In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use”, the author places two sisters side by side for an afternoon of visiting. One of these sisters, Maggie, lives with her mother in a small, poorly built shack on the edge of the country and is planning to marry a somewhat unattractive but dependable man in their small town. As a child, she was caught in a fire and still bears significant scarring on her legs and arms, a fact that makes her shy and withdrawn. The other sister, Dee, lives a beautiful life in the city with her good looks, her outgoing charm and her refusal to be denied. She is described as having lived a charmed childhood, easily able to get her way with other people as a result of her natural charm and good looks while her brains enabled her to attain a higher level of education than either her mother or her sister. Her status with the man she travels with is unknown, but her attitudes and behaviors are that of a middle class urban black woman attempting to recapture a sense of her heritage. While both girls can be seen to honor their past and the cultural heritage from which they descended, their approaches to this past are as different as their appearances.
As a child, the mother reveals that Dee was sent to the Augusta school where she learned to love the stories she read about in books, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” and grew up wanting nice things “A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me.” While she apparently loves her mother and sister, “She wrote to me once that no matter where we ‘choose’ to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends”, it is also apparent that she is embarrassed by her own past. However, Dee takes a good deal of pride in the city’s version of her African heritage. This is made clear when she announces to her mother that she’s taken on an African name, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” although she was truly named after her aunt and black relatives as far back as family memory stretches.
Whether it is to make fun of the scene later or to truly appreciate where she came from, one of the first actions Dee makes on her arrival is to grab her camera. “She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house.” Dee happily accepts the traditional food her mother makes for her, the same food the mother and Maggie tend to eat all the time, which is also singled out as unacceptable by her companion. The items she takes from the house are all strongly associated with her culture and past, but she intends to put them to alternate uses within her home, “’I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’ she said, sliding a plate over the chute, ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.’” She can’t understand why her mother might not allow her to ‘properly’ take care of something as valuable as the heritage quilt she’s dug out of her mother’s trunk.
Dee’s reaction to much of the events of the visit are reminiscent of a person’s reaction to a historic theme park, attempting to make a connection with a way of life she has transcended yet feeling a sense of loss as a result. Her attitudes throughout the story are definitely those of a city dweller living in the modern world, finding the things of the past ‘quaint’ and ‘cute’ but not seeing them for their everyday value in the lives of those who use them regularly. The perfect image of a mother to Dee is someone other than her own. The mother describes it knowingly as someone “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights.” The images associated with this perfect mother continuously indicating someone who has not worked hard outside most of her life with more important things to be concerned about than cosseting her hair. In analyzing Dee’s character, Powell sums her up as “a selfish and egotistical character with a superficial understanding of her inheritance. She characterizes the confusion and misguidance of young African Americans in the late 60s and 70s” (2007). Although she claims to have a stronger appreciation for the work of her ancestors, Dee’s insistence that they be placed on display rather than used illustrates her lack of any true appreciation for her background.
Despite Dee’s overwhelming presence, Maggie is the first girl to be introduced in the story as it is she who has apparently helped her mother to make the yard “so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. … It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room.” Thus, a part of Maggie’s regular activity is revealed to be sitting out in this type of yard, looking up into the old elm tree and enjoying the evening’s breezes as compared to the more refined activities Dee might be involved in. Strongly contrasted against Dee in the education department, Maggie is more like her uneducated mother. While she attempts to read to her mother in the evenings, “she stumbles along good-naturedly but can’t see well. She knows she is not bright.”
She is apparently accustomed to doing things the way her mother did them, understanding the feel of the “small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood” of the dasher for the butter churn and is comfortable living in the same way her mother has for years. “It is significant that Maggie knew the history of the dasher because Dee, who knew nothing of its history, and was not even sure what she would do with it, took it with no thought for either Maggie or Mama” (White, 2001). In the argument over the quilts, Dee correctly assumes Maggie “would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags.” Maggie acknowledges that this is exactly what she plans to do with the quilts as she tells her mother she can remember her grandmother with or without them. “It is clear from Maggie’s statement that her ‘everyday use’ of the quilts would be as a reminder of her Grandma Dee” (White, 2001). Maggie’s sense of history is ingrained in her sense of present, which is both more immediate and less obvious.
