It is August 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi and Aibileen Clark, a 53-year-old African American housemaid, narrates her experience working in white households. She has taken care of seventeen white children in her life and now she helps raise one more: the 2-year-old Mae Mobley Leefolt. Miss Elizabeth Leefolt, the 23-year-old mother, feels little love for her child, even avoiding any physical contact with her. Aibileen provides Mae Mobley with the nurturing affection that Miss Leefolt refuses to give.
To write in the voices of the black maids, Kathryn Stockett, a white modern-day Southerner, adopts a version of what she thinks black women sounded like in the 1960s. In this way, Stockett tries to provide a more accurate depiction of the black characters’ perspectives, but she also risks rendering these women’s speech patterns in stereotypical and potentially racist ways, an accusation many critics have made of the book.
Aibileen remembers losing her own son, Treelore, two years earlier. At twenty-four, Treelore was writing a book on his experiences being black in Mississippi. One night at the lumber mill where he worked, he slipped off the loading dock and was crushed by a trailer. For three months after her son’s death, Aibileen was unable to leave her bed. When the money started to run out, she took a job raising the newborn Mae Mobley. The death of her son makes Aibileen feel as if a “bitter seed” is growing inside of her, making her less accepting of the people around her.
With her biological son recently deceased, Aibileen figuratively “adopts” Mae Mobley, introducing the theme of gender and the home. Societal conventions in the 1960s dictated that white women should stay at home and raise the children, but Miss Leefolt’s lack of affection for her daughter shows that she is emotionally unsuited for motherhood. Thus, she employs Aibileen as a sort of substitute mother to Mae Mobley.
Aibileen resents Miss Leefolt for taking pleasure in telling her what to do. Miss Leefolt lives in a small house with her husband and child and pays Aibileen only ninety-five cents an hour. On this day, Miss Leefolt holds a luncheon for her friends Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan and Miss Hilly Holbrook. Both women are also twenty-three. Miss Hilly’s elderly mother, Miss Walters, also arrives. Miss Skeeter offers a friendly greeting to Aibileen but Miss Hilly walks right past her without saying a word.
Skeeter’s friendly greeting foreshadows her compassion for the maids, while Hilly’s snub shows that she has so little concern for black people that she barely even sees them. Most white people expected black maids to be “invisible”—to blend into the background and stay silent except when addressed. Over the course of the novel, however, Aibileen will fight for her right to be heard and seen.
Aibileen serves the women food and overhears Miss Hilly accuse her mother’s maid Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend, of stealing family heirlooms. Miss Hilly tells them about a sanitation bill she and her husband are sponsoring. If passed, the bill would require every white household in Mississippi to have a separate bathroom for black housekeepers. Miss Hilly claims black people “carry different kinds of disease than we do.” Shocked by her ignorance and lack of compassion for the maids, Miss Skeeter quips that maybe she should have a separate bathroom outside. Insulted, Miss Hilly threatens to remove her from her position as editor of the local women’s Junior League newsletter.
By legitimizing segregation on the basis of “sanitation,” Hilly tries to make her personal racist practice of having a separate bathroom for the maids a law for everyone in the state. As a result of Hilly’s bill, bathrooms in the novel become symbols of how white people’s personal racist social practices and beliefs reinforce and uphold institutional segregation. In the same vein, the bathroom represents a battleground over segregation in the home, a traditionally feminine space, rather than in the public sphere, which, at this time, men almost exclusively controlled.
After Miss Hilly and Miss Walters leave, Aibileen finds Miss Skeeter waiting for her in the kitchen. She asks Aibileen if she ever wished she could change things. Without any sign of emotion, Aibileen says that everything is fine. Miss Leefolt interrupts their conversation and Miss Skeeter leaves. Upset that Aibileen was talking to her white friend, Miss Leefolt stares with disapproval at Aibileen. To avoid her gaze, Aibileen sticks her head deep into the oven to clean it. She knows that tonight she’ll have the recurring dream of being stuck inside the oven when someone turns on the gas.
While Skeeter’s question reveals her dissatisfaction with racism, it also shows her limited perspective as a white woman. Skeeter doesn’t realize that Aibileen cannot speak her mind without risking getting fired for criticizing the racist status quo. Aibileen’s dream, however, reveals her true dissatisfaction. Life for a black woman in the violently racist city of Jackson is not so different from life in an oven: it’s hot, oppressive, and extremely dangerous.