In mid-July, Skeeter, Charlotte, and her father Carleton arrive at Stuart’s house for dinner with his parents, Francine and Senator Stuart Whitworth. Stuart’s mother gives Skeeter and Charlotte a tour of the house, which is full of civil war antiques like a bed that Robert E. Lee slept in. There are even bullet holes in the walls from “Yankee” guns. From upstairs, Skeeter hears Stuart yelling at his father downstairs for mentioning Patricia to him. Skeeter tries to listen for more, but she can’t hear anything else of their conversation.
The Whitworth’s Civil War memorabilia reveals how many white people in the South romanticized the Civil War as a noble fight against “Northern Aggression,” rather than a truly horrific bloodbath based on the South’s desire to keep their slaves.
After the tour, the families sit down for dinner. Skeeter is disgusted by the dining room wallpaper that shows slaves happily picking cotton as if they enjoyed slavery. Skeeter glances at Stuart every few seconds and sees that the anger in his face from when his father mentioned Patricia is not fading away. Senator Whitworth, a big drinker, asks Skeeter if she heard about the lynching of the black man who spoke out against the Mississippi government. Before she can respond, Carleton says that such brutalities sadden him and that sometimes he is ashamed of living in Mississippi. Skeeter never knew her father held these opinions.
The wallpaper shows that many white Southerners thought that life was better for African Americans when they were slaves. With such a warped worldview, it’s no wonder that people like Hilly might believe that segregation actually benefits black people. While Carleton reveals his disapproval with extreme racism in the South, he doesn’t condemn segregation, only the violence used to maintain it. It’s not the most enlightened view of racial politics, but even such small amounts of compassion surprise Skeeter given the overwhelming racism she’s now starting to recognize everywhere.
After dinner, the parents retire to the porch for drinks while Stuart and Skeeter stand in the hallway. Stuart is sweating and feverish-looking and complains about his father bringing up Patricia to him. Skeeter says it’s okay, but Stuart doesn’t calm down, his eyes glancing past her as if she isn’t even there. Skeeter realizes that all night he was looking at her while thinking about Patricia. Skeeter can almost see Patricia reflected in the anger in Stuart’s eyes. Skeeter tells him she needs to go to the bathroom. Looking at herself in the mirror, she tells herself that everything will be fine with Stuart once tonight is over.
Stuart’s inability to let go of his past relationship mirrors his family’s inability to let go of their distorted image of the pre-Civil War South. The wallpaper suggests that Stuart’s parents believe the South was an idyllic paradise where blacks happily worked for white slave masters. Unwilling to recognize the true horrors of slavery, Senator Whitworth, a staunch segregationist, cannot confront the injustice of segregation in the present. Likewise, Stuart, too focused on his past relationship, has lost sight of his present love for Skeeter.
When Skeeter leaves the bathroom, she runs into Senator Whitworth. Drunk, the Senator takes Skeeter aside and asks if she knows how Stuart handled the break-up with Patricia. When Skeeter says she knows that he was very upset, the Senator responds that Stuart wasn’t just upset, he was like a dead man. The Senator says he would visit Stuart at Stuart’s house and find him staring out of the window and cracking pecans without actually eating the nuts. The Senator wants to know if his son is okay now. Skeeter says she doesn’t know, realizing that she knows little about Stuart and the break-up.
As we have seen in Celia and Minny’s relationship, keeping secrets prevents the development of a deeper connection based on honesty and trust. Here, Stuart’s unwillingness to tell Skeeter about his past is putting the strength of their relationship in jeopardy. Yet, at the same time, Skeeter has yet to tell Stuart about her book. Only when Stuart and Skeeter come clean about their secrets will they have a chance at building a lasting relationship.
On the back porch, Skeeter takes Stuart asides and confronts him about what happened with the break-up. With anger still in his eyes, Stuart says that his fiancée, Patricia, slept with a white civil rights activist. Stuart broke up with her because she cheated on him, but he still continued to love her. Stuart says he almost got back together with Patricia after she apologized, but he stopped himself because he was afraid rumors might spread that Senator Whitworth’s future daughter-in-law had slept with an integrationist, a rumor that would ruin his father’s campaign. Telling Skeeter the story brings up bad memories for Stuart and he decides that they need time apart so that he can think. When the Phelan family leaves, Stuart smiles and waves so that both sets of parents don’t think anything is wrong.
Though Stuart’s confession derails their relationship even further, as we will see later, it was also a necessary starting point for potentially rebuilding their relationship on a stronger foundation of honesty. Stuart’s confession reveals a significant weakness in his character as well—he would rather give up the possibility for love than disappoint his segregationist father. This doesn’t bode well for the future, when he will inevitably find out about Skeeter’s book, and it also doesn’t say much about the strength of Stuart’s moral principles when under pressure.