A Literary Review of Everyday Use by Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, included in the In Love and Trouble short story collection, was published in 1973, a moment in history known as the ‘Black Power Movement’. This movement encouraged racial pride and equality. Everyday Use relates the struggles of African American women due to their racial identity, although the story is about the contrast between two sisters and the struggle of heritage. Alice Walker represents the situation of the black society in America through the relationship of three women, Mrs. Johnsons and her two daughters. The author also uses the narrative to project meaning into the story, as it is related on a personal way through the narrator, the character of Mrs. Johnsons. This essay portrays the application of two theoretical concepts from different schools of thought, which are the theories of Marxism and Psychoanalysis, to analyze the work of Everyday Use.
Marxist theories defend a classless society, arguing that classes divides society. By analyzing Alice Walker’s Everyday Use, one can identify some basic concepts such as classism or capitalism. The story develops in the late 1900s in the South. It presents a poor family, composed by a single mother and her two children, struggling to survive.
In Everyday Use, we see the effect that classism has on society, because of this, it is a shattered society divided by the wealth that one owns, where only the richest can afford the best of everything. Likewise, in Everyday Use, we appreciate how classism has affected a modest family in hardship. The Johnson family belongs to a class that has few opportunities and resources. However, Dee had the rare but also extraordinary opportunity to go to college and receive an education, in contrast to her sister Maggie. In most societies, education is a symbol of success, social class, status, and power. After having received an education, Dee does not identify herself anymore with her family due to their low class and social position, so she decides to change her name. She says: “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me”. The story portrays Dee as a very fortunate child that has achieved an education, but she also seems to have forgotten her roots and the difficulties that surrounded her during her growth. Then, Dee appears at her mother’s house selfishly and ungratefully, rarely dressed for herself. Marxist Theory tries to remove the impact of classism on society, as we can relate to Maggie by the manner in which her sister approaches her, treating her as a different person.
Capitalist ideologies can also be recognized in Everyday Use, as well as competence or the American dream. The competition is evident because in the story, Dee is constantly selfish with her sister and acts with her as if she doesn’t understand what she’s talking about, she intellectually superimposes herself for having gone to college. The American dream was understood as the willing to fight for a better life. This theory is projected in the character of Dee, who has always dreamed and hoped for a better life, unlike his mother and sister that have not yet done so. Dee is proud of the person she has become, but this also makes her ashamed of her family. This is demonstrated by Dee’s words to her sister: Dee’s thought about her family are shown through her behavior and attitude to them. “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!…she’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use”. She thinks that Maggie doesn’t deserve the quilts (those were ancient clothing patches from the family) because she is ignorant and she wouldn’t give the respect they deserved. Dee considers herself above the standards of her environment for having gone to college and receiving an education. It is because of this distinction that she considers herself part of the American dream. She was born into poverty and thanks to the help of her family and community she was able to go to school and become a better person. Since that moment, she no longer considers herself part of the poor community in which she grew up. Because of this, she believes her family is ignorant and stupid, focusing more on herself and less on her family. Marxism totally opposes to this dream, arguing that not everyone has the same opportunities or resources available to achieve it, as in the story, where Maggie never had the same opportunities as Dee and they could not aspire to an education. Marxism blames the American dream for illusions that cannot be fulfilled.
The psychoanalysis part of the work has much to see with the concept of ‘double consciousness’, understood as the awareness of belonging to two different and contrasting cultures, that appears in Dee’s character. After going to college, her personality totally changes as she has joined a ‘higher status’ than her family, when it was her family who helped financially to go to college. This double consciousness makes her attitude more arrogant, as she belongs to the African America community where she grew up, but she also considers herself part of a more elevated and educated class by attending to college. This analysis also includes the image that Dee creates of herself by denying that she comes from a poor family, or avoiding to remember the past. This image is a ‘psychological wall’ behind which she hides his past and through which she shows his new personality and way of life.
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