Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” explores the complex themes of heritage, identity, and the significance of objects through the lens of a mother’s relationship with her two daughters. The story delves into the conflict between Dee, who has embraced her African heritage in an attempt to assert her identity, and Maggie, who remains connected to her roots through her daily life. Through the use of symbolism, Walker skillfully portrays the clash between different interpretations of heritage, highlighting the importance of understanding and appreciating one’s cultural background. This essay will examine the symbolism of quilts, the house, and the characters themselves to demonstrate how they contribute to the theme of identity in “Everyday Use.”
Symbolism of Quilts
One of the central symbols in “Everyday Use” is the quilts made by Grandma Dee and later inherited by Maggie (Walker, 1973). The quilts represent the African-American tradition, cultural heritage, and a connection to the past. In the story, Mama describes the quilts as “priceless” and states, “In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (Walker, 1973, p. 290). The quilts embody the family’s history and struggle, containing fragments of their ancestors’ lives.
Dee, who has renamed herself Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, desires the quilts as decorative pieces to showcase her African heritage. However, Mama insists that the quilts should be used practically, passed down from one generation to another. This conflict reveals the differing interpretations of heritage and the clash between Dee’s superficial appreciation of her roots and Maggie’s authentic connection to her heritage. Through the symbolism of the quilts, Walker emphasizes the importance of understanding and valuing the true essence of cultural heritage.
Symbolism of the House
The house serves as another important symbol in the story, representing the family’s history, values, and way of life (Walker, 1973). Mama describes the house as “ashamed of the burn scars down its sides…but in the yard grows patches of smaller plants…even a few flowers” (Walker, 1973, p. 289). The burn scars symbolize the struggles and hardships the family has faced, while the patches of smaller plants and flowers represent resilience and hope for the future.
Dee, upon returning home, views the house as an artifact, a mere backdrop for her cultural display. She exclaims, “Mama, this is magnificent!…Oh, Mama, look at Maggie’s dress!…She’s trying to make herself more familiar with her roots” (Walker, 1973, p. 293). In contrast, Maggie sees the house as a sanctuary, a place that holds personal memories and familial connections. The symbolism of the house illustrates the tension between the utilitarian value attached to it by Maggie and the detached aesthetic appreciation of Dee. Through this symbolism, Walker explores the idea that true appreciation of heritage involves an understanding of its lived experiences and personal significance.
Symbolism of Characters
The characters in “Everyday Use” also carry symbolic significance, representing different attitudes towards heritage and identity. Mama, as the narrator and a representative of the older generation, values practicality and the preservation of cultural traditions (Walker, 1973). Her voice and perspective provide insight into the struggles faced by African-Americans, emphasizing the importance of passing down cultural heritage from one generation to another.
Dee symbolizes the modern, educated individual who seeks to reinvent herself by rejecting her given name and embracing her African heritage. She is disconnected from her roots and views her cultural background as a commodity to be displayed for personal gain. Dee’s name change reflects her desire to distance herself from her family and assert a new identity. In contrast, Maggie embodies a deeper connection to her heritage. Shy and reserved, Maggie holds onto the traditions and memories associated with the objects and artifacts of her family. Her connection to the quilts and the house signifies a genuine understanding and appreciation of her cultural identity.
Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” explores the theme of identity through the effective use of symbolism. The quilts, house, and characters all contribute to the portrayal of the clash between different interpretations of heritage. By examining the symbolism in the story, it becomes evident that true appreciation of cultural heritage involves more than just surface-level aesthetics or material objects. It requires an understanding of the lived experiences, personal connections, and historical significance attached to one’s roots. Through this exploration, Walker urges readers to embrace their cultural heritage and understand the value of their own identities in relation to their past.
Walker, A. (1973). Everyday use. In N. Charters (Ed.), The story and its writer: An introduction to short fiction (pp. 288-295). Bedford/St. Martin’s.