Plot Summaries of ‘The Help’ and ‘The Color Purple’

The Help by Kathryn Stockett 

The plot of this novel tells the story of black maids working in 1960’s Mississippi and a graduate from Ole Miss, a 22-year-old Miss Eugina  ‘Skeeter ‘ Phelan’, who returns form college to her family’s cotton plantation, called Longleaf, finding that her beloved maid and nanny, Constantine, has left and no one will tell her why. Skeeter tries to behave as a proper Southern lady: she plays bridge with the young married women; edits the newsletter for the Junior League; and endures her mother’s constant advice on how to find a man and start a family. Skeeter’s dream, however, is to be a writer, and the only job she finds available is writing housekeeping advice for the Jackson Journal, which goes by the name ‘Miss Myrna’. Skeeter, on the other hand, knows little about housekeeping and turns to Miss Leefolt’s maid, Aibileen, for answers and more.

Aibileen works tirelessly raising Mae Mobley Leefolt (her seventh white child) and works hard to keep a tidy house, except none of this distracts her from the loss of her own son, whom died in an accident at work while his white bosses turned away. Two events happen which allow Skeeter and Aibileen to become closer. The first is Skeeter is haunted b a copy of Jim Crow laws in the library, and she receives a letter from a publisher in New York interested in her ideas of writing about the lives of black maids.

Skeeter approaches Aibileen with an idea to write stories from the perspective of 12 black maids. Aibileen agrees but finds herself as engrossed in the project as Miss Skeeter. The two meet in secret in Aibileen’s home to compose the book together as the town’s struggles with race heat up around them all. Aibileen’s best friend, Minny, a lippy maid, who’s been fired for speaking her mind numerous times. Listening to their stories, Skeeter’s eyes are opened as she realises the truth about her upbringing. The two maids develop an understanding and a friendship with Miss Skeeter that none thought was possible.

Miss Skeeter discovers the truth about what happened to her beloved Constantine. Constantine had given birth (out of wedlock), to a daughter, Lulabelle, who looked white even though both her parents were black. Neither community would accept Lulabelle, resulting in her adoption when she was 4 years old. When Lulabelle grew up, she and Constantine were reunited and while Skeeter was away, Lulabelle visited her mother in Jackson and showed up at a party being held in Skeeter’s mother’s living room. When Charlotte Phelan discovered who Lulabelle was, she kicked her out and fired Constantine. Constantine had nowhere else to go, so she moved with her daughter to Chicago and an even worse fate. Skeeter never saw Constantine again.

Skeeter’s book is set in the fictional town of Niceville and published anonymously. It becomes a national bestseller and, soon, the white women of Jackson begin recognizing themselves in the book’s characters. Hilly Holbrook, in particular, is set on vengeance due to the details in the book. Hilly and Skeeter grew up best friends, but they now have very different views on race and the future of integration in Mississippi. Hilly, who leads the Junior League and bosses around the other white women in the town, reveals to Stuart, Skeeter’s boyfriend, that she found a copy of the Jim Crow laws in Skeeter’s purse, which further ostracizes Skeeter from their community.

In the end, it is a secret about Hilly that Minny reveals in Skeeter’s book that silences Hilly. The book becomes a powerful force in giving a voice to the black maids and causes the community of Jackson to reconsider the carefully drawn lines between white and black.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple weaves an intricate mosaic of women joined by their love for each other, the men who abuse them, and the children they care for.

In the first few letters, Celie tells God that she has been raped by her father and that she is pregnant for the second time with his child. Celie’s mother is quite ill and after cursing Celie, dies, leaving Celie alone to face her father. Celie then turns her attention to protecting her sister, Nettie, from her father’s sexual advances. Celie soon marries Mr. _______ (later called Albert) after her father strikes a bargain with the older widower, and Celie finds herself in a loveless marriage, caring for her husband’s four children and being regularly raped and beaten. Celie becomes fixated on Shug Avery, a glamorous blues singer who is her husband’s mistress. Several years later, Celie eagerly accepts the responsibility of nursing Shug back to health, thus beginning a lifetime of friendship and love between the two women.

The oldest of Celie’s stepchildren, Harpo, marries an independent young women, Sofia, and soon after, Celie encourages Harpo to beat her into submission, just as all men have beaten Celie. Sofia later confronts Celie about this betrayal, but that confrontation leads to a deep and enduring sisterhood, and Sofia remains an independent, strong woman throughout the novel. The two women create a “Sister’s Choice” quilt together—the symbolism of quilts permeates much of the novel. Just as scraps of cloth come together to form a new, strong, useful product, so, too, can black women come together to forge a similar strong and useful bond.

