The Importance of Heritage
In her short story, Everyday Use, Alice Walker uses the idea of one’s heritage to develop a message to readers about what role cultural background should have in people’s lives. Walker makes her opinion of true heritage very clear by highlighting the attitudes of a mother and her two daughters in the story. In addition to the attitudes of the characters, Walker also sheds light upon one daughter’s complete and utter misconception of heritage while at the same time contrasting this with her mother’s and sister’s understanding of the concept. The eldest daughter, Dee, is portrayed to be an extremely egocentric person.
Throughout the story, from her childhood to her adulthood, she has remained with an unchanged state of mind that is both condescending and immature. Even in the very first parts of the story in which Dee is mentioned, Walker makes no mistake in portraying her in a frighteningly unpleasant manner. When Walker tells of the family’s previous house burning down and Mama making an effort to rescue Maggie (the other daughter), Dee is described as simply “standing off under the sweet gum tree” (369) with only “a look of concentration on her face” (369), not doing anything to assist.
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This is the first example given to the reader of Dee’s hatred towards her heritage. To compensate for the shame and hatred of her heritage, Dee finds pleasure in looking down on those she feels that are beneath her. Because she was privileged enough to go away for college, she misused her education as a tool to make her mother and sister feel “trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” (369) whenever she spoke to them. She used fashion in a similar manner; her mother notes that “At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was. Mama and Maggie are described as the exact opposite of Dee. Unfortunately, the mother uses no discretion in comparing Maggie and Dee. It’s made clear to the reader that Dee is the pretty one, and Maggie just can’t compare (especially after the house burning incident). Mama talks about how Dee “is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair, and a fuller figure” (369) and without hesitation compares Maggie to a “lame animal,” (369). But she doesn’t seem to be saying these things to make herself feel any better; there’s no shame or restraint in the way she depicts herself either.
She says that “In real life” (368) she is “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (368). Maggie and her mother live a simple life, and don’t care much for extravagant means of living. This is why Dee can’t bring herself to truly accept them for who they are; she is embarrassed of who she is and where she comes from. Not only does Dee differ from Mama and Maggie when it comes to looks and ways of living, but also when it comes to the central them of the story. Dee has the wrong idea when it comes to the topic of heritage, and it all started with her attitude about it as a child.
She grew up not wanting anything to do with her culture, and then after moving away from her family for a while, she started seeing false value in certain things attached to her heritage. Most notably, Dee’s focus shift towards particular quilts that she sees while visiting her mother and sister; a conflict arises when her mother tells her she can’t have them. Dee’s reaction to not being able to have the quilts comes from her misunderstanding of heritage. Unlike her mother and Maggie, she cannot see the true value behind the making of the quilts.
The fact that the quilts were made from pieces of her grandmother’s clothing is as far as her understanding of heritage goes; she see the quilts as mere objects instead of things that belonged to a family member that has passed away. She also completely rejects the idea of the quilts being used for what they were intended; when her mother tells her that she had already promised the quilts to Maggie, Dee “gasped like a bee had stung her” (374). This idea of giving the quilts to Maggie is absurd in Dee’s opinion because she doesn’t feel that her sister will take proper care of them.
Dee feels that it would be better to simply hang them up on a wall for aesthetic purposes. But to Mama’s surprise, Maggie actually encourages her mother to let Dee take the quilts, claiming that she “can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (374). And with that said, Mama insists that Dee chooses some other quilts to take with her. Realizing that she isn’t going to get her way, she expresses the most ignorant statement in the story towards her mother: “You just don’t understand” (375). This of course, is making reference to the idea of heritage once again, but this time in an ironic manner.
Almost everything Dee has done in her life has represented a complete lack of understanding about heritage. She’s changed her name, she’s never seen the importance behind her family’s heirlooms or background, and apparently she’s the only person in her family that didn’t learn know how to make the “priceless” (374) quilts that she desires so badly. Walker employs an almost comical sense of irony behind Dee’s remark because in truth, she has no one to accuse of not knowing their heritage other than her.