Tyranny and Identity in Everyday Use

Human rights activist Alice Walker is one of the most highly noted authors of the twentieth century. Her stories and poems are inspiring to many people. “Everyday Use” is, by far, one of the most motivational and controversial of her works. Many, since its publication in the early seventies, have criticized and praised this work for its accuracy on the difficulties of being an African-American woman. However, this work takes both sides of the spectrum into account. On one hand a mother is facing the obstacle of accepting her daughter’s solution to her own identity crisis, and on the other a daughter is rising above the oppression that held and still holds her race and gender down at the expense of losing the respect of her family. Through symbolism and characterization, Walker brings to light the importance of overcoming tyranny and identity crises.

Each character within “Everyday Use” is enduring an internal struggle, however Dee seems to be having the most trouble. Since a young age, she has been different from her mother and sister. It was noted that she was never satisfied with the house she lived in and she always tried to better herself in terms of education. Her ideals are typical of the 1960s and 70s. Many ridiculous laws and restrictions on African-Americans had finally been lifted; black power was in full swing. Young people were inspired to take action and break free from what had been holding their families back since they came into this country hundreds of years before. One important idea, pointed out by Susan Farrell, is that the story is told through the mother’s eyes. Everything we know about Dee is her mother’s opinion of her “ We must remember from the beginning that the story is told by Mama; the perceptions are filtered through her mind and her views of her two daughters are not to be accepted uncritically”. This leads the reader to question whether Dee is really as terrible as Mama makes her out to be. Perhaps, Mama simply doesn’t understand the new way of life and is opposed to change, maybe it scares her. This would certainly affect the portrayal of Dee. Dee is plainly a product of her time, a woman determined to rise above the depression of her people and become something better. This is conveyed through the clothes she wears, the language she has adopted, as well as the new name she has taken. She is attempting to free herself from the chains of society. However, Dee is not right in the ways that she treats her family. At times, she is completely selfish and quite harsh. She continually casts her mother and sister aside and makes them feel ignorant and useless. This is conveyed several times throughout the story: “She wrote me once that no matter where we “choose” to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends.” and “She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about the understand.” Dee has not been very kind to her family in this respect, and it is easy to understand her mother’s judgment of her. For a moment, in the latter half of the story, the reader believes that Dee might just not be so bad. She takes interest in objects around the house (especially the quilts), one thinks she might possibly have embraced part of her history, however it has brought to light that she wants them for decoration. Understandingly, from Mama’s point of view, this is upsetting. Traditionally, this is not something that black folks would do. Quilts are meant for everyday use. Nonetheless, this is Dee’s way of coping with the turbulent world around her and her efforts to better herself while still holding on to her heritage, so as to remind her where she came from (Walker, Farrell).

Just as Dee, Maggie is partially incorrectly portrayed as well. It is true that her sister seems to walk all over her, but this is entirely because of Maggie’s passive personality. As a young child she was burned in a house fire, and she seems to be ashamed of her scars and withdrawn because of all that has happened. This is a simply explanation for why she gives the impression of being afraid of her sister and even runs away from her when she comes to visit “ Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand”. This quote brings about a great point that Mama appears to always be controlling Maggie. Perhaps, Mama is overly controlling and protective towards Maggie because of her scars and her (Mama’s) lack of control over Dee. Mama also seems as if she “ is projecting her own anger and frustration onto her younger daughter…” Not once does Maggie voice her own opinion of Dee: she makes small actions like a noise or dropping an object. Walker gives the impression of Maggie being more of a plot device or an object rather than an actual character. Maggie is like a tool that Mama uses to project her own trials and tribulations (Tuten 179, Walker).

Mama is probably somewhere in her forties and has lived in a much different time than Maggie and Dee. When she was young, she had very few liberties as an African-American woman. Though Dee and Maggie’s generation has a long way to go, Mama’s generation went through a lot more. Her parents and their parents were likely sharecroppers, and though they may not have been slaves, they had virtually no rights. The 1960s completely transformed the world for African-Americans. Mama has not yet begun to understand this, she is still thinking in the way she has been taught to think. She would not look a white man in the eye “Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them”. Just as with Dee, Mama is a product of her generation, which leads into why she treats her children the way she does. Dee’s behavior is shocking to her mother, just as with every parent/child relationship in every culture. She is the epitome of a typical “rebellious teenager”, or adolescent, except that she is actually beginning a revolution. Dee had to choose her family or a life “…making it, for Dee, and no doubt many others, had a price. The force required to stare the white world down was equaled by the intensity of a gaze, which burned her links to her past” and thus Mama must try to best to deal with this fact, which is very hard for her. Maggie, on the other hand, never disappoints Mama. She is simple and will lead a simple life; she is not threatening to Mama. Mama also has great sympathy for Maggie because of how she has been burned and is still affected by it in everyday life. She tries to protect her the best she can (Walker, Whitsitt 448).

Though the personalities of these three characters are important to the story, they are not the most important part. The symbolism throughout this story is extremely significant. The first essential piece of symbolism is the yard “A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room”. This yard is representative of Mama and Maggie’s simple life. Most people would think of a yard as either a decorative accent to their home or a place to play, but to them it is an extension of their house. They spend quite a bit of time here, just enjoying the breeze. The second piece of symbolism is the orchid “She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers”. Mama is dreaming in this sentence, but this gives the reader insight into what she is thinking. She is explaining how Dee would want her to look, but she is also fantasizing here that Dee would pin an orchid on her dress, which is a figurative example of how much Mama wants Dee to accept and respect her as a mother. While these are great examples of symbolism, the most crucial symbol in this entire story is the quilts in the end of the story. The quilts are meaningful to Dee, Mama and Maggie in different ways. To Dee, “The quilts… link her generation to prior generations, and thus they represent the larger African American past. The quilts contain scraps of dresses worn by the grandmother and even the great-grandmother, as well as a piece of the uniform worn by the great-grandfather who served in the union Army…” they are a work of art to her; memorabilia of her family’s past and she wishes to hang them on the walls as so. However, to Mama and Maggie (who as far as the reader knows have the same ideals), these quilts mean roughly the same as far as remembering the family’s past, but they would like to remember their family in a different way. They would use the quilts as they were intended to be used, on beds and to keep warm. They prefer to remember their family in comfort and practicality. To them, it would be gauche to hang a quilt on a wall. With this “… the reader, if not the daughter, sees clearly that it is the mother who truly understands and promotes the continuation of their ‘heritage’” (Bauer 150, Cowart 172, Walker).

“Everyday Use” has an abundant amount of great examples of characterization and symbolism. Each character was developed with their separate ideals and struggles and each holding onto their past the best they can “…women in Walker’s story are survivors who have attempted to make whole lives out of scraps”. However, it seems as though, in the end, Mama has rid her and Maggie of Dee altogether. Dee strove so hard to rid herself of oppression that she drove her own family away. It is important to realize that hardships are a part of any journey that must not be forgotten, or simply hung on a wall like artwork (Pierce-Baker 256).

Works Cited

Bauer, Margaret D. “Alice Walker: Another Southern Writer Criticizing Codes Not

Put to Use.” Studies in Short Fiction (1992): 143-51. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Cowart, David. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Farrell, Susan. “Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use'” Studies in Short Fiction (1998): 179-86. No Records. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Pierce-Baker, Charlotte, and Houston A. Baker, Jr. “Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use'” The Southern Review (1985): 706-20. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Tuten, Nancy. “Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”” Explicator 51.2 (1993): 125-28. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Whitsitt, Sam. “In Spite of It All: Reading Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”” African American Review (n.d.): 443-59. Galileo. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

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