What is Alice Walker’s purpose in writing Everyday Use?
Many critics argue that the character of Dee is modeled after Walker herself. In the 1960's, Walker, the daughter of sharecroppers, was attending university and, like Dee, felt that black Americans were finally finding their own voice. But Walker also shares traits with Maggie - a childhood accident left her self-consciously scarred and shy. Dee and Maggie are on opposite sides regarding how their identity. Dee seeks to fetishize and reject the existence that comprises Maggie's everyday world. Maggie knows the inherent value of objects beyond signifiers for a culture; she recognizes the traditions and heritage that are still active. The sisters are sides of the same coin, having opted diverging paths newly open to them in the 1960s. That Walker shares characteristics with both of her characters illustrates her aim in writing the story. While Maggie and Mama are cast in a "good" light at the end of the story and Dee comes off as selfish, Walker's women give voice to the myriad interpretations of identity in an era of Civil Rights.
What is the significance of Mama's dream, in which she reunites with Dee on a television show?
Although Mama seems to accept her reality, her day dream vignette has her conforming to a much more socially accepted definition of beauty. In her dream, Mama is light-skinned, thinner, and witty: she displays all the traits that white middle class America find desirable in a "pre-Oprah" African-American woman. It is worth noting that the woman in this dream is not a product of Mama’s own conception of beauty but rather a manifestation of what Dee would admire in a “beautiful” mother. Although Mama is anxious over the wounds Dee will reopen upon her arrival, she still has the latent desire to be accepted and respected by her eldest daughter, and the world in which Mama believes she exists.
What is the significance of Dee's taking photographs of her family when she meets them in the yard?
After she greets her family, Dee returns to the car to take out a Polaroid camera. Like a tourist on an archeological expedition, Dee takes shots of the dilapidated authenticity of her family’s home. Dee is careful to include Maggie in the peripheries of the picture, like a tacked on artifact that gives added meaning to her portrait of home. Dee is also careful to separate herself from both the pictures and the context of the pictures. Ironically, Dee's camera shots are as much a reflection of Dee’s rebuke of her culture as they are of chronicling it.
Dee/Wangero takes objects from Mama's home because she sees them as being fashionable, and insists that they are priceless items meant to be displayed rather than used. To Mama, however, these quilts serve a more practical and deeper meaning. Comment on the difference between both views.
The old quilts, butter churn, and whittled benches are living manifestations of the Johnson family past. The items are not only meant for “everyday use” but they also contain memories. Each square of old fabric on the quilt represent the lives of family and friends that have come and gone; they are a reminder of times filled with pleasure and pain, the sacred and profane. The butter churn represents the tree in Mama's sister’s yard, the whittled handles contoured with the hand shapes of people who fed the family. The pressed-in smoothness of the wooden benches represents the countless family and friends who sat at the family table. Dee wants these heirlooms as displays of art salvaged from a culture that is dead to her. Maggie and Mama, however, still use these items and, in doing so, keep their culture alive.
Is Dee a wholly unsympathetic character?
At first glance, it is easy to reject Dee as a selfish and insensitive person. Upon closer inspection, one can begin to understand the struggles that led her up to this point in her life. To become the person she is, Dee would have had to overcome many obstacles - namely, the limitations placed on her rural upbringing. Her education has opened up her world, and her success at college is certainly the product of her self-possession and tenacity. Dee is in a transitional phase between childhood and womanhood, so the pretension can be interpreted as the growing pains of maturity. Dee may be selfish, but she is no doubt driven. Ironically it is the parts of Dee’s personality that we might find objectionable that has enabled her socio- economic emancipation. Sure Dee could use a long lecture on empathy, but she was able to transcend the life that was preordained for her.
Is Mama a wholly sympathetic character?
There is much about Mama to admire. She is humble, caring, hard working and self-aware. She keeps her little farm going with the strength and determination that would put many men to shame. She has no illusions about herself or either of her daughters. Mama knows Dee lives in a world outside her own, and she knows that Maggie is destined to live a life that is similarly small. With Maggie, Mama’s pragmatism feels rather pessimistic. Throughout the story, Maggie is described in less than flattering terms. Mama describes her a “lame animal” who, although loyal and affectionate, has no strong qualities. It is even more disconcerting that Mama believes Maggie incapable of acquiring any strong qualities. Mama’s half-compliments of Dee’s natural beauty, “lighter skin”, and clever wit is juxtaposed with her comment about good looks, money, and quickness passing Maggie by. Mama has long been content - or complacent - with her lot in life and projects this same sense of fatalism onto young Maggie. According to Mama, the best Maggie can hope for is to “marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face).” Much like Dee, Mama’s limitations help shape her strengths, but she has trouble seeing beyond her front yard.
Would you characterize Mama as a dynamic character in the story?
Mama has spent her life in the shadow of her own daughter. She has recognized that Dee’s looks, intelligence, and drive will allow her to surpass her upbringing. She has stood by when Dee has objectified and insulted both her and Maggie with condescending remarks and called them ignorant. Dee's homecoming inspires nervous anxiety rather than joyful anticipation. When Dee finally shows up, she is much like an amplified version of her spoiled self. Dee’s dismissal of Mama’s lifestyle and objectification of the items needed for “everyday use” puts Dee into final perspective for Mama. Critic David White argues that “Mama’s pride in the practical aspects of her nature” means that she has not contemplated “abstract concepts such as heritage". Mama knows she has always been refused access into this world and hence knows when she is being manipulated.
Dee’s insistence on acquiring the quilts that are meant for Maggie finally pushes Mama to react. Mama rebukes Dee in the way she should have many years ago - by calling out her immaturity and shifting her care to Maggie. For Mama, the quilts represent both a practical and emotional consciousness that she refuses to let be compromised. Thus, Mama becomes a dynamic character through the changing relationships with her daughters.
What effect does the story being told in first person have on the narrative?
Everyday Use is told in Mama's voice. The reader never learns her name, only her familial title as Dee and Maggie call her. This gives Mama an authority earned through wisdom, age, and position as matriarch. However, her namelessness also strips Mama of identity beyond that which is defined by the home. The first person narration allows the reader to get inside the head of the protagonist, but the narrative is also skewed by that character's thoughts and feelings. We glean that Mama is matter-of-fact in how she describes herself, almost as an omniscient narrator would. We understand the fraught relationship with Dee via Mama's fantasy of being on Johnny Carson's show. These glimpses allow the reader to understand Mama through her thoughts rather judging her based on appearances, or how others see her - but it also colors how we view Dee (dynamic, selfish) and Maggie (sweet, slow). At first, Mama is a passive observer allowing her story - and her daughters' lives - to unfold around her. However, as Dee brings the larger, changing world to her doorstep, Mama becomes a fully realized person in her reaction to Dee's fetishizing their heritage. Throughout, the reader never loses sight of Mama because her voice is the story.
Even though Everyday Use was written over 40 years ago, does it still have relevance today?
Race and racial identity will always be a prevailing theme in American literature despite the increasingly diverse makeup of the populace. The dichotomy between preserving heritage while driving towards an evolving identity is a constant struggle between the past and the future. The artifacts that Dee wishes to collect would now no longer be in everyday use, signaling that the recent past has always been, and will always be, displaced through technological advances. But just as constant are the cultures and traditions that are carried forth through generations. While Dee's story has a very concrete time and place (the Civil Rights era), the Johnson family story is one that can be played out through the future, and the relevance of one's search for identity is perennial.
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