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Symbolism and characterization in “everyday use” Essay

Introduction:

A.“Everyday Use” is a poignant narrative that describes the relationship between family members through creative symbolism and fine characterization.

B. Through symbolism and characterization, Walker teaches a moral lesson about heritage, identity, and the role of the two in the lives of the characters and audience.

C. In order to understand the complicated message that Walker is submitting through this story, it is important to look at the characters and their relationships with the symbolic items independently.

I. Mama

A. Mama is the Judge of the story.

B. Apprehensions about Dee’s visit. Mama speaks to the reader about the TV shows that we have “no doubt seen.” Her insecurities about the visit and her relationship with Dee become apparent in this vision.

C. Mama’s strength is demonstrated by her description of herself; she has “man-working hands,” she is large and has the endurance to “work outside all day.”

II. Hakim-a-barber

A. He is important to the story as a symbol of the new life that Dee has chosen.

B. He hints at both his and Dee’s transitional nature.

C. He does not practice the actual life of a Muslim, but preaches his
fashionable membership: “I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raisin cattle is not my style.”

III. Maggie

A. In contrast with Dee’s stylish heritage, Maggie knows that ancestry is a part of everyday life.

B. Maggie’s physical description is also symbolic of her personality.

C. She is the culmination of history in her family. She is the family’s past and present.

IV. Dee

A. Dee has always been scornful of her family’s way of life. Her contentment was so focused on the burning of her house that she became oblivious to the fact that her sister had been burned.

B. The selfish way Dee has behaved her whole life makes her visit home very ironic.

C. Rejection of her name.

V. The Quilt

A. The quilts are a family heirloom, they not only represent the family, but they are an integral part of that culture.

B. Symbols of oppression.

C. Mama describes the pieces of the quilt as reprehensive of members of her family.

Conclusion:

A. It is not the quilts that are important, it is the quilting.

B. Dee believes heritage to be as tangible as a quilt on the wall or a quaint butter churn in the alcove.

C. Through “Everyday Use” Walker shows that one’s culture and heritage are taught, from one generation to the next, not suddenly picked or acquired.

Symbolism and Characterization in “Everyday Use”

“Everyday Use” is a poignant narrative that describes the relationship between family members through creative symbolism and fine characterization. This short story, written by Alice Walker and presented in An Introduction to Fiction, tells the account of the much-anticipated homecoming of the narrator’s daughter, Dee. Through symbolism and characterization, Walker teaches a moral lesson about heritage, identity, and the role of the two in the lives of the characters and audience. The story asserts that family history should be a part of everyday life.

The introduction of the narrator’s personality coincides with that of the setting, because of this the reader is made aware that the setting and Mama are connected. The reader is also made aware of the Maggie character and the anticipation of the day’s events. Further in the story, the audience meets Dee, Mama’s daughter and Maggie’s sister, and her male companion, most commonly referred to as Asalamalakim. In order to understand the complicated message that Walker is submitting through this story, it is important to look at the characters and their relationship with the symbolic items independently.

The character of Mama is perhaps best described by what she says of the other family members. She, as most narrators, is the judge of the story. She describes Maggie as “nervous,” Dee as a fake person and calls Dee’s companion by his greeting (Walker 88). She has apprehensions about Dee’s visit before her arrival. She speaks to the reader about the TV shows that we have “no doubt seen” (89). Her insecurities about the visit and her relationship with Dee become apparent in this vision.

During this dream, we are told of how “She [Dee] pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers” (89). It is interesting that by presenting Dee’s fraudulent nature through the symbolism of the orchid pinning, she says nothing about refusing the flower. Even more interesting is that she has visions of herself participating in the television show at all. It is as if she knows that these things are false but she allows them to go on and even encourages them by taking part.

The narrator, Mama continues this pattern with the items that Dee wants to take form the house. Mama stands by and watches until Dee tries to take the quilts that Mama has already promised Maggie. Mama’s strength is demonstrated by her description of herself; she has “man-working hands”; she is large and has the endurance to “work outside all day” (89). While these feats are not extraordinary, Walker exemplifies what Mama has learned from her ancestors, and that being resilient and tough is a part of her heritage.

