Piecing Things Together: Quilts and Literary Elements in Everyday Use. Alice Walker published “Everyday Use” in 1973. Walker, takes her characters to a different level, and adds depth to the actions of her characters instead of leaving them with simple face-value interactions, by using them to allude to other stories of the world. “Everyday Use” is riddled with symbolism, which the author uses to bring greater meaning to the story. Walker uses Dee and Maggie’s characters to symbolize the prodigal son and his eldest brother in the Bible. Along with the symbolism of Dee and Maggie, Walker integrates quilts into the story to; even further, make the importance and meaning of heritage to Mama and Maggie, more vivid. Walker utilizes the literary element of irony when she shows Dee’s ignorance of her family history and her knowledge of the Black Muslim heritage through actions and dialogue. Walker has created functional relationships between her characters such as Dee and Mama’s relationship as well as Mama and Maggie’s relationship. Through Walkers characterization she develops the relationships between the daughters and their mother. Alice Walker masterfully uses symbolism, irony and characterization to address the relationships between Mama, Dee, and Maggie.
The author parallels the individuals in the biblical parable of the “Prodigal (lost) Son” with her characters Dee and Maggie. The story begins with Mama anxiously awaiting her eldest daughters return home from the outside world. A world that Mama is convinced does not pertain to her or her youngest daughter, Maggie. Mama responds to Dee’s return home as the father in the parable of the “Prodigal (lost) Son” in the Bible, reacts to his youngest son’s return home from his misadventures (Luke 15:11-32). “And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him (Luke 15:20).” Mama does not show such outward excitement to the return of her “lost” daughter but all the same Mama proclaims “When she comes I will meet-but there they are (Walker 109)!” Walker parallel’s Dee to this biblical figure through her characterization of Dee. Dee is selfish, bold, and un-faltering in her words and actions just as the prodigal son in the Bible. Though the prodigal son returns home is because he is now penniless and has squandered his inheritance, readers draw that Dee’s return home showcases her squandered ability to learn and gain from her own heritage (Luke 15:11-32). Mama makes this point distinct when Dee is requesting the quilts and Mama says to herself, “I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style (Walker 113).” Dee does not appreciate the time and thought that was put in to making the quilts just as the prodigal son does not appreciate the work and sweat that was put into creating his inheritance.
Additionally, in terms of characterization, Maggie is symbolically aligned with the brother of the youngest son, who serves his father dutifully, and detests, quite vocally, his brother’s homecoming. “But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf (Luke 15:30).” Maggie stays with her mother and helps keep up with day to day living just as the eldest son. She is dutiful and never asks for anything for herself. Both Maggie and the eldest son are resentful of their siblings. When Dee’s boyfriend attempts to teach her a new handshake Maggie’s hand is limp. Mama relates this to Maggie’s shyness and low self-confidence, which critic Susan Farrell agrees is false, “Mama’s view of Maggie is not quite accurate-Maggie is not as passive or as “hangdog” as she appears (Farrell 179).” “Meanwhile Asalamalakim is going through motions with Maggie’s hand. Maggie’s hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold, despite the sweat, and she keeps trying to pull it back (Walker 111)”, clearly this is Maggie’s way of showing her non-interest in Dee and Dee’s new discovery of heritage. The coldness, despite the sweat, of Maggie’s hand is referring to the coldness Maggie feels toward her sister and her boyfriend’s new ways.
Walker not only creates the symbolism of the Prodigal son and his brother with Dee and Maggie, but also symbolizes heritage though the literal and elemental value of the quilts. There are many aspects that go into making a quilt: time, thought, love and long term endearment. Walker realized this and incorporates the quilts as a symbolization of heritage and the components that make up a family’s heritage, like the patches that make up a quilt. Traditional quilts are made with many assorted pieces therefore it is essential for them to be bound together by thread. These threads are not present between Dee and the men and women in her past or even present. As critic Sam Whitsitt says, “The quilt “represents” history, and tradition, binding women, and men, to the past and the past to the present (Whitsitt 445).” Like quilts Dee cannot be bonded to her family because they do not share common threads, she is a patch among quilts. In this context common threads would be the value of the Johnson family history and the heritage that belonged to them. Dee has and will always lack these connections to her heritage because she is not willing to accept the truths of whom she is and where she is from. When Mama doesn’t let Dee have the quilts Mama is in a spiritual sense is showing Dee that though Dee thinks the quilt will connect her to her heritage, heritage is something you live not something of materialistic value. Walker uses the symbolism of the quilt to reinforce the idea of heritage throughout “Everyday Use.”