Sofia later punches the town’s white mayor, an act that lands her in prison and snatches the independence she so values. By this time, she and Harpo have split up and taken other lovers, so the women in Sofia’s life take on the responsibility of releasing her from jail. An alliance forms between Celie, Shug, Sofia’s sisters, and Squeak, Harpo’s mistress. When trying to help Sofia, Squeak is raped by her uncle, the prison warden, but in telling her friends about the rape, she becomes stronger, insisting that she will no longer be called by her nickname and beginning to compose her own blues music. Sofia is able to leave prison, but she finds herself caged nonetheless, working as a maid in a white household.

Meanwhile, Nettie has become a missionary in Africa and has written countless letters to Celie, all of which Albert has hidden. Nettie, in spite of her upbringing, is a self-confident, strong, faith-filled woman. When Celie discovers Nettie’s letters, she not only catches up on her sister’s life, she also discovers that her own two children are alive and living with a missionary couple with whom Nettie works. Nettie’s letters about their shared African heritage are a tonic to Celie, who becomes stronger and more self-assured every day. That confidence soon turns to fury—over her rapes, her beatings, and the love and affection the men in her life have kept from her. Nettie’s letters also demonstrate parallels between Celie’s world and the African world, including the bond that can develop among the multiple wives of African men, the deep friendship and love that exists between two women, the deep love of a man for a woman, and the unrelenting structure of sex roles.

With her new-found strength, Celie confronts her father, whom she has just learned is her stepfather and not a blood relative, and this brings great relief to Celie, who now know that her children are not her brother and sister. She also confronts Albert, leaves him, and moves to Memphis to live with Shug, a move that stuns and pains Albert. In Memphis, Celie, who started wearing pants when she gained her strength and self-confidence, opens a business as a pantsmaker. Later, after Shug has taken on a male lover, Celie visits Albert, and they develop a new bond that eventually grows into love and respect.

Nettie, still living in Africa, marries the now-widowed man who had adopted her sister’s children, thus becoming a mother to her niece and nephew. Later, when Celie’s father dies, she and Nettie inherit his home, creating financial freedom for the two women. At the novel’s end, the two sisters are reunited, while Albert and Harpo have learned to take on new roles in the household and in their relationships.

Note that the novel’s title is alluded to in Letter 12, when Celie associates the color purple with royalty and longs for a purple dress. But the title undoubtedly comes from a passage near the end of the novel, in which Shug says that she believes that it “pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

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Late Spring

Context

Owen Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 and was brought up in Abergavenny, South Wales. He divides his time between Wales and New York. Including his poetry, he has written books, The Dust Diaries, a Zimbabwean travel narrative, was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaajte Prize and won the 2005 Welsh Book of the Year Award. His novel, Resistance, has been translated into 10 different languages around the world and has also been adapted for the screen along with his novella The Gospel Of Us, which fictionalises his play The Passion, performed by the people of Port Talbot led by Michael Sheen. The collection, Skirrid Hill, won a Somerset Maugham Award. Throughout his career, he has won multiple awards, including being nominated for a BAFTA Cymru for Best Producer (Dylan Thomas documentary). His most recent novel, ‘I Saw A Man’, was published in 2015, in both the UK and the US, along with various other European countries.  The French translation was short-listed for the Prix Femina Etranger.

Owen Sheers is an individual poet, and his collection, Skirrid Hill, has geographical and linguistic approaches that he brings to things others fail to produce. Including themes of separation of the living and the dead, fraying of people in relationships (this is shown in poems like “Keyways” and “Valentine”) and moving from childhood into adulthood , (this theme is shown in poems like “Late Spring” and “Border Country”) the collection is original and Sheers is a poet that has rare descriptive talent.

Late Spring

In the poem “Late Spring”, Sheers uses tercets consistently, a technique that is used throughout the anthology also. The line lengths are organised throughout the poem and the lines end in commas and are enjambed. Written in octave form, the poem’s structure is one that Sheers does not tend to use through the anthology.

Linking in with “The Farrier”, “Late Spring” shows man altering the body of animals for their own gain, as castrating lambs improves their size and taste. The poem shows us the relationship between Sheers and his grandfather. As he recalls the memories of castrating the lambs, Sheers describes the feelings he felt as he took the testicles from the lambs. The way that Sheers feels when he is castrating the lambs like “a man milking”  and the delicacy it is does with -“two soaped beans into a delicate purse”  – can be interpreted as a metaphor for the human race and how humans are a species capable of unparalleled care, affection and finesse, but yet we will annihilate anything in order to preserve our ways of life. As he poem began with an ironic title, the final line, “a strange harvest of the seeds we’d sown” has the intended semantic link with robbing the lambs of their seed, and also shows the destruction of the human race. The ‘strange harvest’ has the obvious repercussions of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ which reminds us of the horrific things a man will do to preserve their way of life and makes the visual link between the elastic ‘O’ and a hangman’s noose.

