Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Help: Book Club Discussion


Welcome to the first meeting of the In Pursuit of Pretty Things Book Club! For the past couple weeks, we've all been reading or thinking about Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, The Help


So, here's how this is going to work. In the comments below, you'll see that I've started the discussion with some questions. Please read through the comments to familiarize yourself with the questions, and reply to the questions directly, by clicking on the "reply" buttons, rather than starting a whole new comment/discussion thread. If you have a new question to ask, that hasn't been covered in the preset questions, then feel free to add the question as a brand new comment. I'll leave the comments open for those of you who need more time to finish reading the book, but still want to contribute to the discussion. And of course, please exercise courtesy at all times.

So, to recap:

  1. Discussion questions are listed in the comments below.
  2. Please review all comments, to familiarize yourself with the lead questions and any replies.
  3. Reply to questions or responses to questions directly, by clicking on appropriate "reply" buttons
  4. If you have a new question to ask, that hasn't been asked in earlier questions, add the question as a brand new comment.
And, it bears saying, if you haven't read the book yet, and plan to, exercise appropriate discretion - the comments will be full of spoilers.

That's it! Let the discussion begin!

*Discussion questions taken in large part from O Magazine.

78 comments:

  1. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    Discussion Question 1: Who was your favorite character? Why?

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  2. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    Discussion Question: Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships where people of color work for people who are white? Have you heard stories of parents who put away their valuable jewelry before their nanny comes? Paradoxically, they trust the person to look after their child but not their diamond rings?

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  3. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her. How do you think she does this?

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  4. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:38 PM

    From the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, the hair shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous. Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of "beauty" changes with the times. Looking back on your past, what's the most ridiculous beauty regimen you ever underwent?

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  5. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:40 PM

    Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, that Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother? Do you think racism is inherent, or taught? Conversely, do you think what Aibileen did with Mae Mobley up to the point she left the Leefolt household will be enough to combat the influence of the prevalent attitudes towards race in the white community?

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  6. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    Discussion Question: Did it bother you that Skeeter is willing to overlook so many of Stuart's faults so that she can get married, and that it's not until he literally gets up and walks away that the engagement falls apart?

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  7. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    Discussion Question: How much of a person's character would you say is shaped by the times in which they live?

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  8. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    Discussion Question: Like Hilly, Skeeter's mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic. She seems to care for Skeeter—and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine. Yet the ultimatum she gives to Constantine is untenable; and most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical. Do you think Skeeter's mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character? Why?

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  9. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    Discussion Question: What do you think motivated Hilly? On the one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can't control her. Yet she's a wonderful mother. Do you think that one can be a good mother but, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?

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  10. carol_prettythingsAugust 31, 2011 at 11:43 PM

    Discussion Question: Who was your favorite character? Why?

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  11. I have never really met anyone like Hilly so it is hard to understand a woman like that. She does seem to be a loving mother, but I would imagine, as her children get older, that she would be more controling of them too. Her flaws are deep - so I think that they would eventually affect her children.

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  12. I have to pick just one?
     I can mostly identify with Skeeter as a single woman who struggles to prove herself. I like her spunk. I love the fact that, although she was raised just like Hilly, she saw how wrong it was to treat the Help badly. It was good to see how she grew to believe in herself and her ability to change things. 

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  13. It is difficult to say because Mae is so young and she will be growing up amongst major upheavals in race and culture relations in this country. I do think racism is something that is taught though - just thinking back to when I was a kid, I don't recall anyone my age having issues just going up to each other and playing with each other, regardless of color or socio-economic background, It is when we start getting older and "learning about the world" where our perceptions of other people start to take shape.

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  14. Is it strange if I say Celia Foote? What a strange and flawed character - on one hand she doesn't seem to mind doing her own thing, dressing the way she wants, acting how she likes, etc. Yet she seems to do this because she is completely oblivious to social grace, which works in my favor as liking her as a character because she seems to see people for people, and not just a black maid or white housewife.  And granted the whole hiding the help from her hubby thing was weird, she did it coming from a good place of wanting to be a good wife and homemaker .

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  15. I'm trying to think of something thoughtful to say here, but the only thing that comes to my mind is "aw, hell no, that's nasty!"

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  16. I completely agree with Angie. I think as Hilly's kids get older, they will either push far far away from her, or inadvertantly turn into mini-Hillys, considering the dominant personality she has over everything.

