In the year 1973 Alice Walker published a collection of short stories titled “In Love and Trouble” which includes one of the most widely studied pieces of work till this day titled “Everyday use”. In this short story the author Alice Walker incorporates the struggle and stereotypical beliefs that circulated among the lives of rural black American women during the time and did this by demonstrating the numerous adversities a rural family has surpassed by assimilating it through the tension between the main character, who in this case was the mother, and her oldest daughter.
The subjective view of the story is made possible by the observant voice of the first-person narrator, the mother. In “Everyday Use” the mother’s point of view is what allows us to get an understanding on the way her daughters, both Dee and Maggie are seen through her eyes and the differences and commonalities that compose both of them in their own distinctive aspect. At the beginning of this short story we are introduced to the small Johnson family composed of the Miss Johnson and the younger daughter Maggie expecting the arrival of Dee, the oldest, most refined daughter of Miss Johnson.
In time we learn that our main character of this short story, Miss Johnson, happens to be a sternly criticizer of her two daughters for example, the way the mother illustrates the physical differences alone demonstrates us how set apart both sisters truly are. On one side we have Maggie, a young fragile female who tends to dress with simplicity because according to her mother/narrator her “thin body enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse” (Walker. ) Following this we also learn that she has been through tough times in her life ever since childhood.
As a child she was caught in a fire that destroyed her previous home and more importantly her self-esteem, the mother states that as a result of the fire Maggie is now “ashamed of the burned scars down her arms and legs”(Walker). Not only have the burns marked her body but they have also crushed her spirit and according to the narrator she knew “like good looks… quickness passed by her” ( Walker). The way she is pictured throughout the story almost makes the reader pity her because the scars afflicted her so much to the point where she can no longer smile at the world like a happy person.
Contrary to her sister when Dee arrives to the picture, per say, her whole physical look stands out unlike the simplicity her sister, Maggie, lives upon. Through her mother we learn how life has favored Dee in the looks department, since Miss Johnson describes her as “lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure” (Walker). To us she is portrayed as someone almost angelical and her feet are characterized as something “God himself had shaped” (Walker). Additionally her style also captivates anyone who might see her from afar and the way she dresses proves that extravagant sense Dee portrays.
This is supported by the narrator when she depicts the way she is dressed “A dress so loud it hurts my eyes… I feel my whole face warming from heat waves it throws out. Earrings, too, gold and hanging down to her shoulders” (Walker). Her arrival just proves how much more of a wealthy person she’s become in comparison to her sister, and mother who live in an underprivileged home. The statements made by the narrator help us understand the way Maggie and Dee differentiate in terms of physical aspects; however it is more than obvious that the physical impairments Maggie possesses have influenced her personality deeply.
While the narrator is describing her education she stops in between and claims that Maggie “knows she is not bright” (Walker). This statement proves how conscious she truly is about her imperfections, even if she might still be of a young age. In addition, it isn’t until Dee arrives, with her male acquaintance that we see her true shy personality really stand out. This man, named Asalamalakim, since the moment of arrival tries to connect with Maggie, but her shyness impairs her to try and the mother relates how as he tries to hug her “I feel her trembling there and when I look up I see the perspiration falling off her chin” (Walker).
Later, as the story unfolds, we uncover the true reason Dee has agreed to visit her family, to obtain something that she finds most treasurable to her heritage; the quilts her grandmother and former relatives had pieced together. These precious quilts had originally been staying intact for when Maggie’s wedding day arrived, but her sister had come all this way to not take no for an answer. Their mother dictates Maggie’s reaction “‘She can have them, Mama,” she said, like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her” (Walker).
This confirms what, at this point we have all been able to infer, that Maggie is someone not willing to fight in life and is used to her sister getting everything in this world that she, herself, will never have. Dee when it comes to her personality, she proves to be the complete opposite her sister is. We inferred that even through the very beginning of the story when her mother mentions that “She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature” (Walker).
Dee, even as a younger women, was determine to take on anything, however the way her mother describes that it almost sounds like she is intimidated by her persona. The narrator explains how “She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake her” (Walker). Dee’s popularity is also mentioned in the story by the narrator, “Nervous girls who never laughed.
Impressed with her they worshipped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (Walker). Dee’s mother almost narrates the story with what can come off as hatred or dislike towards Dee, unlike Maggie’s descriptions that sound almost sorrowful or pitiful. Heritage, even though mostly inferred, is the most fundamental thing that allows the story to flow smoothly. The fact that both sisters grew up so different puts in perspective the contrasting views each has towards important things, one of them being their heritage.
The first clue that we get from the narrator about Maggie’s knowledge about her heritage is when Dee is asking questions about so called artifacts she wants to take home. Maggie informs her sister that “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash… His name was Henry, but they called him Stash” (Walker). Dee’s lack of familiarity might appear naive or absurd but the truth of the matter is that Maggie lives it every day by her mother’s side in their impoverished home and is still accustomed to the lifestyle her ancestors lived upon.
This becomes clearer when her mother points out that unlike Dee “Maggie knows how to quilt” (Walker). When the topic of the quilts is touched we might think that Maggie is ready to fight for her rights to keep the quilts but things take an unexpected twist when she chooses to give them up instead. Maggie, instead, chooses to let Dee take the quilts by telling her mother she “can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (Walker). Maggie’s view towards heritage is completely distinct from Dee’s because Maggie lives it through her mother and home.
More importantly this short story took place during the year 1973, a revolutionary year for those who aspired to keep their heritage alive. Dee concurred with the views towards heritage from this revolutionary movement, which involved their ancestors who originally came from places such as Africa. These people, including Dee, believed that it was time to bring back that heritage and even changed her name to Wangero because she felt the name she had was a reminder to her of the way their race was used as slaves.
Dee’s point of view towards heritage can be inferred when she states “I can use the churn… nd I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher” (Walker). Through this statement it is obvious how Dee thinks of heritage as something that needs preservation to keep its original value. Originally Dee did not want anything to do with her family or their heritage since she was always aspiring more for herself. At one point Dee’s mother offered Dee the quilts, she wanted so bad now, for her to take when she was leaving for college and as her mother dictates Dee had said “they were old-fashioned, out of style” (Walker).
While Maggie wants to remember her heritage by putting it through everyday use Dee believes the only way to keep heritage alive is through preservation. At the end when her mother refuses to give her the quilts she leaves telling her mother that she does not understand her own heritage. Kissing Maggie goodbye she tells her “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too. Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama live you’d never know it” (Walker).
The last statement proves how deeply she truly cares about her sister and wants her heritage to continue leaving, but not through their life style but through the knowledge of history and preservation for something better. In conclusion, even though the many differences between them appear to be unending several critics have actually analyzed and reviewed this short story and for some such as Susan Farrell it is important to understand that these differences and the tension were necessary in order for Alice Walker to fully expose, what is understood to be, her true purpose of the story.
Susan in her literary criticism titled the “Fight vs. Flight: A Re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use””‘ states the importance of the ending in this short story because here “Walker shows that Mama’s moment of triumph is achieved because she is able to attain a balance between the two types of her heritage represented by her very different daughters—at the end Mama combines Maggie’s respect for tradition with Dee’s pride and refusal to back down, the combination Walker seems to feel is necessary if true social change is to come about”(179).
Keeping in mind that this short story was written during times where tradition meant focusing only on the past and our ancestors Alice Walker believed in something different, perhaps a more in depth understanding on what heritage truly is about and the acceptance of both the old and the new.