The third line of the second stanza in the poem symbolises the stretching of the O-ring as it’s the longest line of the octave. This makes us visualise the action and with the length of the line, it can also show us the length of time it takes to carry out the procedure. In the last stanza however, we find out that it’s carried out in a “morning’s work” – meaning quick, fast and brutal for the animals. Tying in with the fast pace, the shortest line in  the poem is “to crown them” which imitates how fast the castrating progress carried out.

Intermission

The title ‘Intermission;, has two different meanings. The first meaning comes from the fact the poem is close towards the middle of the collection, which represents an intermission (break) between the two halves, like an intermission between a film or a play. The second meaning comes from the idea of the poem being about a powercut, which gives the title a heightened meaning to the intermission in their lives.

Throughout all the poem, there is a sense of dark, malevolent forces, such as ‘darkness’ and the dark ‘mines shafts of night’. This gives us a sense of equilibrium or the reveng even, as men tunnel into the earth for coal, oil and water and now the earth and natural world strikes back, taking away men’s hard work and light.

With intermissions being a breaks in the action of plays, films, etc, the implication is that their normal routine cannot continue without electricity, meaning the people have to take a break from ‘the norm’ and speak to each other. Sheers’interpretation of the world is that modern society has taken away the ability to communicate with close ones.

A main theme throughout the poem is that the work of men is destroyed by nature. The ‘tree side-swiping’ the ‘power lines’ is yet another mishap caused by nature, leading the work of men broken. This poem echoes ‘Liable to Floods’ as a flood wipes out the camp built by the soldiers.

‘Intermission’ begins with the same narrative technique as ‘Border Country’ and ‘Y Gaer’ it opens with brial exterior descriptions before focusing on people. The first stanza conveys the power of nature as wind fells ‘chestnut tree’ hitting the power lines, plunging Sheers’ house into darkness. Some people may interpret this as Sheers personifying nature as an angry God, passing critical judgement on the speed of contemporary life.

Reading the poem for the first time might seem to prefigure a time of sadness, as the imagery of the house is Gothic sounding: the ‘wells of the darkness’ and ‘rune shafts of night’ including ‘flames’ ‘dust’ and ‘the world lessened’. If the reader then inspects the closer, the changes made by the power cut are beneficial. Instead of being limiting, the lack of power is actually liberating. he ‘whiskey’ implies celebration, kicking up their ‘heels’, not consumed by phones, computers, and other aspects of modern life.

In the final stanza, the first line echoes ‘Y Gaer’ as ‘I think I understand’ has been used in a poem before. The re-emphasis of this word lets us see Sheers is showing us that his writing is a way of making sense of the world and that the only way of making any sense of anything is to draw parallels between the lives of humans and the nature world.

As well as the Gothic-like vocabulary, the line ‘sitting by firelight’ gives us the indication that the setting is intimate, allowing the two to talk freely. The ‘candle’s hall’ also suggests an intimacy about the situation because candles are thought to be romantic.

The Equation

The title of the poem ‘The Equation’ makes us think of how stuff works and when it is put together it creates an equation of how it fits together. The poem is about the purest science, which is maths, going against nature. The poem is about how Sheers is being told about his grandfather being a teacher but being a farmer at heart. The structure of the poem is that it visually looks like an equation on the page, with one thing under each other. This ties in not only with the name of the poem but with the job his relative does too.

In the first stanza, Sheers describes the arm movement, saying his grandfather was ‘waving away’ the ‘blackboard’s hieroglyphics’. The image here is useful because it helps the reader picture how his grandfather is saying goodbye to his work. The word ‘waving’ suggests that his grandfather is upset to clean his work off the blackboard because he is fond of maths. In this stanza also, the word ‘hieroglyphics’ suggests that the children that are being taught do not understand the logarithms, and is an ambiguous term.

 

In the second stanza, Sheers describes his grandfather’s hand vividly as a ‘leaking fist’, which is significant because the way you feed chickens, it looks like a ship’s sail due to the way it falls. In the last line of this stanza, the grain is described as a ‘sail’ as well, which develops this diction of sailing words further.

 

Also in the second stanza, Sheers describes the way his granddad changed from his ‘suit into his overalls’, which is significant because clothes are important as they represent who you are as a person and what your personality is like. The ‘overalls’ show us that the man is rather laid back and relaxed and the contrast of the suit and the overalls allows this idea to be seen, as it contrasts the smart, office job-clothing against the laid back, comfortable farmhand clothing.

