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Symbolic Analysis of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Uses (For Your Grandmother)” is a story about a woman’s struggle with the past and her inability and unwillingness to accept the future. The three main characters in the story are Dee, her younger sister Maggie, and their mother. The story is narrated by the mother in an almost reminiscent manner, and it is on her that the focus of the story centers. Her eldest daughter, Dee, is the first in her family to embrace modernization and to attempt to improve her way of life. Dee’s view of the world and her feelings about developing her own sovereign identity are foreign to Maggie and her mother. The mother has lived her whole life in a manner that Dee simply does not wish to live hers. The mother shows some recognition of this as the story opens and she describes her own life and childhood and compares those of her two girls. The daughters, then, represent to their mother opposing forces in regards to socioeconomic and educational standards of living. Throughout her recollection of the story, the girls’ mother learns to accept and even appreciate the fact that she and Maggie are resigned to living the only way they have ever known, while Dee has chosen to abandon that legacy and sees it only as a way of life to be honored, not lived.
The author’s decision to narrate the story from a first-person point of view allows the reader to gain insight into the mother’s struggle that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. Throughout the beginning of the story, the mother describes both her views of herself and of her daughters. She sees Dee as being superior to both she and Maggie. Dee always gets what she wants, whether it be through her family or on her own. The mother recounts how Dee wanted “a yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation” (293), and when Dee shows up at the house, she is wearing a dress with “yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun” (294). Maggie, on the other hand, is much like her mother in many ways. She never completed her formal education, she is unattractive and unintelligent, and she will most likely end up living her life in the same socioeconomic condition that the mother has led hers. These are crucial elements to the story as the daughter’s each play a very significant role in the mother’s struggle to cope with contemporary thought and the idea that her eldest daughter wants to move beyond the boundaries set before her by her family. The reader is made aware of these boundaries when the mother describes herself and her past. She never had an education. She is not a bright woman, nor is she very good-looking. In a figurative sense, she is much like Maggie in that “she stumbles along good-naturedly but can’t see well” (293).
For the mother, Maggie symbolizes tradition. She is the type of daughter that the mother knows will never amount to much more than the mother herself did. Dee, on the other hand, is a representation of the desire to break with the past and to move up in the world. Dee wants to keep a firm hold of her family’s heritage, but she doesn’t want to be part of that heritage herself. Her rejection of her name demonstrates that she is not interested in family tradition. She would rather be her own person than simply the namesake of “the people who oppress [her]” (295), her ancestors. It is interesting to note that it is at this point in the story that the narration switches from present to past tense, symbolizing the mother’s realization that it is time to let her daughter go.
Dee is only interested in her family’s past and traditions inasmuch as they comprise a part of her heritage. She seems almost ecstatic about sitting on the benches that her father had made long ago. Her excitement grows when she realizes that she can “feel the rump prints” (295) in the benches. These “rump prints” act as a physical representation of a past that cannot be denied. She has similar feelings about the butter churn. She has no intention to use the churn to make butter. Instead, she wants it to be the centerpiece of her alcove table. She literally wants the churn to be the center of attention for people sitting in the alcove, a part of the house that is generally set apart from the rest. Thus, she wants to present it in such a way as to honor her heritage, but she doesn’t want it to hold a very prominent position within the house. By doing this, Dee is able to hold on to her heritage without losing her ability to form a new identity for herself.
Maggie plays a very different role than Dee. She acts as an anchor for the mother, a reminder that the way of life she knows will still continue, despite Dee’s attempts to modernize. Maggie doesn’t have a whole lot going for her. Like her mother, she is dumb and ugly. Like her mother, she doesn’t have a lot of chance at upward mobility. Like her mother, she is resigned to live her life the way it has been given to her. She will not go to college or get married to a respectable man or buy a nice, new house, like her sister will. She is everything that Dee is not, and vice versa. The one advantage that Maggie does have over Dee is that she is satisfied. Along with Maggie’s lack of hope comes a sense of security. She isn’t afraid of forgetting her heritage, so it doesn’t matter to her if her sister takes the quilts. Maggie is content with life. Although she doesn’t have a lot of depth, she understands herself and she is happy with the way her life is. Dee will never have this satisfaction. She constantly wants more out of life. From this perspective, Maggie is actually much more fortunate than Dee is, despite the fact that she lacks some of Dee’s natural skills and attributes.
The battle over the quilt represents the climax of the story, a point where tradition and modernization clash. To Maggie and to the mother, it only makes sense that the quilts should be used for their intended purpose. Dee, however, believes that they are symbols of an old way of life, a way of life that should be honored, but improved upon. The mother’s decision not to allow Dee to take her grandmother’s quilts represents her final acceptance of her daughter’s decision and also her desire to maintain some pride in the traditional way of life to which her and her daughter have grown accustomed. The mother is accused by Dee of not understanding the family’s heritage, but it is in fact Dee who does not understand. She would rather make a mockery of their heritage by putting it on display. This, however, is not what their heritage is based upon. Rather, the family’s heritage is one in which family members have passed down certain skills and belongings through the generations. Uncle Buddy “whittled [the churn] out of a tree” (296) because the family needed a way to make butter, not because they needed a centerpiece for the table. Grandma Dee had pieced together the quilts so her family would have something to keep them warm, not because their walls were bear and needed decoration. In both instances, what was created was created out of necessity, not for aesthetic purposes. This is a concept that Dee fails to grasp. She is quite correct in asserting that the quilts are priceless, but they are priceless because of the labor and the love that had gone into creating them, and not because they are simply antiques.
It is my belief that the conflict between modernization and tradition comes to a head when the mother is forced to choose between giving the quilts to Dee or letting Maggie have them. Her decision is complicated by the fact that Maggie says that she doesn’t care about the quilts, that she “can remember Grandma Dee without the quilts” (297). Maggie isn’t worried at all. She is afraid of her sister only because of what her sister has come to represent, that is, the destruction of their heritage. However, she isn’t angry because she knows that everything is going to work out, because “this is the way she knew God to work” (297). It is this trust in God that Maggie has that finally causes the mother to come to grips with herself and with their families traditional way of life. When she embraces Maggie, she is, in essence, embracing her own heritage. At this point, Dee becomes fed up with the whole matter and leaves the two of them alone. As she is leaving, Maggie looks up at her and smiles, “a real smile, not scared” (297). She sees Dee in her sunglasses and realizes that just as the lenses hide Dee’s eyes, so too do they blind her to what is really important in life. Dee will always want more. She will never experience the pure joy that Maggie and her mother now share in the knowledge that they may not be the richest or the brightest or the best looking folks, but they are satisfied with what they have. Before she leaves, Dee makes and assertion that is at least partly accurate. She tells Maggie that “it’s really a new day for us” (297). She is correct. It is indeed a new day, but not for Dee and Maggie. They have already gone their separate ways. Instead, it is a new day for Maggie and her mother. They now share a love and understanding that they had not known prior to these events. They’ve found an everyday use for their grandmother by forming a bond of love that will hold their family and their heritage together for another generation, not unlike their grandmother was able to do with the pieces of a quilt.
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