Taking the Moral Out of the Story
September 30th, 2011

Yesterday I came across this editorial by Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern Show fame) about how the popularity of the movie adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” doesn’t actually accomplish anything beyond mere entertainment because the story is fiction.  Specifically, she comments:

In a nutshell, that is my problem with The Help. People are acting as if the events in the movie really happened.

Kathryn Stockton [sic] is a novelist. She writes fiction. There was no defiant Skeeter. There were no courageous maids and no bad white women got their comeuppance. The movie offers only broad stereotypes. We know just who to root for and who to hate. We all get to identify with the heroines and everything works out in the end when everyone realizes that Jim Crow segregation is wrong.

I read her comments and upon some initial reflection I thought – well, she’s right and she’s wrong.  Technically, she’s right.  No, there was no Skeeter, or Minnie, or Aibilene.  But there was a Rosa Parks.  And there were the Little Rock Nine.  And there were many whites who risked alienation, physical abuse, or death to do right by persecuted blacks.  So in that vein, no, “The Help” didn’t do anything to change civil rights.  But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point is that there’s a lesson there.  That’s the purpose of any work of fiction with a point of view.  The author tells a story in a certain time and place to illustrate a particular perspective; to make us think about how the principles of that time and place might apply to our own here and now.  The tortoise and the hare never actually raced either, but that doesn’t mean that the implicit message of the story isn’t still legitimate.

The problem with “The Help” is that for whatever reason people don’t seem to be taking the moral of the story out of the story.  We aren’t applying it to our own lives.  I actually struggled with this same issue in a post I published last year when I wrote:

I enjoyed the book.  But something about it has been nagging at me since I reached its final page a few months ago.  The discussion prompts at the end ask all sorts of interesting questions.  But they are all local to the book.  They ask about the relationships between characters, how the characters were influenced by their surroundings, why we perceive certain characters in certain ways, etc.  And for a book whose characters were so willing to question the status quo, I’ve been bothered by the fact that the discussion questions don’t ask us to do the same. …

It’s easy to look back at this discrimination with embarrassment.  It’s easy to see in retrospect how hideous the dominant thinking of these latter days truly was.  And it’s equally easy to exhale a big sigh of relief knowing that today we are not guilty of the same transgressions.

But we are not perfect.  We are not fully evolved.  We are not immune to the cultural damage of new ignorant mistakes.  There are aspects of our society that our grandchildren will learn about in social studies text books and be made to cringe.  There are things we accept today that we will reflect upon in our later years and say, “That’s just how things were back then.”

But what are those things?  That’s the unasked discussion question that is stuck in my mind three or four months after reading The Help.  What is it that I’m doing today that is wrong?  What is that that I tacitly comply with or ignore?

Is it something environmental?  Is it the way we manage our food supply?  … Is it fuel-injection automobiles?  Is it prejudice against the obese?  What are the issues that surround me each day that I accept and yet shouldn’t?  What is the belief I hold today that will embarrass me down the road?  What is it that I might, given the awareness and the gumption, have the ability to change?

The very paradox of these questions is that they allude to the frustrating truth that “you don’t know what you don’t know.”  But yet we have changed over time.  We have righted (sort of…) our past wrongs.  And this means that at some point someone knew more than his peers.  At some point someone stood up and spoke out in defiance of conventional logic.  At some point that person was loud enough and persuasive enough to turn a cultural tide.

So, it’s not that Ms. Quivers doesn’t have a fair point.  She just didn’t fully identify the problem.  Her article got my wheels spinning on this topic once again and I thought it worthwhile to explore it here one more time.

I hope you saw “The Help.”  It was a great movie and a mostly-authentic representation of the book.  (As is frequently the case in movie adaptations substantial nuance was lost with the translation to the screen, although the major plot points survived.)  Nevertheless, the larger point of the story is lost if we don’t apply it to ourselves.  Heavy stuff for a Friday, I realize, but important to reiterate from time to time nevertheless.

5 Responses to “Taking the Moral Out of the Story”

  1. Ana Says:

    Interesting take on it Gale! I hadn’t thought beyond the issues of prejudice (race or other) your inclusion of environmental issues/food production/etc… are compelling.

    I actually found these criticisms about the book/movie to be way over the top. It is a work of fiction and was never presented as anything else by the author or the creator of the movie. At the same time, I believe that discerning & thoughtful readers will automatically think about how the story might relate to current issues—whether race relations or other prejudices—regardless of the “discussion points” at the end of the book. I know our book club did. Those that don’t, well, I doubt they would regardless.

    All that aside, I immensely enjoyed the book & thought the movie was pretty well done (if watered down). I don’t know anyone that didn’t enjoy the book, to be honest…its a page-turner if nothing else.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Gale, you always make me think…

    I haven’t seen “The Help.” I typically don’t see movies until they hit cable (for free). It also isn’t a movie I felt compelled to see, somehow suspecting that it wouldn’t feel “meaty” enough on issues that are so essential to our humanity.

    I may try the book instead. We’ll see.

    But perhaps the more important point you make here is in your own citation – our hesitation to push farther, probe deeper, and ask the very specific tough questions about our own attitudes and behaviors, and not only the whys, but what we’re going to do about it.

  3. Justine Says:

    I didn’t like the book, so I won’t be watching the movie. There’s something about the author’s underhanded self-congratulatory tone throughout the book that grated on my nerves. I know that this book is fictitious but that there were courageous people, black and white, during that time that helped change the status quo; I guess it was just the manner in which it was delivered that didn’t agree with me.

    I do like how “The Help” made you look past the issue contained within the book and see how it relates to our modern day society and what we’re willing to accept and change.

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I just saw the movie last week! You definitely bring up some good points, and I did have a little trouble with how downright awful most of the white people seemed in the book/movie. I’m sure plenty of them were nasty, but maybe not 90% of them. I enjoyed both the book and the movie. Although it’s fiction, you’re right–there was a Rosa Parks, and there were separate drinking fountains, lunch counters, bathrooms…

  5. Kathryn Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie or read the book but regardless of the particulars of that story I think you raise a very important question about taking a look at the lessons, and the moral of a story and applying it in the now. In my adult life I don’t think there has ever been an easier time to find examples of belief systems and political soap boxing that’s closer to those Rosa Parks days than now. Sure it’s shape shifted a little but there’s a lot of ugliness out there still beating its drum. If we don’t ask ourselves what are the parallels what chance do we have of heading it off.