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Everyday Use Essay

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path both treat the life of poor, African American women in the deep South. Consequently, it is no surprise that there are many similarities between the two stories. However, the differences between the stories provide much of the interest and value of each story. Both stories are set in the rural, deep South at a time contemporary with their publication dates: the early 1970s for Walker’s story and the early 1940s for Welty’s “A Worn Path.

” The theme of “Everyday Use” lies in the difference between a quiet, day-to-day life where one lives aware of one’s heritage and a fantasy life with little substance based on the latest fads and crazes. The younger daughter, Maggie represents the sedate life while the other daughter, Dee represents the fantasy life of life in the city. It is the tension between the two lifestyles represented by the two daughters, that drives the plot and provides the theme of the story. Mrs. Johnson, who serves as the second person narrator, has traits of both.

Although she lives the sedate, day-to-day life, she sometimes dreams that “Dee and I are suddenly brought together . . . Out of a dark and soft-seated limousine I am ushered . . . we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes” (Walker, n. d. ), however she brings herself back to earth even before the dream ends. It is evident that each daughter represents a different side of Mrs. Johnson. “Everyday Use,” describes an interruption of this rural life by the event of a visit by Dee and her boyfriend with a name that is “twice as long and three times as hard [to pronounce]” (Walker, n. d. ).

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“A Worn Path,” on the other hand, describes a journey from the home of Phoenix Jackson “way back off the Old Natchez Trace” (Welty, n. d. ). Told in the third person with a limited point of view the journey is the story; it is the story of Phoenix’s life and her struggle to live. Her name calls to mind the mythology of the Phoenix arising from its own ashes. Phoenix has risen from the dead numerous times when she has overcome the troubles she has faced in her life. This steadfastness and continued efforts to live provide the main theme of the story.

Phoenix is resilient and has risen above difficulties to live again. In her advanced age, Phoenix continues to face the hazards of the path through the woods where she confronts wild animals, walks a log over a creek, and is confronted by a white racist and his dog. In addition to facing the difficulties of the journey that she has met throughout her life, Phoenix has to confront her own weaknesses, both mental and physical, that accompany her old age. It is these weaknesses that Phoenix needs to rise above.

Welty has also given Phoenix a strong sense of duty to her grandson. She makes the long journey to town to “as regular as clockwork” to get medicine for him. There is some question whether or not her grandson is dead or a product of Phoenix’s confused mind. Since swallowing lye, the ailment her grandson suffers from, is often fatal, there is some question whether or not her grandson is real and alive or a product of Phoenix’s confused mind. Supposedly he drank lye two or three years ago, but his throat will not heal.

This fact combined with the fact that Phoenix is at least eighty years old since she was too old to go to school at the time of the “Surrender,” presumably the surrender of the Confederacy to the Union that ended the American Civil War, makes one wonder if she would have a grandson who is as young as this little boy is supposed to be. It is clear however, that Phoenix believes her grandson is alive and believes she has a duty to fetch his medicine and that is what is important to the story. Both protagonists, Mrs.

Johnson and Phoenix Jackson, are poor, black women who have experienced a long life filled with hard manual labor. Mrs. Johnson is old enough to have two adult children. She has “rough, man-working hands . . . [she] can work outside all day. ” She leads a simple life without luxuries, but takes pride in what she has and uses it wisely even to the point of viewing the yard as “an extended living room . . . [with] the hard clay [swept] clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves” (Walker, n. d. ).

Mrs. Johnson is also poor, using a cane that is made from an umbrella, wearing aprons made from bleached sugar sacks, and shows a childlike delight at the prospect of buying a paper windmill and taking it home. The tone of each story is expectant, informal, and largely somber except for playful moments. From the beginning paragraphs the reader knows something is about to happen. Although each story is largely somber there are lighter moments that are both amusing and provide change of pace in each story. When Mrs.

Jones has to be taught her own daughter’s name and is unable to pronounce the name of the boyfriend one is amused at the pretentiousness of Dee and her friend. One laughs with Phoenix when she recognizes her ghost is a scarecrow and when she asks the vulture, often a sign of death in literature, “who you watching” (Welty, n. d. ). Walker makes liberal use of irony. Although Dee claims that her mother does not understand her heritage, it is clear that Dee views her family’s lifestyle as something to be abandoned. She has rejected her name that goes back in the family for generations in favor of an African American name.

She has embraced Islam over Christianity. When she arrives Dee takes Polaroid pictures of her mother and sister. She takes pictures of the house as if she were a tourist. She is delighted by such things as the bench where she “can feel rump prints. ” Dee treats the things in her mother’s house as if they were trinkets or souvenirs. Taking no thought that her mother and sister still use the churn to make butter, she lays claim to the top and dasher to use as decoration. She tries to take some quilts that she could use as wall hangings.

Instead of embracing her personal heritage, she has opted for the 1960s popular, black power view of a heritage, centered in Africa, without regard to the many generations of her family who have lived and died in the United States. She lives a pseudo-African life that has less in common with her real heritage than does the life her mother and sister live. Although Mrs. Johnson allows Dee to take the churn parts and the butter dish. She makes it clear the she prefers the life that Maggie lives when she takes them from the hands of Dee and gives them to her younger daughter (Walker, n. d. ).

Both writers have written remarkable stories. Each story is engaging and seems authentic. It is a treat to read them together and compare them. Each story has its differences that add to its strengths, just as each author has her own differences that contribute to her writing. It is interesting in these days where it is popularly believed that only a woman can write a woman’s point of view, or it takes a member of a minority to write about that minority, that both Walker and Welty, one black in her late twenties, the other white and approaching forty, can write stories that feel equally true and are equally pleasant to read.


Walker. A. (n. d. ) “Everyday Use. Retrieved March 22, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www. bow. k12. nh. us/jmcdermott/everyday_use__by_alice_walker. htm Welty, W. (n. d. ) “A Worn Path. ” Retrieved March 22, 2007 from the World Wide Web: http://www. moonstar. com/~acpjr/Blackboard/Common/Stories/WornPath. html.

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