Narrating Cries for Help

Before I criticize a book or film, I often feel obligated to permit it to speak in its own defense. For that reason, I went from reading Harry Potter, of which I am a devoted fan, to Eragon and Twilight. I enjoyed parts of each, raised an eyebrow at the sometimes-poor writing, and found other elements problematic. In 2010, I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin alongside Blake; or The Huts of America. I wanted to understand the perspective that was deprecated in later publications.

This January, with similar misgivings, I picked up Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.

Friends have recommended it; newspapers and online commentaries have alternately praised and berated it. Readers and thinkers whom I respect have excoriated the claim of a white writer to speak on behalf of and in the voice of black maids in the 1960s.

Narrative authority is one of the literary issues that I care most deeply about. Although I hesitate to make the claim that it is never possible to explore the voice of a character unlike yourself, the authors I most respect are those whose attempts to do so demonstrate a measure of self-awareness and self-critique.

For example, in Age of Iron, J.M. Coetzee’s narrator writes, “I tell you the story of this morning mindful that the storyteller, from her office, claims the place of right. […] So I ask you: attend to the writing, not to me. If lies and pleas and excuses weave among the words, listen for them. Do not pass them over, do not forgive them easily. Read all, even this adjuration, with a cold eye” (104). I was looking for similar moments as I read The Help.

It is a page-turner, well crafted and, for the most part, well executed. A few passages came close to identifying the problems or risks of narrating on behalf of another. As Aibileen and Skeeter construct a book of the maids’ stories, they make editorial choices. “Let’s just move on,” Aibileen says in one brief exchange. “We don’t got to…count that one” (304). The story in question does end up in Skeeter’s book, but for me, this scene had the potential to problematize Stockett’s own role as an editor and narrator. To my disappointment, its potential never materializes.

Finally, in an afterword, Stockett describes her doubts about the project. She says, “I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. […] I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don’t think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman’s paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity” (529-530).

On one hand, I agree with the sentiment, the effort to understand. I respect other books that have attempted a similar feat. The cover of The Help compares Stockett’s novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, saying, “This could be one of the most important pieces of fiction since To Kill a Mockingbird …If you read only one book…let this be it.”

It is true that both The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird rely in troublesome fashion on the intervention of a white character (Skeeter and Atticus, respectively) to give voice to their oppressed black communities. It is also true that in doing so, both books make an effort to tackle complex issues of racial perception and action. However, there is one key difference that I cannot brush aside.

In Lee’s novel, Scout attempts to understand racial segregation from the outside. She wrestles with what she can see, without being able to conveniently slip inside Calpurnia’s head, or Tom Robinson’s. Had The Help taken a similar stance, simply recounting Skeeter’s attempt to piece together a narrative that is not fully her own; had Stockett left the nested book Help unwritten and inaccessible to readers, I think I would have found the concluding commentary much more compelling. Unfortunately, the book itself is so consumed with telling a gripping story that it fails to reflect the doubt Stockett expresses in her closing remarks.

As a result, the book left me disappointed that a well-written story like this one wasted its potential to dig into the problem of narrative authority and, with the help of additional research and inquiry, to open a meaningful conversation about the narratives that were and were not allowed to emerge from the twentieth-century South.

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