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  17. I know! It really is so nasty, hahaha. I don't think I would have done it myself, but it was really satisfying to know that Minny had. =)

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  18. Omg, me too! Well, I don't know if I'd say she was my favorite-favorite, because I agree with Angie - it's really hard for me to narrow it down to one. But I did find Celia to be a really sympathetic character, and I loved her husband for loving her so much, in spite of all the social awkwardness. The Footes were definitely a happy surprise for me, in this book.

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  19. I, too, have to choose Skeeter as my favorite character.  She is the type of woman that I admire, and the type I strive to be.  Her strength in the face of adversity simply amazes me.  I can absolutely identify with her situation.  It is so difficult to feel so different from a group of women that have become so close to you, though you know their outlook on what is right and wrong is so opposite of what you hold true and right in your heart.  I admire the fact that she tried to keep these women close despite their differences, yet still found the courage to fight for what was right.

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  20. For me, it's Aibileen, because she reminds me so much of my grandmother and so many of the women (black and white) I knew growing up in North Carolina.  Her nurturing, her strength, her courage and persistence.

    But in many ways, the two most fun character to read were Celia Foote and Minny Jackson. Both characters, more than just being themselves, outright flew in the face of expectations.

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  21. Fear motivates Hilly. Much the same way it motivates Elizabeth.

    I had to think about the idea that Hilly is a wonderful mother. I'm not so sure. They're young enough that she still relates to them as extensions of herself, and that they still stroke her ego by unconditionally adoring her.

    But then, I think every mother is a deeply flawed person, even the good ones.

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  22. From what I understand, it's not extreme compared to how African American women often have their hair done.

    The most ridiculous thing I ever did was get a perm, but it was the 80s. :) 

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  23. Good question. I'm not sure it's character that shaped by the times so much as values and judgment and perspective. Though it takes a certain kind of character to fly in the face of your times - to even see clearly and objectively to do so.

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  24. No matter how mad I was, I couldn't do it!  Is it weird that when the author finally revealed the "Terrible Awful Thing", all I could keep thinking about was the cookware and utensils that were used to make the pie - they would have to be thrown out!  lol  But I was not at all surprised that Minny would do such a thing.  I think with all the (understandable) anger that Minny had built up over time towards Miss Hilly, retaliation was inevitable.  But when you consider Minny's tenacity and vigor, it was bound to be something extreme!

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  25. You know, I really liked Celia Foote too. She was so innocent, but strong. I loved her friend- ship with Minnie. When she had to protect Minnie from harm and when she had to pay off Hilly and take care of that tree - I was cheering for her the whole time.

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  26. While I don't judge Skeeter or anyone else who chooses to partake in various beauty regimens, I personally think that they are unnecessary.  Sure, the hair shellac system may seem ludicrous to us now, but there are other equally ludicrous options available today! 

    As for myself, I don't think that there is any beauty regimen that I've ever done that I think was ridiculous or extreme - just some semi-permanent highlighted hair coloring as a
    teenager and occasional facials/microdermabrasions.

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  27. Discussion Question: Which character’s narration did you prefer and why?

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  28. I agree with Jennifer - your values and judgement are at the core of who you are. How a person is raised and taught certainly plays a huge role.
    One thing that baffles me about the South in those days was the behavior of the sympathetic whites. Perhaps they treated their help kindly, but they allowed the injustice and cruelty to continue arou 

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  29. Although this isn't really an answer to your question, I do work in an environment where most of the salaried employees are white and over half of the hourly employees are not, and we work in a smaller town in the south.  I can't see vestiges of racism in my office, but I'm not sure I would even see it since I was raised without those opinions.  I have noticed that the boxed lunches that are sold on Fridays and delivered to the office are typically cooked by the grandmothers of the hourly employees, and it makes me wonder if I'm eating the recipes that were once cooked for white households by hired help.  If nothing else, I can say that the food is so good, you can taste the love in it!

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  30. It is unlikely that Miss Elizabeth and Mae Mobley would ever become close. I think that distance would give Mae Mobley the insight to not become racist. Her mama not paying attention to her would make her more sensitive.
     I do believe racism is taught and modeled. Mae Mobley was very young, but she did bond with Aibileen.

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  31. I sure hope there are no vestiges. I don't hang around with people who have workers or nannies of any color. Maybe I am glad that I don't know anybody like that.

