I do not mean to “knock” relationships between dads and daughters, mothers and sons, etc., but Kathryn Stockett’s underlying commentary on the importance of mother-daughter bonds is a commentary that is undeniably important to note, not only for the plot of The Help, but also for society in the real world. Stockett, again and again, shows differing kinds of relationships between mothers and their daughters throughout the novel, and the reader can’t help but notice their impacts on the individuals and the web it creates throughout Jackson’s culture.
The reader sees Elizabeth Leefolt repeatedly abuse Mae Mobley, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan nagged by her concerned mother, and Celia long for the chance to be a mother—not to mention the tragic losses Abileen and Constantine faced by essentially losing their motherhood. Each of these mothers experience pressures put on themselves because of their desire to “look the part” in their society. Stockett shows how damaging this pressure is on that mother-daughter relationship and how that damage negatively affects not only the relationship but also the next generation and, therefore, the entire culture of a region. Mae Mobley and Skeeter are perhaps the most noticeable victims of mothers who put pressure on themselves in order to impress others around them.
Mae Mobley is undeniably the saddest victim in The Help. Her mother Elizabeth Leefolt, perhaps the least wealthy of her group of friends, is constantly trying to keep up appearances. Throughout the novel, the readers sees references to her trying to hide the infamous crack in her table, sew covers for furniture, mend clothing, and stress over other frenzied methods of hiding her not having the latest and greatest of belongings. Elizabeth, a close friend of both Skeeter Phelan and Hilly Holbrook—two rather wealthy figureheads in Jackson’s female society, hangs on every word Hilly speaks and does anything she can to keep in Hilly’s good graces, including purchasing and installing a toilet room for the help that she cannot afford, just to support Hilly’s movement to have the help forbidden from using white people’s toilets.
It’s interesting to note that both the reader and Abileen never seem to sense that Elizabeth has any sort of opinion about whether the help are less-than-human and deserve that kind of treatment. Elizabeth is not very concerned about that issue at all—she’s concerned about her image in Hilly’s eyes, nothing less. Financially and emotionally stressed, Elizabeth feels consumed with this desperate desire to keep a good image and reputation, to the point that she neglects her daughter Mae Mobley. Abileen, Elizabeth’s help and Mae Mobley’s caretaker, notes that the first thing she does when arriving at Elizabeth’s house in the morning is tend to Mae Mobley’s diaper and feeding since Elizabeth does not seem to change her, leaving her in her own mess for whatever duration of time that Abileen is not present.
However, this neglect is not the worst of Mae’s treatment. A few times, the reader sees Mae get her mother’s attention. She does this once by yanking at the cord of her phone when she is on a call with Hilly, causing Elizabeth to drop the phone, and another time when she successfully and proudly uses the potty (unfortunately, she uses her beloved help Abileen’s toilet). Both times and the times alluded to throughout the novel, the child receives angry, vicious yelling and physical abuse. This abuse is so constant that Mae Mobley, who is clearly unsure of her worth, frequently looks at Abileen and asks her “Mae Mo bad?”
Devastatingly, over the course of the novel, that question mark changes into a period, breaking both Abileen’s and the reader’s heart when, instead, the child switches from asking to merely stating, “Mae Mo bad.” Abileen tries to counter this negative upbringing by teaching Mae Mobley to love herself and be kind to others, but she learns that not only does Elizabeth treat Mae Mobley unkindly but Mae Mobley’s teacher is teaching her to hate others based on their appearances (race, in this case). Her father is only present in the house once in the novel, and his only input is concern when his daughter tells a story about racial equality. Not only does this concern for image—and judgment over the image of others—injure her daughter physically and emotionally, but it also leaves both the reader and Abileen concerned about the ramifications on the culture of their society when their parents raise Mae Mobley and other children with this kind of hate and fear.
Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, the protagonist of The Help, shares several similarities to Mae Mobley in how she got raised. Like Mae, her mother repeatedly degraded her for her looks. While Mae Mobley is told she was ugly, Skeeter is told she is too tall. While Mae gets neglected, Skeeter gets nagged repeatedly to wear nicer clothes, to go on more dates, to just be more “lady like.” Her mother goes through great pains to purchase her different clothing and hair supplies and set her up on various dates in desperation to have Skeeter married off, legally warding off the status of a spinster.
Stockett writes that Skeeter spent much of her childhood trying to “slip past” her mother and “not be seen.” Skeeter’s closest friend Hilly shares in the Skeeter’s mother’s determination to see Skeeter married and sets her up with Stuart. Skeeter, although rather exasperated with her mother’s and Hilly’s efforts to set her up, wants to be in a relationship. On her way to her date, Stockett writes that Skeeter “grip[s] the white padded steering wheel, telling [her]self for the tenth time that it’s ridiculous to wish for something [she]’ll never have.” Skeeter simply believes she is not pretty or worthy enough for love; this belief is clearly because of a childhood of being told she was too tall by her mother, who also apparently, when setting Skeeter’s dates up, would “sell” her daughter by telling the potential date that Skeeter has a large sum of money in her name.
However, just like Mae Mobley, the help also repeatedly emotionally lift Skeeter. Constantine, the help who Skeeter states raised her, repeatedly comforts and spends time with Skeeter, raising her self-esteem and supporting her when she feels less-than-worthy of her peers’ love and respect. However, the largest difference between Mae Mobley and Skeeter is that Skeeter’s mother seemed to do these things largely out of concern for Skeeter’s happiness and well-being. She knew the value a good image is in their society, and she wanted to see her happy and secure. This desire for Skeeter’s happiness is the reason that Constantine’s dismissal was so deeply shocking to both Skeeter and the reader. Equally shocking was when Skeeter’s mom stood up for Skeeter, both with Hilly and with Stuart. Unlike with Mae Mobley and Elizabeth, there is a clear love between Skeeter and her mother, and the reader can see how this love influences Skeeter’s desire to spread that love by showing love to others. She will take chances—huge ones—in concern to her image, something that Skeeter’s mother knew was right but never had the courage to do.
By focusing on mother-daughter relationships, Stockett shows that culture can change over time, but it has to start at home, building a foundation of love between a mother and her daughter (or her son, or a father and his child….). The reader can see, just as clearly, these ideas developed in Hilly and her mother, Stuart and his mother, and so many more. It’s no surprise that, whether intentionally or on purpose, Stockett uses these relationships to discuss what a society looked like during the Civil Rights Movement. Society’s pressure to maintain a good image can cause overwhelming fear, and the courage required to overcome that, during that time or now, can be difficult to muster. Most people would agree that a cultural shift starts at home—not in the president’s seat or in a congressional meeting. Stockett drives this point home repeatedly with each character, although not one character (except perhaps Abileen) discusses these relationships. Stockett reminds the reader that, although mother and daughter relationships are not necessarily a focus in everyday life, they can make a big impact, perhaps even a cultural revolution.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ashley Yarbrough is a writer, mother, teacher, gardener, and many other things. She writes about it all here. Feel free to take a look!