The story “Everyday Use” uses irony to create a story full of dynamic characters and an interesting plot line. n her short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker takes up what is a recurrent theme in her work: the representation of the harmony as well as the conflicts and struggles within African-American culture. is essentially an encounter between two different interpretations of, or approaches to, African-American culture. Walker employs characterization and symbolism to highlight the difference between these interpretations and ultimately to uphold one of them, showing that culture and heritage are parts of daily life. Mrs. Johnson thinks of her as a sweet person, a daughter with whom she can sing songs at church.
Most importantly, however, Maggie is, like her mother, at home in her traditions, and she honors the memory of her ancestors; for example, she is the daughter in the family who has learned how to quilt from her grandmother. Dee, however, is virtually Maggie’s opposite. She is characterized by good looks, ambition, and education (Mrs. Johnson, we are told, collects money at her church so that Dee can attend school). Dee’s education has been extremely important in forging her character, but at the same time it has split her off from her family.
Mamma says, “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” (73). Dee, in other words, has moved towards other traditions that go against the traditions and heritage of her own family: she is on a quest to link herself to her African roots and has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. In doing so, in attempting to recover her “ancient” roots, she has at the same time denied, or at least refused to accept, her more immediate heritage, the heritage that her mother and sister share.
Mama speaks these words in reference to Dee’s formative years, when she would return home from boarding school in Augusta, full of newly acquired knowledge that she would lord over Mama and Maggie. Rather than her daughter’s intelligence and accomplishments triggering pride in Mama, Dee’s schooling prompts fear and intimidation in her instead. (Like the fire that destroyed the family’s first house, knowledge is portrayed as a volatile and unwelcome presence that threatens the home’s safety, simplicity, and stability. ( Education is the means through which Dee rejects and belittles her family, thus leading to division and alienation. At the same time, knowledge is a provocation, reminding Mama of the exposure and opportunities she was never given.
Mama gives voice to her resentment at her own stalled schooling and finds comfort in her physical strength and endurance. Infused with negative connotations, education is suggested as a destructive force that harms individuals by exposing them to worlds to which they will never really belong. Some are harmed or excluded by the struggle to acquire learning and are destined to be like Maggie, hanging meekly in the doorway of a room that she will never be able to enter, shut out from the ability to change.
For Mama, this threat is as real and unwanted as a fire racing through the rafters. ) Most obviously—and most importantly—the quilts that Mrs. Johnson has promised to give Maggie when she marries are highly symbolic, representing the Johnsons’ traditions and cultural heritage. These quilts were “pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee “(76), both figures in family history who, unlike the present Dee, took charge in teaching their culture and heritage to their offspring.
The quilts themselves are made up of fragments of history, of scraps of dresses, shirts, and uniforms, each of which represents those people who forged the family’s culture, its heritage, and its values. Most importantly, however, these fragments of the past are not simply representations in the sense of art objects; they are not removed from daily life. What is most crucial about these quilts—and what Dee does not understand—is that they are made up of daily life, from materials that were lived in. This, in essence, is the central point of “Everyday Use”: that the cultivation and maintenance of its heritage are ecessary to each social group’s self-identification, but that also this process, in order to succeed, to be real, must be part of people’s use every day. After all, what is culture but what is home to us, just as Mrs. Johnson’s yard is home to her. As I glanced over the follow-up questions that came at the end of the short story and read through the side notes I had made, I realized that “Everyday Use” reeks of irony and contradictions. Virtually every word Dee, or Wangero, speaks has a tinge of condescension towards the very heritage that she supposedly values so much.
Additionally, this heritage and culture that is “special” to her is merely based on the superficial and material aspects which in turn, cancel the fact that she values it at all. Dee, from the instant she greets her mother and sister, up until the point of leaving, places herself above her family through her statements and her actions. Dee corrects her mother quickly on her new name; Dee says, “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo! ” and claims that “Dee” is dead (25). The mother recounts the memory that Dee hated the house that they had lived in and consequently was too ashamed to bring her friends over.
However, when Dee arrived at the house with her Polaroid camera, she never took “a shot without making sure the house was included” (22). Initially, I, as the reader, thought that there had been a clear shift between Dee’s demeanor in the past and how it was then, yet various clues proved me wrong; Dee still had a distorted view of her heritage. She acts as if she cares about her heritage but in actuality she only cares about the physical proof of her heritage solely for materialistic and superficial purposes. This is apparent when Dee first greets her mother and sister; she said, “Wa-su-zo-Tean-o! (21). Her difficulty with speaking the native language shows that Dee is not in touch with her heritage despite her belief that she is.
Later on in the story, Dee tries to take the blanket that her mother and Bid Dee made. When her mother decides to not let Dee have it but rather let Maggie keep it, Dee becomes outraged and storms out of the house. In the midst of her hissy fit, Dee reveals her true colors as well as makes the most outrageously ironic statements of the entire story. Not only does Dee say that “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!… She’d probably be backward nough to put them to everyday use,” but also says that Maggie and her mother do not understand their heritage (66). Dee’s statement is completely reversed and it is shocking to hear that Dee would even believe this absurd thought. Wangero perceives valuing her heritage through turning ordinary items, according to Maggie and the mother, into valuables. But in reality, the essence of the heritage is shown through putting these items that were hand-made, such as the benches and the blanket, to everyday use. In this way, the title is suitable to the story; it portrays how real heritage is seen through “Everyday Use. ”