Maggie’s identity is formed through her intimate connection with the ways of life of her ancestors. Within this character, “Walker depicted the true essence of culture and heritage which are not to be found in the objects or external appearance but reflected by attitude and lifestyle” (Curzon, 1974). For Maggie, the value of the objects is not only in the memory of who once used them, but also in their ability to be useful in her life. Although she uses the butter churn, she makes no complaints about her sister taking it to use in a completely different context while also depriving Maggie of an important tool of daily life. Although Dee ransacks the house attempting to remove from it all objects of ‘cultural’ value, Maggie simply accepts these losses as her ancestors did, taking a pragmatic point of view in which Dee’s prizes will need to be replaced by other tools just as her father once used his own ingenuity to ensure his family had a place to sit for the evening meal by creating benches from his own two hands.
Toward the end of the story, Maggie makes it clear that her identity is more solidly based than that of her sister when she tells her mom “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts.” Although she was looking forward to taking these quilts with her as some of her own most cherished possessions when she is married, she realizes that the value of the quilts is not in the quilts themselves or even in the fabric used in their creation, but in the memories they contain. In being willing to part with these quilts, she demonstrates her intuitive understanding of these concepts while the mother’s insistence that Maggie keep the quilts demonstrates which concepts, that of Dee or that of Maggie, is the more ‘real.’
While the two girls are each shown to have an appreciation for their heritage, Dee’s emerges as the weaker of the two. She is now living a comfortable life in the city and cannot imagine how anyone might be more comfortable living in the squalor of her mother and sister’s home. Despite this, there are numerous priceless treasures to be found within the small cottage that each girl places different values upon. Dee wants the top to the butter churn because of its cultural significance, its obvious age and its personal family history. While Maggie appreciates all of these qualities as well, she values the churn top because without it, the rest of the churn is useless and she can no longer make butter.
“The anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, defines culture as a ‘historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols … by means of which men can communicate, perpetuate and develop their own knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (cited in McGrath, 2008). Based upon this definition, it is easily seen that Dee is able to inherit the symbols without a great deal of the knowledge and attitudes toward life that her mother and sister share while Maggie is the true inheritor of her people’s culture as she is strongly familiar with this knowledge and attitudes. In the same way, Dee appreciates the hand-pieced quilts because of all the work and care that went into them as well as the historical significance of the fabrics used while Maggie appreciates them for all this history as well as the possibility of them keeping her warm in the winter nights and making her beds beautiful in the daytime. Toward the end of the story, Maggie’s comment about the quilts highlights the difference between a lived and shared culture versus one that is only seen from the outside.
Thus, while both girls are seen to have a strong connection to their past and their heritage in addition to being connected through childhood as sisters, Maggie and Dee are vastly different characters, each a natural product of this same background. While Dee has all the advantages of beauty, brains, taste and personality, she is deficient in her personal connection to her heritage. Maggie, on the other hand, because of her scars, her less brilliant mind and her natural shyness, is content with remaining near home, living the type of life her mother has lived and taking joy in those areas of life where joy might be found, such as sitting in the yard in the shade of a beautiful tree and enjoying the breeze. She is intimately connected to her heritage, closely familiar with the tools of her forebears and strongly attached to her way of life rather than the tools of life. While Dee requires mementoes and symbols of her heritage to display in her home as a means of claiming her own authenticity, Maggie carries her heritage within her and appreciates the tools her ancestors have left behind because of the tendency they have of making her life more comfortable.
Curzon, Gwendolyn. “Everyday Use by Alice Walker.” African-American Fiction. 2009. Web.
McGrath, James F. “Understanding Culture and Cultural Differences.” (2008). Web.
Poell, Rachel. “Character Analysis and Symbolism in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use.” Associated Content, (2007). Web.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” 2009. Web.
White, David. “Everyday Use: Defining African-American Heritage.” Portals. Purdue North Central, 2001. Web.