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  32. Ladies, and any gents who are participating, that was one disgusting act. Clara is right - just thinking of Minnie stirring that up in her kitchen is enough to upset my stomach. I could NEVER, EVER do it. I am even a little embarassed that I think it is funny because it is SO twisted, but the act fits Millie. Although it sort of changes my feelings for pie.

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  33. Mindofmr Blogspot ComSeptember 1, 2011 at 11:26 PM

    Aibileen is the heart of this book.  she has that subtle courage and strength i really admire.  she can hold her own but is not in your face all the time.  

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  34. Mindofmr Blogspot ComSeptember 1, 2011 at 11:28 PM

     i think fear and her own insecurity are what made her have this need to control everything and everyone around her.  i thnk she was afraid if she wasn't in charge and powerful no one would like or respect her for who she was...since she basically has no redeeming qualities.  i fear for her children...

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  35. Mindofmr Blogspot ComSeptember 1, 2011 at 11:33 PM

    i don't think i could go that far because when you have to handle your own feces and literally bake it into a pie aren't you kind of punishing yourself too?? haha
    I think i could have got the same satisfaction from telling hilly i had done it even if i hadn't - just to see her reaction.  

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  36. As a single woman in her 30s (who'd rather not be), it bothered me and I sympathize with her at the same time. Everybody has faults, and part of "courtship" is deciding which ones you are willing to live with. That's maturity. But too often courtship ends up meaning a choice of blinding yourself to faults, and that's foolish. (Not that anybody is ever going to have 20-20 on that.)

    It bothers me that Skeeter might be willing to settle, but at the same time, it bothers me that so many women I know are so picky and have seriously unrealistic (or silly) standards.

    I was mainly disappointed that Stuart didn't end up having the courage to be who he could have been with Skeeter.

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  37. I totally agree that she was the heart of the book.  I love that she got to continue her writing too and take over Skeeter's column.  :-)

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  38. I liked the Footes too and I was pleasantly surprised to see how the husband loved and stood by Celia despite the way the rest of his social circle treated her.  Does anyone else think it's weird that he was with Hilly before Celia though??  That must have been quite a change! 
    My only complaint is that I wish there had been a bit more about Celia at the end of the book.  It felt like her part was a bit rushed near the end and there could have been more resolution on her story line.

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  39. I think they would probably push away from her.  She is so controlling and that surely would turn them away.  I would hope they wouldn't turn out like her!

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  40. I was disappointed in Stuart too.  I really didn't know where the author was going with that character and I'm not sure I really liked how he developed.  I don't think he was a very good match for Skeeter. 

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  41. I agree Angie, I think Mae Mobley's bond with Aibileen had a deep affect on her and the way she will turn out as an adult.  I love the way she taught Mae about current events and acceptance through her stories.  Those scenes were some of my favorites in the book.

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  42. I agree with everyone regarding Hilly's deep-seated fear and insecurity. This type of manipulative tendency seems almost indicative of sociopathy to me. I mean, seriously - all the effort she put into getting Minny as a maid is pretty extreme. She put her own mother into a nursing home, spread all those rumors, and then offered to give her a raise. It was all so bizarre! Makes me wonder when this behavior started...was she like this as a child? What did Mrs. Walter DO to her when she was younger? 

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  43. Yes, I agree - there seems to be a nuanced distinction in how we define character and all the stuff that underlies it - the values, judgment, perspective, behavior, etc. Certainly, the times and environment in which you live can shape and influence your attitudes. And your decisions and behaviors - the things which more readily translate into your character, I guess - can be a direct result of your attitudes regarding issues. But certainly, attitudes, values, perspective, etc, aren't the whole of character - those intangibles are just that. It's what you _do_ that really defines character, and in that regard, I think we'd all agree that Hilly had a dubious character, whereas Skeeter and Aibileen were more admirable in their characters.

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  44. Oh, and I agree with everyone else about the motherhood piece. Wait 'til those kids hit puberty and develop a will of their own. It'll be all over then.

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  45. I'd agree that we're all flawed, though certainly some are more so than others.

