There are three main characters in “Everyday Use” Maggie, Mama and Dee. The first of the three was Maggie, “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe.” (Walker 297) Maggie is envious of her sister Dee because she is their model of beauty so to speak, “Lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure.” (Walker 298) The description of Maggie gives a wealth of information in regards to her character. She is ashamed of her outward appearance, the burn marks upon her person that were the result of a terrible fire in which their home burned down. Her confidence suffers greatly from this, the short story places great weight on the quality of outward appearances and its level of importance to the family. Cowart explains that Maggie represents, “The multitude of black women who must suffer while the occasional lucky “sister” escapes the ghetto. Scarred, graceless.” Maggie is self-conscious and uneducated; she symbolizes the common African American of this time. In this way Maggie is similar to Mama. When Mama, “A large, big-boned woman with rough, man working hands.” (Walker 298) talks about the dream she has of being on a television show with her daughter Dee, receiving hugs and orchids from the child, she say “I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin a uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights.”(Walker 298) The image of beauty is misconstrued by the three women, each wanting to achieve a certain appearance to further themselves from the looks of the average African American woman of that time and closer to that of the modern educated and accepted women.
When the character’s in the story talk about education it is almost with a sense of resentment. “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant under her voice.”(Walker 299) Dee’s education and knowledge was a power card. Maggie and Mama did not go to school. Mama and the church had to raise the money so that Dee could attend college in Augusta, Georgia. Some of the tension between the family is over the usefulness of this knowledge obtained by Dee. Dee’s education is not put to the same way every day so to speak as her family’s is, in the beginning of the story Mama boasts about her ability to kill a hog, cook and take care of her farm.” (Walker298) examples such as this one are the very things that makes Dee’s education seems so foreign, she does not use it to complete tasks like Maggie and Mama anymore and so they cannot see the importance of an education.
The changing of Dee’s name to Wangero is an important aspect of this story that touches on symbolism. Although Dee seems to be an activist towards new traditional values and education, she is the character most at risk to the loss of her self-defining heritage. The naming process in the Johnson family was meant to be a way of tracing one’s family lineage. Dee was named after her aunt Dicie who in turn was named after her mother and so on and so forth till it reached the eldest relative that mama could remember. Dee however does not see this is a tradition to be proud of and instead finds the name to be offensive. David Cowart, author of Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’ says that “Wangero persists in seeing the name as little more than the galling reminder that African Americans have been denied authentic names. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (53).” This statement shows that Dee is ignorant to the meaning behind the naming process as well as the actions of her ancestors and the importance of their struggles.
Dee feels that her “uses” are better suited to analyzing and thinking critically about her past and heritage. This however is the exact opposite for Mama who feels that the more important “uses” are ones that can be productive to their everyday life. The story is meant to show how times have changed and that Traditions can be changed. An example of the differences in Dee’s view of usefulness and Mama’s would be the quilts promised to Maggie in her dowry. Dee wants the quilts to put on display and is outraged by the fact that if Maggie were to get them then they would be used consistently and damaged. Dee is looking to preserve the history and heritage of her family by framing the valued objects, while Maggie would use them for their designed purpose, However Mama finally stands up to Dee, for both herself and Maggie.
Author of the critique “Walker’s Everyday use” John Gruesser defines this moment as “Mama’s epiphany,” where upon she realizes that Maggie, who has a passion for the history and traditions of their family, deserves the quilts more than Dee, the favorable daughter, who held no interest in the quilts past the fact that they were in style now amidst the people in her world of education. The Passage from Walker’s “Everyday use” describes the epiphany:
“Something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I’d never done before: Hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s Hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap.” (Walker 303)
In Gruesser’s critique he states that “Significantly, in seeing the value in Maggie, Mama has been able to look beneath the surface of things and see the value in herself as well.” Standing up to Dee and securing the quilts for Maggie as were her intentions.
Alice Walker’s does a splendid Job of showcasing the characteristics of three vastly different women to describe the values, knowledge and traditions of the people during this time. Her short story imparts upon its readers the need for historical knowledge and traditions so as to not lose sight of the import parts of everyday life.
Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’.” Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (Spring 1996): 171-184. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Mar. 2011.
Farrell, Susan. “Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’.” Studies in Short Fiction 35.2 (Spring 1998): 179-186. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 25 Mar. 2011.