 

In the third stanza, Sheers describes the journey of the egg as though it needs to ‘find a way through the dark’. This image is significant because the way that Sheers has phrased the line makes it easier for the reader to picture the egg travelling through the hen. The egg is a symbol of life in this poem, as the egg cell is the basis of most things. This also can suggest the idea of delicacy because of life being a fragile thing, and that it needs care and it needs to be looked after.

 

In the third stanza, the simile ‘like a magician’ suggests that the grandfather is a wonder, and the egg is a magical thing because of the word ‘magician’. To add to the effect of this, Sheers describes the grandfather’s actions as ‘tricks’, letting us think the grandfather is as magical as it sounds. With the tricks being ‘just the way of things’ makes us think that taking eggs out from underneath chickens are things Sheers witnessed everyday.

 

The final stanza is one line, which isolates the sentence. The point of this to emphasize the egg and how the egg is symbolic of life. In the last line, the ‘brown palm’ is significant because it is the colour of the hands of farmers because of the dirt. This links in with the grandfather being a farmer at heart.

 

The poem is written in quatrains apart from the last stanza, which is isolated from the rest of the poem. This is typical of Sheers and his writing style. Each line is either a deca-syllable line or an almost deca-syllable line. 10 is a round, easy number and can be used to represent how the grandfather and his work go together, on a scale from 1-10.

Late Spring

‘Late Spring’ is about Owen Sheers recalling the memories of him helping a relative castrate the lambs when he was younger. The first line from the first stanza is ironic because castrating lambs and cutting their testicles off is destroying their manliness, but yet it makes Sheers ‘feel like a man’. The first stanza also sets the scene as it is talking about what he is doing for the rest of the poem.

The last line from the second stanza is the longest, and with the line saying ‘stretching them across the made-to-purpose tool’, gives us the idea of the O-ring stretching in order to cut off the lambs’ balls.

In the third stanza, Sheers describes the way his relative’s arm moves, moving it as if he is going to ‘play it like a cello’. This allows us to picture the way that the lamb is being moved as a cello is played between the legs. This image is a strong image and can help us to picture how the lamb is being handled. In the fourth stanza, Sheers describes the movements of his relative’s fingers, describing them as ‘a man milking’. This feeds us the image of how the lambs’ testicles are being cut off.

In the fifth stanza, Sheers rhymes the word ‘purse’ with the word ‘reverse’. This rhyming couplet sandwiches the middle line in between the other lines, and gives us the idea of how the testicles are enveloped in the O-ring. The O-ring is the tool used to cut the balls off the lambs and this is clever because of the effect this has.

In the sixth stanza, the last line is the smallest of the whole poem. This is effect because ‘to crown them’ not only gives us the image of Sheers’ relative putting the O-ring over the balls, it represents the speed it takes to actually cut the testicles off the lamb in first place. This shows us that it is a quick process and it isn’t time consuming to do one lamb, but with the length of the whole poem, it show us that cutting the balls off a lot of lambs is rather time consuming.

In the final stanza, Sheers describes the tails as ‘catkins’ which do look like lambs’ tails. In the final line of the poem, Sheers describes the tails as a ‘strange harvest’, which is an oxymoron. This is significant because it develops the experience of the whole poem and how Sheers may feel about castrating the lambs and cutting off their tails. In this stanza, an essence of phallic imagery. The ‘seeds’ that Sheers and his relative have ‘sown’ is phallic because of the word ‘seeds’. This relates to the sperm and is also ironic because Sheers and his relative are cutting the balls off the lambs, stopping them from producing sperm in the first place.

The poem uses different personal pronouns, the first stanza using the pronoun ‘I’. In the third stanza, Sheers uses a different pronoun, developing the experience of the castrating. The ‘he’ relates to his relative and then finally, the ‘we’ brings the two men together, showing us the closeness of the relationship between the two males. ‘Our’ again develops the link between the two and shows us how close they are within the relationship and throughout the experience they share together in doing this.

The poem overall gives us an idea of Sheers’ Welsh identity and what it is like to be Welsh. The way that Sheers describes the process in this poem gives us the illusion that he is used to doing it and he has done it before. Linking in with his Welsh identity, it also links back to ‘The Farrier‘, showing us how Welsh people are with animals and that farming is almost in their nature. The “craft” of cutting the lambs’ testicles off is a skilled one and it is a rural tradition, done in all farms across Wales. The poem is written in octave, which is unusual for Sheers because he never usually writes in this form. Each stanza is a tercet, with some sentences creating enjambment throughout the poem.

Throughout the poem, Sheers makes no comment on the noise that the lambs make while castrating them and cutting their tails off. The noise lambs make during this process is horrific and the movie ‘Silence of the Lambs’ shows us that because the woman in the film knows the lambs have been killed when there is no bleating. This is significant because Sheers makes no reference to the heart-breaking noises of the lambs, only on the experience he and his relative had during this time.