“Everyday Use,” by Alice Walker, was first published in 1973. The story opens as Maggie and her mother, a black farm woman, await a visit from Maggie’s older sister, Dee, and a man who may be her husband–her mother is not sure whether they are actually married.
Dee, who was always scornful of her family’s way of life, has gone to college and now seems almost as distant as a film star. Maggie, who is not bright and who bears severe burn scars from a house fire many years before, is even more intimidated by her glamorous sibling. The central theme of the story concerns the way in which an individual–Dee–understands her present life in relation to the traditions of her people and culture, while the thematic richness of “Everyday Use” is made possible by the flexible, perceptive voice of the first-person narrator–Dee’s mother. The story focus on the way Dee sees the differences between her life and the lives of her mother and sister. Dee tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their “heritage,” because they plan to put “priceless” heirloom quilts to “everyday use.” The story makes clear that Dee is equally confused about the nature of her inheritance both from her immediate family and from the larger black tradition.
The matter of Dee’s name provides a good example of this confusion. Evidently, Dee has chosen her new name (“Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo”) to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves. To her mother, the name “Dee” is symbolic of family unity, and is significant because it belongs to a particular beloved individual. Dee’s confusion about the meaning of her heritage also emerges in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. While she now rejects the names of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly values their old handmade goods, such as the hand-carved benches made for the table when the family could not afford to buy chairs. To Dee, artifacts such as the benches or the quilts are strictly aesthetic objects.
It never occurs to her that they, too, are symbols of oppression–her family made these things because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration for them now seems to reflect a cultural trend toward valuing handmade objects, rather than any sincere interest in her “heritage.” After all, when she was offered a quilt before she went away to college, she rejected it as “old-fashioned, out of style.” Dee is not the only one confused about the heritage of the black woman in the rural South. Although the mother and Maggie are skeptical of Dee, they recognize the limitations of their own lives. The mother has only a second-grade education and admits that she cannot imagine looking a strange white man in the eye.
Maggie “knows she is not bright” and walks with a sidelong shuffle. Although their dispositions lead them to make the best of their lives, they admire Dee’s fierce pride even as they feel the force of her scorn. It is the mother’s point of view which permits the reader’s understanding of both Dee and Maggie. Both young women might seem stereotypical–one a smart but ruthless college girl, the other a sweet but ineffectual homebody.
The mother’s attention to details saves Dee and Maggie, as characters, from banality. For example, Maggie’s shyness is explained in terms of the terrible fire she survived: “Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them.” Ever since, “she has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle.” In Dee’s case, the reader learns that, as she was growing up, the high demands she made of others tended to drive people away. She had few friends, and her one boyfriend “flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy people” after Dee “turned all her faultfinding power on him.” Her drive for a better life has cost Dee dearly, and her mother’s commentary reveals that Dee, too, has scars, though they are less visible than Maggie’s. In addition to the use of point of view, “Everyday Use” is enriched by Alice Walker’s development of symbols.
In particular, the contested quilts become symbolic of the story’s theme; in a sense, they represent the past of the women in the family. Worked on by two generations, they contain bits of fabric from even earlier eras, including a scrap of a Civil War uniform worn by Great Grandpa Ezra. The debate over how the quilts should be treated–used or hung on the wall–summarizes the black woman’s dilemma about how to face the future. Can her life be seen as continuous with that of her ancestors? For Maggie, the answer is yes.
Not only will she use the quilts, but also she will go on making more–she has learned the skill from Grandma Dee. While for Dee, the answer is no. She would frame the quilts and hang them on the wall, distancing them from her present life and aspirations; to put them to everyday use would be to admit her status as a member of her old-fashioned family. Taken as a whole, while the story clearly endorses the commonsense perspective of Dee’s mother over Dee’s affectations, it does not disdain Dee’s struggle to move beyond the limited world of her youth.
Clearly, however, she has not yet arrived at a stage of self-understanding. Her mother and sister are ahead of her in that respect.