The main purpose behind the action in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is to compare closely two sisters in relation to their sense of identity. The first sister introduced is Maggie who still lives with her mother in a poorly constructed home near the country. She’s planning on marrying a man whose most desirable characteristic is that he’s dependable and that she will be able to live near her mother. The fact that he is not considered attractive does not bother her because she was burned as a child and still has scars on her legs and arms.
This has made her shy and withdrawn and she is sure she will never attract a better man. The other sister is known to her family as Dee but has begun calling herself by another name that sounds more African. She is thought to have a beautiful life in the city that she has achieved through her good looks, her outgoing charm and her refusal to be denied. Her mother explains that she has lived a charmed childhood because she was always able to get her way with other people through her natural charm and beautiful appearance while her brains made it possible to achieve a higher level of education than either her mother or her sister.
Her mother is unsure whether she is married to the man she travels with and seems too intimidated by her to actually ask. Dee’s behavior throughout the story causes her to be categorized as a middle class urbanite within the mind of the reader as compared to her simple country sister. Unsurprisingly, the two girls have widely different approaches to their heritage.
Dee’s approach to her heritage is almost like the reaction of a tourist to a theme park. She is obviously trying to make a connection and just as obviously feeling a sense of loss even though she doesn’t want to live this kind of a life. She describes the things of the past ‘quaint’ and ‘cute’ but she seems incapable of seeing them for their everyday value in the lives of her sister and mother who use them regularly as tools of survival. The mother knows that she doesn’t match Dee’s idea of a perfect mother which Mama describes as a woman “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights.”
Analyzing Dee’s character, the critic Powell describes Dee as “a selfish and egotistical character with a superficial understanding of her inheritance. She characterizes the confusion and misguidance of young African Americans in the late 60s and 70s” (2007). Dee’s idea of the best way to honor her ancestors is to put the things they used on display in a place of honor rather than allow her sister to use them and potentially damage them. She has no sense that Maggie might achieve some connection with her heritage simply in the act of participating in the activities that her ancestors participated in while also using the tools they made and used as well. Thus, Dee’s sense of her heritage is based on appreciation from a distance.
Although Dee’s personality seems overwhelming, it is difficult to forget Maggie’s participation in the scene. Maggie’s identity is formed through her intimate connection with the ways of life of her ancestors. Within this character, “Walker depicted the true essence of culture and heritage which are not to be found in the objects or external appearance but reflected by attitude and lifestyle” (Curzon, 1974). Her mother describes from the beginning how Maggie helped her make the yard “so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. … It is not just a yard.
It is like an extended living room.” For Maggie, this concept is intuitively understood because she, like her mother, is accustomed to spending her evenings sitting out in the yard enjoying this extension of their living area. 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 are comfortable living in the same way her mother has for years. Regarding which daughter should be permitted to take the highly prized family quilts, Dee is correct in assuming Maggie “would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags.”
Maggie admits this was what she had planned to do but gives them up because she knows she is different from her sister. Unlike Dee, Maggie knows she can remember her grandmother without them. “It is clear from Maggie’s statement that her ‘everyday use’ of the quilts would be as a reminder of her Grandma Dee” (White, 2001) as compared to Dee’s more materialistic sense of value associated with them. Thus, Maggie’s sense of heritage is based on lived experience.
Although both girls seem to value having some form of connection to their common heritage, their approach is seen to be much different from one sister to the other. Dee has had all the advantages beauty, brains, taste and personality could bring her but she lacks any strong personal connection to her heritage. Maggie has been content with remaining near home, perhaps as a natural result of her more limited intelligence, perhaps as a result of her shyness or scars.
She is intimately connected to her heritage because she is living a life still very similar to the lives her ancestors lived. She knows how it felt to use those tools to create what was needed because she is still using those tools. Her sense of heritage is not just an intellectual understanding of how the tools were used or a historical understanding of how they were made or acquired such as Dee’s, but is ingrained in the experience of her body, the base of her awareness and her way of life.
Curzon, Gwendolyn. “Everyday Use by Alice Walker.” African-American Fiction. 2009. Web.
Powell, Rachel. “Character Analysis and Symbolism in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use.” Associated Content, (2007). Web.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.”
White, David. “Everyday Use: Defining African-American Heritage.” Portals. Purdue North Central, 2001. Web.