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Imagery And Conflict In Everyday Use English Literature Essay

1592 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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“Everyday Use” is Alice Walker’s response to the perception of heritage articulated by the black power movements during the 1960s. African Americans were upset with the failure of integration and gravitated to the philosophy of cultural nationalism to attain emancipation (Christian 10). “Everyday Use” tells a story of a mother and her two daughters’ opposed ideas of their history and identities. The story illustrates the differences between Mrs. Johnson and her docile daughter Maggie, who still enjoy their lives of living traditionally in their small southern home, and her older, educated daughter Dee, who prefers her recently adopted identity, “Wangero,” in favor of an ostentatious Native American distinctiveness. Though the mother and older daughter have two opposing ideals about traditions throughout the story, the conflicts between the two viewpoints create tension that keeps the reader hooked. Although there is no definite correct viewpoint about the traditions expressed, the elements of fiction used in the story allow the reader to consider both sides. Alice Walker uses imagery through animals and conflict through the character’s personalities to get the importance of heritage across in “Everyday Use.”

According to John Gruesser, “Although the etymologies of the words ‘cow’ and ‘cower’ are not the same, it is likely that Walker is hinting at the former by employing the latter” (184). Mama also relegates herself to the cow when explaining her own body language when she encounters white males. Mama says, “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” (Walker 109). The connection of Maggie and Mama to the cows is reinforced when Dee lines up the two to take a Polaroid of them and the house. During the process of taking the picture, a real cow randomly wanders into the yard and into the snapshot. Mama also refers to cows when she tells of her former pastime of milking the cows until she was “hooked in the side in 1949” (Walker 110). Mama says, “Cows are soothing and slow and don’t bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way” (Walker 110). Mama’s presumption of the cows connects to the ending of the story when Dee makes the error of attempting to take the quilts that were previously promised to Maggie.

Another instance of imagery takes place early in the short story. Mama explains that Maggie walks like “a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car” (Walker 109). At the end of the story Mama describes Maggie in similar terms after Maggie tells her mother that Dee can have the quilts. Mama says, “I looked at her hard. She had filled up her bottom lip with checker-berry snuff and it gave her face a kind of dopey, hangdog look” (Walker 113). It is perfectly suitable that animal imagery should be a part of “Everyday Use,” a story with a rural setting, and a narrator who supports herself by owning and raising her own livestock. Gruesser said, “Walker goes a step further, however, by using ‘hooking cows’ and ‘hangdog looks’ to reinforce the major theme of her story” (Gruesser185, Walker 110, 113).

The conflicts between the characters throughout “Everyday Use” keep the reader hooked and help him or her to understand the theme of heritage. Maggie, Mama, and Dee each portray different personalities. Maggie can be described as caring and passive. When Dee arrives at her former homestead, Maggie “attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way” (Walker 110). Mama yells at her to come back, “and she stops and tries to dig a well in the sand with her toe” (Walker 110). She can often be found hiding behind Mama when in the presence of her beautiful, well-educated, older sister. When Dee argues that she should be the daughter to possess the quilts, Maggie offers to give them to her because she can remember her grandmother without them. Maggie’s reaction to Dee’s sudden obsession with the quilts can be seen as caring or cowardly depending on how the reader perceives the situation. If the reader sees Maggie as the protagonist and Dee as more of the antagonist, then the reader will most likely prefer to believe Maggie was acting out of pure kindness when she offered to give up the quilts that were promised to her long ago. If the reader saw no fault in any of Dee’s actions prior to the climactic scene of the fight over the quilts, however, the reader might see Maggie as backing down from a directly intense situation and acting “cowardly” (Walker 111).

Dee completely contrasts with her younger sister. She can be described as bold, contradicting, and complex. Opposed to Maggie and Mama’s rather plain style of clothing, Dee wears bright, beautiful colors like the dress she wears during her visit with Mama and Maggie. “At sixteen she had a style of her own: and she knew what style was” (Walker 110). Dee presents the attitude during the period of the Black Power movement well. She looks anyone in the eye without a second of hesitation and stays aggressive with her demands. Though Dee stands strong in her beliefs, irony is shown as she ends up contradicting herself. For example, she changes her name to honor her heritage, but in reality her name had already accomplished this, as her name had been her grandmother’s. Another ironic fact is how she used to be completely ashamed of where she came from, and now she cannot get enough of the simple things around the house like the lovely benches with “rump prints,” or Grandma Dee’s butter dish (Walker 112).

A major difference between Dee and her mother and sister is that Dee prefers language over silence. Dee was determined to be educated, and after she accomplished her schooling she used her knowledge to isolate herself and to oppress and manipulate others (Tuten 125). Mama evokes that Dee “washed us [Mama and Maggie] 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 to understand” (Walker 110). It is not surprising that Dee’s younger sister Maggie is intimidated by her, or that Maggie and Mama are mistrustful of language and thus express themselves with actions opposed to words. In the end, it is Mama’s actions that silence her oldest daughter, as Dee leaves the room “without a word” (Walker 113).

Mama’s character is round and constantly changing throughout the story. “Maggie’s forbearance in the story contrasts with Dee’s boldness,” and Mama tries to please both daughters (Farrel 183). She envies her daughter Dee and her ability to be as audacious as she is without ever thinking twice about it, but she also tries to protect her daughter Maggie from the world and its harmful possibilities (Farrel 181). She holds tight to the respect that she and Maggie share for tradition and ancestral history, but she also tries to respect Dee’s new-found interest in their heritage. In the end, ironically, by standing up against Dee, Mama is actually acting more like her oldest daughter. Mama uses the voice she was always afraid to use, the voice she learned how to use by watching Dee. Walker shows that Mama is able to attain a balance between the two types of heritage that are represented by her two extremely different offspring. She merges Maggie’s respect for tradition with Dee’s superiority and rebuttal to back down (Farrel 186). Mama, Maggie, and Dee have extremely contrasting beliefs and personalities, but that is a helpful ingredient in the process of Walker trying to get the central theme of the importance of heritage across to the reader.

Walker uses unique ways to portray the theme of the importance of heritage in “Everyday Use.” The way she uses imagery to help the reader visualize the setting and relationship between the characters and the animals really helps to paint a vivid picture that forces the reader to look beyond the obvious text and to read deeper between the lines. Walker could have compared her characters to trees, flowers, or any other living species, but she chose to use animals because animals relate to human beings the most. For Mama and Maggie, traditions are contrived on a foundation of inherited objects and ways of thinking. For Dee, traditions are something that no longer have daily use and are besmirched by the past. The different mindsets and personalities of each character have shaped the traditions they rely on and have created the tension that keeps the reader hooked. Each character has a distinctive personality that bleeds through the text and into the reader’s perspective to the point where the reader chooses instinctively whose values he or she desires to believe. Walker uses quilting to symbolize heritage because the family quilts are passed down from generation to generation, similar to the family heritage. “Everyday Use” is a phrase that brings up the question of whether or not heritage should be displayed for everyone to perceive in everyday life or if it should be protected and kept in a safe, sanctified place. The title not only pertains to the quilt, but more so to people’s heritage and how they prefer to respect it.

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