Everyday Use is a short story written by Alice Walker about a family of three, Mama, the narrator, Maggie her youngest daughter, and Dee, her eldest daughter. Both daughters are completely different, Maggie is a simpler person and Dee is high maintenance. Dee has always the home she was brought up in and everything to do with her childhood. She always wanted more and Mama gave her the best she could. One day, years after Dee has gone off to college, she returns to visit Mama and Maggie’s new home (the other had been burnt down when Dee was still living with them), and she brings along a man, possibly her husband. When Dee returns she has changed her name and has come hoping to retrieve certain family heirlooms. Walker uses different literary tools to tell this story in a way that makes the audience think about what she is trying to tell the audience.
Strategy The main literary strategy Walker uses in the writing of Everyday Use are irony and symbolism. Mama and Maggie value the quilts discussed in the story, not as folk art, instead for what they are intended to be used for, a source of warmth. Mama would rather give Maggie the quilts and let her put these quilts to use even though they may end up ruined because she knows that she is the one that will appreciate and love the quilts the most. Dee wants to in a sense save the quilts from the harm that she is sure that her sister, whom she seems to think is intelligently inferior will ruin but she does not understand the true value and worth of these quilts.
Dee’s sudden interest in her heritage and want to embrace different objects from her family’s past is obviously seen by her mother as empty. In Mama’s eyes the best way to keep the quilts and the love and care that comes with them in the family is to hand them over to Maggie, even if it means them possibly being damaged or worse yet, destroyed. This is the irony in the story. Many would think that preserving the quilts is the only respectful way of keeping the spirit of their family alive, but instead Mama sees deeper than that, she sees in actuality the best way to keep the spirit of their family alive is to put them to use so that more memories can be connected to them. Using them in daily life is a way to keep the family history and spirit alive, and to even add onto it.
Theme The consistent theme of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is appreciating the past, and one’s family. This theme was one that I found I could identify with greatly along with certain aspects of the story. The author skillfully tells us the story of two sisters, Dee, and Maggie, to prove her point. Dee comes home with a new contemporary identity tied to her African heritage, which she believes white men and women have tried to take away from her. She now embraces this African heritage and sees it as an important part of her. She scornfully asks Mama (the narrator) to not address her by the name her mother gave her, Dee, but to instead call her Wangero, assumed to be a name from her African herritage:
“What happened to ‘Dee’?” I wanted to know. “She’s dead,” Wangero (Dee) said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Wangero (Dee) assumes and argues with her mother that she has been named \ after a white man or woman. Mama attempts to convince her that her name was not given to her by a white man or woman but that she was named after her grandmother. Dee resists what her mother has told her and insists that if she were to follow the line that it would go back to a white man or woman. Maggie, is unashamed of her past, she actually embraces it. She has always loved the quilts that her mother and aunt made from clothing that her grandmother had pieced.
This section of the story is the prime difference between the sisters is revealed: Dee would like to use the quilts as pieces of artwork for her own home because it is something that would be stylish and argues with her mother that Maggie “would be backward enough to put them to everyday use.” Dee says this as if it were a bad thing to use the quilts as they were intended to be used but Mama believes that the everyday use, is the best way to value the past, to keep the spirit of the family going and not putting the items up for display as if they were in a museum or separating oneself from his or her family.
This is something that I can identify with. When I was younger my great-grandmother had always crocheted afghans for each of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My cousins had when we were little looked down at these beautiful afghans and wanted instead store bought blankets. I treasured the afghan that my great grandmother had made me and used it often. When we were older, and she had passed away, my one cousin was going through a phase similar to Dee’s, she was suddenly very interested in our family history, and she now wanted the last afghan that my great grandmother made. She ended up being the one to receive the afghan because I did not feel like fighting over it. I did not want to receive it with a fight because I knew that it would tarnish the meaning for me but I always found it interesting how she changed her mind once became, for lack of a better word, “cool” to embrace family history and to like handmade items.
Active and Responsive Reading While reading Everyday Use one inference that I made was that the story was set in the early 1970s. I made this inference from the way Mamma, the narrator, described Dee in the present day. I thought that the dress, accessories, and hair style Dee was described to have seemed to match up to fashion from the early 1970s.
Dee is a vain, hypocritical, and condescending individual, this was my impression from my first reading of the story and after reading it twice more, I found that my impression of Dee did not change from my first reading. Mamma did the best she could for Dee as she grew up. Dee always despised the house they lived in and never saw the house that was built after the fire until she visited. Mamma and their church raised money so that Dee could get a higher education and go off to college.
Dee uses her education as a way to look down on her mother and sister. She does not understand why they will not better themselves as she has. In this visit she begins asking her mother for things that she had never wanted before and looked down at. She now wants these items not as reminders of her family but more as pieces of art. Two of these items were quilts made by Grandma Dee. In the past when offered these, she had told her mother that the quilts were “too old-fashioned, out of style”. Now she thinks that they would make beautiful pieces
Alice Walker writes this story I think for every family and every person in a family. In a world where people are consumed with art, fashion, and style, I think she is reminding us that there is more to some items than art, fashion, and style. Many times we think the only way to appreciate something is to frame it or put it up for display and not put it to everyday use in fear of ruining it but Walker uses this story to show us that there is more to appreciating something than just displaying it. Sometimes to best appreciate a piece of ones heritage through an heirloom you should use it for its intended purpose.
In conclusion Walker teaches us a lesson about family and keeping the spirit and story of our family alive by not merely displaying our heirlooms but putting them to use. She uses irony to help tell her story and support her theme. Walker chooses a story that people can relate to and learn from.