The novels The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, share the theme of prejudice and individuals’ preconceived notions about others. The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. The Color Purple is also set in the southern states of the USA, at around the same time period. In The Help, the prejudice is largely of a racial nature, with elements of societal prejudice against the women of Jackson. In The Color Purple, the concerns central to the theme are those of gender stereotyping and gender roles, but there are additionally elements of racial prejudice included.
Skeeter, Aibileen and Mimmy all face bias due to some sort of stereotype. Their suffering somehow differs, because of the colour of their skin as well as the position they hold within society. The two oppressed African-American housekeepers Aibileen and Mimmy start the novel off by giving insights concerning their tiring days and lives in The Help. Constantine, an old friend of Aibileen, comments: “Ever morning, until you dead in the ground… you gone have to ask yourself, ‘Am I gone believe what them fools say about me today?’ ” [page 331] These word underline the main issue faced by African American women during the 1960s – they were often conflicted by the thought of accepting the hurtful and undermining words of their employers and other white people – as passive acceptance was seen to be the “best way to survive”.
Although Skeeter is a white privileged individual, she is nevertheless a victim. She is frustrated by the sexual expectations of society, as well as those of her family: a “proper woman” would be a mother. The world around her does not approve of her choice of being an author. The Help takes the form of report backs by each of the characters. Skeeter intends to publish her book, which is in fact The Help. Skeeter says, “My eyes drift down to HELP WANTED: MALE… On this side of the page, Percy and Gray, LP, is offering Jr. Stenographers fifty cents more an hour.” [page 71] In the 1960s, employers had complete rights to discriminate on the basis of a person’s gender, race and origin. Skeeter’s character in the novel is the one which reflects the gender stereotype.
In The Color Purple, Celie begins her story through a series of letters to God, the other chapters are from Nettie to Celie. The young underprivileged 14-year-old girl expresses her story of having been abused by both her step-father and, later in life, her husband, silently, to best ensure her survival. In her fifth letter to God, she writes, “…When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it. But I don’t never get used to it.” [page 3]. She also comments, “This is the country in which a woman is raped every three minutes,” she says, “where one out of three women will be raped during their lifetimes and a quarter of those are children under 12.” [page 85] Celie’s comment aptly sum up the author’s purpose and theme.
After some time, Celie meets an empowered lady, whom she recognises as a role model. Shug helps Celie find confidence in her own voice and sexuality. Now her husband, Mr. ____, has no power over her. Through years of trying to find her identity, Celie has achieved the status of a successful and independent woman. At the end she comments, “But I don’t think us feel old at all. And us so happy. Matter of fact, I think this the youngest us ever felt.” [page 259]
In both novels the story is told by the actual characters. In The Colour Purple, the narrator is Celie whose letters involve the reader in her development throughout the novel. We are able to predict that by the end of the novel, she will be successful as she grows in self awareness and becomes more able to assert herself. In The Help, all three characters narrate their own stories. This deepens our understanding of the theme. Skeeter, the white woman who aspires to be an author, acts as a scribe for the other two characters. As she writes their stories, she gains insight into the difficulties of their lives and so does the reader. The storylines in both novels are entertaining, and thought-provoking. The narration in both novels grips the readers by relating sentimental as well as heartbreaking experiences, which allows readers to identify with all the characters.
In The Help, the three main characters have all suffered some sort of prejudice.
The two main, rounded characters are Skeeter and Aibileen. Mimmy, although she is described as a kind of rebel, does not grow and change as the other two characters do. Skeeter, a twenty-two-year-old woman, that has just returned home from college, has aspirations of becoming a writer and fails to fulfil the norm – a housewife. The young writer becomes aware of the segregation between the southern maids and their employees. This conflict of justice leads Skeeter to write about being an outcast. This is a risky job, yet she is able to complete her civil rights action by publishing her book and moving away from her roots to New York.
Aibileen Clark, the eponymous “help” has cared for 17 white children over the years. Readers sympathise with her, as she tells us the story of the death of her only child, and the hardships she has endured from her employers’ treatment of her. She relates how, ”I LOST MY OWN BOY, TreeLore, right before I started waiting on Miss Leefolt. He was twenty-four years old. The best part of a person’s life.” [page 6] Although her growth is long and painful to read about, the reader sympathises with her and and longs for her to be empowered and stand up for herself, as we can see she has more to offer than being a maid. Once Aibileen embraces the risk of collaborating with Skeeter on her book, she begins to realise that the colour of her skin does not determine her just deserts. She describes the book as “the prettiest book I ever seen.”[page 291]
In The Color Purple, the relationship between the characters Celie, Nettie and Mr.___ transforms. The story is told from the perspective of the main character Celie – therefore the reader relates to her and feels sorry for her character. She starts as a sad girl that has no self worth or confidence, and later finds her happy and independent self through her relationship with Shug, who persuades her that she is not defined by Mr.___’s treatment of her.
On the other hand Celie’s sister Nettie also undergoes a educational transformation. She is enriched by her travels in Africa and learns that the way her father and Mr.___ treated girls is not acceptable. She reports to Celie by telling her “They are not all mean like Pa and Albert, or beaten down like Ma was.” [page 151] Nettie learns to be independent of all men and only marries when she finds personal value in herself.
Mr.___ begins his journey as a cruel troubled character: he often abuses Celie: “Mr.___ clam on top of me, do his business, in ten minutes us both sleep.” [page 63] He transforms after Shug and Celie leave him. However, he remains a flat character because we never see things from his point of view.
The writing styles between the two novels are similar. The characters in The Help, Aibileen and Mimmy have thick southern African-American accents. On the other hand, the educated Skeeter speaks in a more sophisticated manner, with no recognisable accent: “Mother would be furious, but i just drive faster.” [chapter 5] On the same note, in The Colour Purple, Celie has an overly simple way of writing, with evidence of accents similar to those Stocket has given her two housekeepers – “She say Naw, I ain’t gonna” [page 1] whereas the letters from her knowledgeable sister Nettie are written more correctly: she starts her letters, “Dearest Celie,” [page 204], and makes comments like “he treated me like an ordinary nigger.” [page 169] She tells of her adventures, reporting to her sister about her studies and documenting her journeys to Africa in a uncomplicated style, yet the difference between the two narrators is obvious.
The two authors deliberately write in this way to enhance and clarify the common theme of segregation and also to reveal the differences between the characters.
In The Colour Purple the content is graphic and quite shocking at times, and the style reflects this: “First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy.” [page 1]
Both novels end happily and convincingly. Even though the endings are quite simplistic and predictable, they are satisfying. Considering that in today’s society discrimination based on gender and race has not been erased and continues to exist as an undertone within society, I believe that exploring the development and actions of the different characters in each of my chosen books can inform and influence those who are willing to achieve the same justice as they have through confrontation. This will further point out the hollowness within racial and sexual stereotyping.