In “Everyday Use” Mama clearly admires Dee’s personality and fearlessness and wishes Dee adored her as much as she adores Dee. In the beginning of the story Mama tells the readers of her dream,[“Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft-seated limousine I am ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we are on stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers.” (Walker 109)] When Mama tells of her dream she shows with her words that she craves Dee’s acceptance of her and Maggie’s short comings. Nancy Tuten confirms that Mama lives and judges Maggie and herself by what Dee believes. “â€¦representing her decision no longer to judge her younger daughter by the shallow standards Dee embodies-criteria that Mama has been using to measure both Maggie and herself up until the climax of the story (Tuten 126).” Many critics have analyzed Mama’s dream as representing African Americans desire to be held in such esteem as middle class white males of that error. This is an over-analysis of how Walker intended Mama’s dream to be. Walker simply wanted to show Mama’s inner most feelings toward her daughter and better explain Mama’s relationship with her eldest daughter. Walker goes on to establish the relationship between Mama and her youngest daughter, Maggie. The way Walker presents Maggie is the first clue readers get into Maggie’s character and her and Mama’s relationship. “Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks (Walker 109).” Readers can distinctly tell Mama pities Maggie because of her physical scares from the house fire she was caught in as a young girl. Walker characterizes Maggie as meek, a person whose physical scares were turned within and scarred her personality. Mama thinks of Maggie as a weak person and a pitiful individual. Maggie knows that Mama respects Dee and thinks of Maggie somewhat as a “lame animal” wounded by her older sisters over-powering personality. Critic John Gruesser agrees saying “Mama often describes Maggie as a docile, somewhat frightened animal, one that accepts the hand that fate has dealt her (183).” Though Mama seems to admire Dee and think lowly of Maggie through the story her outlook of her two daughters changes through a series of Dee’s requests and the irony Walker establishes.
Walker establishes irony within her story when she tells of Dee’s need for the quilts, and Dee’s “understanding” of her heritage. Over these events Mama Johnson realizes Dee has no clue what her heritage is and how selfish she is to want to take the heritage, that Mama and Maggie use daily, away from them only to hang it up to display. Dee yells at Mama telling her “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! …She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use (Walker 113).” This is completely ironic because that is exactly what these quilts were made for, to be used. Grandmother’s make quilts out of love so that when they are gone their loved ones will still feel their presence every day. If Dee was to simply hang the quilts on a wall no one would be able to enjoy them like they were meant to be enjoyed. Mama and Maggie understand that these quilts were made to be used as quilts in their family had been made in generations past to be used. It is in their heritage to use the gifts they have been given, and Dee has no grasp of this concept because she is holding on to a false sense of heritage.
Walker integrates irony in her short story “Everyday Use” when she writes about Dee and her discovery of her heritage. When Dee left home she had no sense of heritage. The only heritage Dee was aware of was the heritage of fashion. As Dee returned home she boasted a broad knowledge of her heritage, the heritage she learned of from her boyfriend, however, was not the same heritage her mother and sister knew and experienced every day. Dee showed how naive she was when she asked her mother to not call her by her birth name because she could not bear being called by the name of the people who oppressed her, and instead asked to be called by a Black Muslim name. The irony of this situation is that Dee was not named after ay white person; instead Mama reminds Dee that she was named after Grandma Dee and that the name Dee had been passed down from generation to generation and could be traced “back to the Civil War days”. Dee’s heritage for many generations was based in America and can be inferred that her ancestors were of slave heritage. The fact that the name that Dee wants to be called by is a predominately Black Muslim name further goes to show the irony of Dee’s assumptions of her heritage. Some critics such as David Cowart believe that Mama has a difficult time hearing Dee say she wants to be called Wangero, but “recognizes the inappropriateness of the old name and cannot commit herself to the new one (Cowart 171).” What this critic failed to realizes is that Mama is not recognizing that Dee’s birth name was “inappropriate” Mama simply calls Dee Wangero out of respect for her daughter’s wishes. If Mama thinks Wangero is preferable to Dee’s birth name she would not have recounted the heritage of Dee’s name within the family. Mama’s hesitance to the new name is out of habit. She is always wary of anything new and unfamiliar. Though Dee is the daughter that claims to know her heritage Maggie is, in fact, the one that truly understands that heritage isn’t something that can be viewed as an art piece but is a way of life, and Mama and Maggie live that heritage.
Alice Walker incorporates many literary elements, such as, irony, characterization, and symbolism to portray her story of two sisters who sit on opposing sides of the family spectrum. Mama plays a crucial role within this story. Mama is utilized by the author as a mediator to be a neutral presence amongst her two daughters which are opposing characters. Walker establishes the relationship between the women in her story through detailed characterization of every character, especially Maggie and Mama. Dee (Wangero), shows her ignorance and displacement within Mama and Maggie’s world by claiming to know her heritage better than the two people in the world who lived their heritage every day. Irony seeps from this situation that Walker created between Dee, Mama, and Maggie. The quilts in the story become an excellent way to highlight the greater meaning of heritage from a literal and elemental stand-point. Walker does a great job of creating a short story that is functional and interesting to interpret.
Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s “Everyday Use”” Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (1996): 171-84. Student Research Center. Web. 25 Apr. 2010.
Gruesser, John. “Walker’s Everyday Use.” The Explicator 61.3 (2003): 183+. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Apr. 2010
Farrell, Susan. “Fight Vs. flight: A Re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use””. Studies in Short Fiction 35.2 (1998): 125-28. Student Research Center. Web. 25 Apr. 2010
Luke. Holy Bible King James Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002. Print
Tuten, Nancy. “Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” Explicator 51.2 (1993): 125-28. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th Edition.Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 108-14
Whitsitt, Sam. “In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” African American Review 34.3 (2000): 443-459. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Apr. 2010
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