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  46. Skeeter's mother is an interesting character and since no one else has tried to answer this yet, I'll give it a shot. To me, she ended as a sympathetic character, though I didn't care for her to begin with. For me, the revelations she made regarding her treatment of Constantine, her illness, and her support of Skeeter in the face of Stuart's desertion really allowed a glimpse into a more nuanced, multi-dimensional human being. I don't really know that I like her a lot, but I do feel like I sort of understand her motivations now, and can see that she's not an ill-intentioned person. 

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  47. I have to agree with your assessment of Hilly's future relationships with her children. Once they hit puberty and really developed a mind and will of their own, things would get ugly for sure. She'd be so passive-aggressive with them, they'd be lucky to make it to adulthood without serious co-dependency issues. Sigh.

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  48. Debbie, I have to say I agree with your opinion about Stuart and the author's treatment of him. I'm not entirely sure who he was and what he was supposed to stand for. I agree with Jennifer as well that I was also disappointed that he didn't end up half as cool as Celia Foote's husband. 

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  49. Haha, I've certainly undergone all kinds of ridiculous hair treatments (various different types of perms and hair coloring) in my lifetime, so this wasn't nearly so outlandish to me - in fact, it sort of made me think of "Brazilian Blow-outs" and that sort of thing. I actually find our 21st century beauty treatments like botox and laser surgeries more extreme than shellacking one's hair. But that's just me.

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  50. I also wonder when that behavior started for her.  It also makes me question how Skeeter could have ever been best friends with her! 

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  51. It's just kind of sad that it took her illness to really make her reassess her actions and behavior towards Skeeter.  Do you think she would have changed if she hadn't gotten sick?

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  52. The Footes were my favorite too.  Although somewhat unrealistic, but I kind of loved how the two of them tried to do things to protect each other but did it behind each others backs.  It was both silly and endearing.
    I wish they wrapped up Celia's character better - it was a bit abrupt.  I wanted to know more about her and I kind of wanted to know more about what will happen to Hilly.

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  53. I think their social circle will effect their relationship with Hilly.  Overall, I think it will be a strained relationship of either bending over backwards to please her, or doing anything to push away from her. 

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  54. In her post about Hilly, Jennifer mentioned that fear also motivates Elizabeth and I agree.  Obviously she was having some issues with the way her friends perceived her and her home since she didn't have as much money as the others.  Why did she have to take it out on Mae Mobley?  Why did she seem to have such dislike for her child?  I felt so bad for the little girl!  At times I felt like Elizabeth was just as much of a villain as Hilly even though her character was written more subtly. 

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  55. I wondered about Hilly's mother too.  What was she all about?  There should have been more info on her and Hilly's father.  We got info about Elizabeth's mother.  That definitely gave insight into E herself.  Scary women!

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  56. I didn't like her in the beginning, but definitely grew to like her more.  It seems that she was a product of her time in many ways.  Her support for Skeeter at the end kind of gave a glimpse into the woman that she perhaps was but couldn't really show at that time and place.  I don't think that we learned enough about her to really judge her.

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  57. I think I liked Aibileen's narration the best (probably because I liked her the best as a character and her story line).  Did anyone find the narration style confusing, switching back and forth between the different narrators?  There were a few times that I had to flip back to the beginning of the chapter to remind myself who was narrating, but for the most part I really enjoyed hearing the story from all of their different perspectives.  :-)

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  58. I liked them all pretty evenly, though for different reasons. I liked having the different perspectives into each character's experience of life in that time and place, and there wasn't any particular story that was more compelling to me than the others. For instance, I loved Aibileen's because she's such a steady, grounding presence, and she's so good with children. I loved Minny's because they gave me a glimpse into Celia and Johnny Foote's lives (which turned out to be more interesting than I expected), and I loved Skeeter's because she gave interesting insight into "what the white people are thinking." I know that doesn't answer the question, but I can't really say which I preferred best....

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  59. I agree with Carol.  I thought the multiple narrators were an effective way to create specific voices for the different characters.  For example, if the book was written purely from Skeeter's perspective, so much would have been lost.

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  60. I thought that Minnie was a great character.  She spoke her mind even though she kept on getting fired.  I really admire her spirit.

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  61. I think she has a huge desire to control those around her.  Her children are still young so they dote on her.  Good moms often have deep flaws, but I think once those flaws begin to overwhelm your sense of self, they can definitely affect how you relate to your children and those around you.  

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  62. I think character really depends on one's upbringing and their environment, so I would definitely say that the times are a factor.  