Hakim-a-barber is important to this story as a symbol of the new life that Dee has chosen. He may or may not be her husband, which hints both his and Dee’s transitional nature. Hakim-a-barber is referred to as Asalamalakim. This title gives the reader the sense that he is a generalization representing certain Muslim thought. His personal beliefs about being a Muslim are expressed in the quote, “I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style” (92). He does not accept the actual life of a Muslim, but preaches his fashionable membership.

In contrast with Dee’s stylish heritage, Maggie knows that ancestry is a part of everyday life. Maggie knows the history behind the clabber and the dasher. “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…His name was Henry, but they called him stash” (93). Dee on the other hand is really not concerned with who actually made them, she thinks of them as quaint art rather than functional items. Maggie is aware of the uses of these items. When she looks at them, she does not see museum like decorations, she sees a butter churn that can still be used to make butter.

Maggie’s physical description is also symbolic of her personality. She has been marked by her surroundings. When the family’s old house burned, Maggie was burned with it. As her dress fell off “her in little black papery flakes” in the fire, parts of her were lost with in the house (90).

For Maggie, the house held memories of her and her background. Maggie is like the old house and the new house. Dee hated her just as much as the old house that burned. And now Maggie is a part of the photographic image of home in Dee’s mind that testifies to Dee’s fashionable beginnings. Maggie is not bright and she knows it. She does not have many social choices, including who she will marry.

She is gifted in one way though: she is the culmination of history in her family. She is the family’s past and present. There is no indication in the text that Maggie’s name has been passed down like Dee’s. She has in and of herself made an effort to become her own ancestral quilt, with none of it, not even a name given to her. She has suffered in the burning of the old house. She has watched her sister never being said “no” too (88). She has complacently accepted her own weaknesses and she manages to succeed in the one way that Dee fails, she knows the true meaning of her heritage.

Dee has always been scornful of her family’s way of life. She hated the first house they lived in and was happy to see it burn down. Dee’s contentment was so focused on the burning of her house that she was completely oblivious to the fact that her sister had been burned and scarred for life. Dee did not desire to be associated with her family, like she did not want to be associated with the house.

Dee’s sense of style is mentioned repeatedly throughout the story. This repetition builds support for the fact that she spends so much time on appearances. She favors what was popularized by the world outside of her home. “Dee wanted nice things…at sixteen she had a style of her own” (90). She dresses stylishly, her body is stylish, and she tries to portray her background stylishly. She treats the house like a dollhouse and her mother and sister like figurines.

When Dee informs Mama and Maggie that she has changed her name from Dee to Wangero, she states, “I couldn’t stand it anymore, being named after people who oppress me” (92). Mama is quick to point out that Dee is in fact named after her aunt, who was named after her
grandmother. While Dee may not be an African name, it is based on ancestors, tradition, and the heritage of their family.

The quilts are the most important part of this story. The two quilts are family heirlooms, they not only represent the family, but they are an integral part of that culture. The quilts were composed of an eclectic array of material including,

“scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece…that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the civil war” (93).

When Mama finds Dee lurking over the quilts, she is forced to take action. Maggie looms in the background, ready to loose again. Dee decides she wants the quilts to hang on the wall and deems them priceless. However, Mama can remember offering Dee a quilt to take away for university and Dee proclaiming they were “ old-fashioned and out of style” (94). For the first time in the story, maybe the first time ever, Mama tells Wangero no.

Mama offers any other quilt to her but she wants the ones that are made completely by hand. Wangero says, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts, she’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.” Mama describes the pieces of the quilt as representative of members of her family. It is this “priceless” history that Wangero wants to own (94). Mama steps in as if to say heritage is not to be owned, it is to be used. Maggie has worked on these quilts. She knows how to create them again if they become worn.

It is at this point that Walker’s message becomes obvious. It is not the quilts that are important, it is the quilting. Dee believes heritage to be as tangible as a quilt on the wall or a quaint butter churn in the alcove. She is aware the items are hand made by her ancestors, nevertheless remains unaware of the knowledge and history behind them. Mama and Maggie know the traditions and history behind the quilts; they put their ancestor’s memories to everyday use. Through Everyday Use, Walker shows that one’s culture and heritage are taught, from one generation to the next, not suddenly picked up
or acquired.


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