The short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker provides a strong comparison between two sisters during a single afternoon. The author doesn’t make it clear which of the sisters is the older, but there is a definite difference between them. One sister is Maggie who lives with her mother in what is suggested to be a small, poorly built shack on the edge of the country. She is planning to marry a somewhat unattractive but dependable man who has also grown up in their small town. As a child, she was caught in a fire and still has a lot of scarring on her legs and arms which makes her shy. The other sister, Dee, lives in the city and doesn’t come to visit often. She is described as having good looks, an outgoing charm and refuses to be denied. Her mother tells about how she had a charmed childhood, easily able to get her way with other people as a result of her natural charm and good looks at the same time that her intelligence pushed her ever further in her education. Although her mother doesn’t know whether Dee is married, dating or just friends with the man she brings with her, Dee’s attitudes and behaviors are those of a middle class urban black woman interested in recapturing a sense of her heritage. While both girls can be seen to honor their past and the cultural heritage from which they descended, their approaches to this past are as different as their appearances.
Both sisters seem to feel a strong connection with their past through the entire story. One of the first things Dee does when she arrives is to grab her camera, although it isn’t clear whether she is snapping pictures to make fun of later or if she really is simply trying to capture a memory. “She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house.” Although the food that is served is nothing special to Maggie or the mother, Dee makes a big deal out of it as if it was a rare delicacy and her male friend refuses to eat any of it as if it was inedible.
Dee’s entire visit is lived through as if she were visiting a theme park of some kind, including her avid search for souvenirs. It is clear that she is attempting to make a connection with a way of life that no longer applies to her. While she likes her new position, she obviously feels a loss that she knows Maggie still enjoys. Both girls are aware of the history of several items that Dee points out around the house, most of which have been created by one relative or another as a means of meeting a need. Dee is able to recognize “Grandma Dee’s butter dish” and “the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs” while Maggie tells her “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash … His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.” Despite these similarities in their shared past and appreciation for their heritage, the girls’ interest in these things seems to have entirely different approaches.
The type of interest Dee has in her surroundings is immediately understood as an understanding from a distance. Although her mother is an example of the heritage she is proud of, she still wishes her mother was someone “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights.” This description would indicate someone who has not worked hard outside most of her life and thus place Dee’s family also in the middle class. Further distancing her from her country heritage, Dee was sent to the Augusta school at an early age where she learned to love the stories she read about in books, “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” and grew up wanting nice things “A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me.”
While she apparently loves her mother and sister, “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”, it is also clear that she takes little or no pride in having actually been raised in this world. However, she is proud of her black heritage as it is thought of from the perspective of the city, including the proud announcement of her name change. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me,” she tells her mother even though she was truly named after her aunt. The items she takes from the house are all strongly associated with her culture and past, but she intends to put them to alternate uses within her home, “’I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’ she said, sliding a plate over the chute, ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.’” She can’t understand why her mother might not allow her to ‘properly’ take care of something as valuable as the heritage quilt she’s dug out of her mother’s trunk.
Despite Dee’s exuberance and dominant presence, Maggie is introduced first because she is already present within the scene. She has apparently helped her mother to make the yard “so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. … It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room.” Thus, a part of the family’s heritage is revealed as sitting out in this type of yard, looking up into the old elm tree and enjoying the evening’s breezes as compared to the more refined activities Dee might be involved in. Strongly contrasted against Dee in the education department, Maggie is more like her uneducated mother. While she attempts to read to her mother in the evenings, “she stumbles along good-naturedly but can’t see well. She knows she is not bright.” She is apparently accustomed to doing things the way her mother did them, understanding the feel of the “small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood” of the dasher for the butter churn and is comfortable living in the same way her mother has for years. In the argument over the quilts, Dee correctly assumes Maggie “would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags.”
While the two girls are each shown to have an appreciation for their heritage, Dee’s emerges as the weaker of the two. She is now living a comfortable life in the city and cannot imagine how anyone might be more comfortable living in the squalor of her mother and sister’s home. Despite this, there are numerous priceless treasures to be found within the small cottage that each girl places different values upon. Dee wants the top to the butter churn because of its cultural significance, its obvious age and its personal family history. While Maggie appreciates all of these qualities as well, she values the churn top because without it, the rest of the churn is useless and she can no longer make butter. In the same way, Dee appreciates the hand-pieced quilts because of all the work and care that went into them as well as the historical significance of the fabrics used while Maggie appreciates them for all this history as well as the possibility of them keeping her warm in the winter nights and making her beds beautiful in the daytime. Toward the end of the story, Maggie seems to sum up the differences of the two girls’ relationship with their past by telling her mother, “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts”, highlighting the difference between a lived and shared culture versus one that is only seen from the outside.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” 2009. Web.