nails down the imagery comes when Minny tells Aibileen, “I sure ain’t apologizing to her [Celia, her white employer].” The two characters then grow quiet, and Stockett turns Minny’s attention to a seemingly arbitrary detail—
“I throw back my coffee, watch a horsefly buzz against Aibileen’s screen door, knocking with its hard ugly head, whap, whap, whap, until it falls down on the step. Spins around like a crazy fool.”
A lesser writer would have had Aibileen saying, You’re banging your head against the wall, here, Minny. But Kathryn Stockett is not a lesser writer. Instead, she paints at a discreet level, showing us that if Minny buzzes on about her grievance, rather than playing by the rules, her mutiny would amount to banging her head against the wall.
The futility of the situation is emphasized when Aibileen’s book is published. She returns to work, mopping, ironing, and changing diapers, and although she’s defied the rules, no acknowledgement is made in the Leefolt home or anywhere. “It’s like I ain’t even written a book,” she says. “I don’t know what I spected—some kind a stirring—but it’s just a regular old hot Friday with flies buzzing on the screen.” In other words, it’s still the same white world, nothing’s changed out there. No greater irritation than the status quo of her trivial existence has been introduced to those behind the barrier.
And Katherine Stockett continues to work the imagery. Disillusioned, Skeeter sits on the back porch staring through the screens, which gives the fields a hazy, distorted look. But as she peers beyond the barrier, she finds herself slipping into Aibileen’s skin. “I am not here,” she says. “I am in the old Jackson kitchens with the maids, hot and sticky in their white uniforms. I feel the gentle bodies of white babies breathing against me. I feel what Constantine felt when Mother brought me home from the hospital and handed me over to her. I let their colored memories draw me out of my own miserable life.”
The tragedy of The Help’s central conflict, as Stockett so beautifully illustrates, is nothing more tangible than a point of view as seen behind the barriers we erect.
And before long Skeeter passes completely and for all time through the barrier. While never comfortable with the values of her culture, she now hears the sharp-pitched whine those values elicit from others.
“I stare at the tiny gray squares of the back porch screen. I stare so hard, I slip through them. I feel something inside me crack open then. I am vaporous. I am crazy. I am deaf to that stupid, silent phone. Deaf to Mother’s retching in the house. Her voice through the window, “I’m fine, Carlton, it’s passed.” I hear it all and yet, I hear nothing. Just a high buzzing in my ears.”
Stockett’s premise: Racism is a destructive false belief. Her theme: “We are just two people. Not that much separates us.”