Analysis of Everyday Use by Alice Walker

 

Background

“Everyday Use” was published in 1973 as a part of Alice Walker’s short story collection, In Love and Trouble. The story highlights the cultural aspects of African-Americans in the United States. African-Americans are citizens of the United States whose ancestors came from Africa. They were brought to American colonies as slaves. They remained slaves till the end of the 19th century when most were freed after the American Revolution. The story set in late 1960 when many African Americans were struggling to redefine and seize control of their social, cultural, and political identity in American society. At the time, the educated became interested in re-examining the African American past. They were particularly interested in the aspects of African heritage that had survived centuries of slavery and were still present in African American culture. Many black Americans, uninspired by a bleak history of slavery in North America, looked to their African roots in an effort to reconnect with their past.

 

Summary

Mama, or Mrs. Johnson waiting in the yard with her younger daughter Maggie to welcome her elder daughter Dee who was sent to the city for her higher education. On the arrival of Dee, Maggie who suffered by inferiority complex after a disastrous accident she faced, attempts to flee. Mama manages to hold her back. Dee’s dress and attitude seemingly changed and she pays much attention to take photographs rather than greeting her mother and sister. Mama is informed that Dee has changed her ancestral name into a more African name. She comes with her partner whose name was a harder one for mama to pronounce than Dee’s. Dee is interested in old household objects and she wants them to exhibit them in her home. She snatches some quilts which have a connection to their ancestors. The conflict is raised as they were to be given to Maggie at her wedding as a gift. Maggie is desperate and gives up the quilts but Mama intervenes the matter to restore the quilts to Maggie. Dee is crossed and complains Maggie would probably use the quilts for everyday use which is a waste according to her idea, she hopes to hang them as exhibits in her home. Mama does not change her decision which makes Dee angry and leave the house. Mama and Maggie spend the time together in the yard, their bond seems to be strong after the conflict.     

 

Setting

The story takes place in the house of the Johnsons in rural Georgia in the 1970’s. Dee, who is from the city, visits her mother and sister who live in the country house.

 

Theme: The Meaning of Heritage

The definition of African-American heritage is juxtaposed using the character Dee vs Mama and Maggie. Dee who belongs to modern generation and is educated, does not like to consider their ancestral heritage as their roots as it is connected to slavery; she represents the African Americans of the late period of the civil rights movement who wanted to find an identity separate from that of the white American society. However, Mama is proud about her ancestors who survived maintaining their own culture. Though their lives have been painful, they have retained spiritual strength and have used it to strengthen their community. Maggie represents a segment of their cultural chain. She has the interest in quilting and using the quilts for everyday use maintaining the cultural bond between generations. To Mama and Maggie, their cultural heritage is a living breathing one connected back to a long lineage. In contrary, Dee believes their African-American culture is now dead and she wants to exhibit their objects in the past as decorations in her house. She desperately tries to connect their root African culture to her life, ignoring her own living breathing heritage.

 

Techniques

Voice

In first person point of view, Mama gives life to her own African-American identity which had been silenced by Black American revolution. Her honest voice evokes a sense of realism; her colourful language, specialized diction and use of her own unique phrases to describe things add ingredients to that.

Symbol

Quilts symbolize the heritage of African-American people. It is woven using the pieces of garments used by the ancestors. Thus, they carry a hereditary value beyond their artistic and traditional value; it connects generation to generation. It carries a living history that passes through generations. Maggie who knows how to weave quilts and intends to use them for everyday use is the future link that connects the chain of generations; whereas Mama is the link to their past generation. However, Dee believes that the African-American heritage has ended due to Black American revolution. Therefore, she needs quilts to use as exhibits linking them to her root African culture. The conflict between Mama, Maggie and Dee is in a way of portraying the vulnerability of generation bond with the advancement of time.   

Irony

Dee wants to preserve the quilts and protect them from the harm her sister might inflict, but she shows no true understanding of their inherent worth as a family totem. She relegates the objects to mere display items. On the other hand, Mama risks Maggie’s harming or destroying the quilts, valuable and irreplaceable documents of family history.

Flashback

The fire that destroyed their old house and how Maggie and Mama caught between fire as well as how they accumulated money to send Dee to Augusta for schooling are revealed as flashbacks in the first part of the story.

Juxtaposition

At the beginning Dee’s arrival and Mama’s fantasy on meeting her is juxtaposed as Johnny Carson’s television show. Mama Describes the appearance and qualities of Dee and Maggie keeping their characters’ side by side.

Humor

Mama’s encounter with brand new Dee who changed her name which she finds a bit hard to pronounce as well as her encounters with Dee’s partner Hakim.a.barber whom mama introduces as Asalamalakim evokes humor showing her alienation to the new culture she encountered.  

 

Characterization

Mama

Mama, the narrator of the story is single parent, physically heavy and strong woman. She is proud of her capabilities and is a loving mother who has soft corner for both of her female children. She is aware of the limitations of Maggie and proud of Dee’s achievements. She expects gratitude for what she had done Dee for her development but when they meet she feels how underappreciated she is. She is less aware about Black American revolution but find pride of her own cultural heritage. She is critical about Dee’s perception of their heritage and entrusts Maggie with quilts which symbolize her cultural identity.

 

Maggie

Maggie is the youngest daughter of Mama. Her ugly appearance hides her generous, pure and complex emotional character. She is shy and quiet and is very self-conscious of her limitations due to the injuries she had when their house burnt. Though she is uneducated, she is well aware of her heritage and has capability to carry it to the future. 

 

Dee

Dee is the eldest daughter and represent black power movement. Her fair appearance, high ambitious nature and self-centered judgemental nature sharply contrast her with Maggie. She is less aware about her own heritage and seeks her roots by changing her appearance and name. Mama sees Dee’s thirst for knowledge as a provocation, a haughty act through which she asserts her superiority over her mother and sister.

 

Everyday Use by Alice Walker is an exploration about the side effects of Black American Revolution. As she views, the African-American’s developed and maintained their own culture which reflect their hardships, struggle for survival and their capacity to survive. They are proud about their perseverance. However, the generation after the revolution is reluctant to link their roots in their history as slaves. Therefore, they urge to link their roots to original African culture which has created a conflict between generations.

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