    People are blind to a lot of things.  There are many instances where I perceive various wrongs (a racist song that my daughter repeated to me on the playground about punching Chinese people, a racist jingle on the radio using pidgin English, friends posting pictures of themselves wearing brightly colored bandanas and flashing gang signs as a joke) that other people don't see as a big deal.      

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  63. I think Stuart was a little unnecessary as a character, but it was interesting to see Skeeter's relationship with him develop and fall apart.

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  64. I think if Aibileen stayed, Mae Mobley would have been more open minded.  I think young children definitely notices differences between themselves and other kids, but I feel that racism is taught.  Sadly, I don't think what Aibileen did will help Mae Mobley fight against racism, but I also feel that the times were changing so Mae Mobley's environment would be a little less racist when she grew up.

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  65. I always fought against my mom's suggestions to get perms, but I remember putting mayo in my hair once as a natural conditioner.  So gross.  I do know plenty of Korean friends who got eyelid surgery (http://www.beautifuleyes.com/cosmetic-surgery/asian.html).  

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  66. Aibileen was a thinker and took great care to consider the best course of action to take many times of the course of the novel.  

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  67. I'm not sure about this question.  I'm a person of color and my nanny is white, so I can't say that I can offer any insight to this.  

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  68. I think it's utterly disgusting, but pretty funny at the same time.

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  69. I agree in the fear of change motivation. I think that is all they knew. Life changed slower then. People fought it more. 

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  70. Yes, I did the same thing a few times (flip back to the beginning).  I definitely enjoyed the different perspectives, but it can get a little confusing.

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  71.  I can't really picture myself ever doing something like that, but I can totally understand why Minny would go that far.  She obviously got a lot of satisfaction from it and I think that it suited her character well.  I also enjoyed the way that it was used as blackmail towards the end.  Not only did Minny get the satisfaction of watching Hilly eat the pie, she got to use it as leverage.  Pretty smart - and pretty funny!

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  72. Hilly was all about social status. She was the ultimate mean girl. I think she would do anything to anyone to put herself at the top rung of the social ladder. Minny was just another possession of social status for Hilly. Minny was known to be the best cook in the area and since Hilly had to have the best of everything she did what she had to in order to obtain her. 

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  73. I think Stuart represented Skeeter choosing the life that was expected of her by her parents, her friends and society in general at that time. We see Skeeter's mother suggesting that she get a bank teller job in order to meet a man. At that time, the sole purpose of going to college and getting a job was to potentially meet a husband. It was expected that a woman was not going to have a career once she married. Since Stuart was a wealthy senator's son and was also friends with her friends he was the ultimate match for her on paper according to what society told her to believe. In the process of writing the book Skeeter changed as a person and her values change, but it took her a while to see it. Stuart saw the different Skeeter before she did.

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  74. I think that Elizabeth placed a high importance on social status in the same way that Hilly did. For most women at that time, they couldn't climb the corporate ladder so all they were left with was climbing the social ladder. At times, they did so to help further their spouse's corporate ladder climb. Since Hilly was the Queen Bee of their social circle, Elizabeth became her sycophant. The only people Elizabeth could order around was her husband and her child. Mae Mobley got the brunt of her meanness because Elizabeth was around her more often and she was easier to control. I also think that women married and became mothers very early in their lives at that time before they were mature enough to do so. They grew up along with their children. They didn't have the resources (and support from their spouses) that mothers have today.

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  75. I think this was another case where a character didn't choose the path that was expected of them. Hilly represented everything he should have wanted and chosen in a spouse. She was educated, came from a good family, was connected socially, and she was beautiful in a conventional way. Celia was from a poor area, she didn't have any friends, she was gaudy in the way she dressed, she didn't have any of the expected homemaker skills. Mr. Foote chose love over what was expected of him because he decided that none of those other things mattered to him. 

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  76. I think Mae Mobley makes Elizabeth feel inadequate in several ways - as a mother generally (she's fairly clueless and seems to have struggled with severe PPD), and as the image of a "good" mother (Mae Mobley isn't the "perfect" little girl). She dislikes (as many of us do) what makes her feel insecure and lashes out at Mae Mobley without really understanding why.

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  77. I hope white america knows that Mae Mobley is paying the Aibi's well these days not to be bothered with their Elizabeths & Hillys. I never knew white people threw their elderly in nursing homes so fast!

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