Everyday Use by Alice Walker
In Everyday Use by Alice Walker we have the theme of heritage, tradition, honesty, selfishness, identity and appearance. Taken from her In Love & Trouble collection the story is narrated in the first person by a woman called Mrs Johnson and after reading the story the reader realises that Walker may be exploring the theme of heritage. Throughout the story Dee wants pieces of her life as a child when she grew up in her mother’s home. Though this would be very natural for any child to have a memento of their childhood Dee’s motives are less than honest. She wants each piece so that she can display them as ornaments in her own home and not as a continuation of her heritage. Unlike Mrs Johnson and Maggie who continue to live their lives as their ancestors have lived them. The quilts for example, Dee wants to hang them up in her home yet Mrs Johnson has promised them to Dee for when she gets married. This is important as it suggests that Mrs Johnson still sees some practicality in the quilts whereas for Dee they are a sign of her (oppressed) past.
The fact that Dee feels somewhat oppressed by her past is noticeable by the fact that she changes her name to Wangero which she may believe to be more symbolic of her African heritage. Similarly her boyfriend may also have changed his name. Though it is difficult to say for certain. However both Dee and her boyfriend are a different generation to Mrs Johnson and Maggie. Something that is also noticeable by Dee taking photographs of the house. Possibly doing so, so that she can remember where she came from and in the belief that she has advanced in life. That being no longer is she oppressed.
At no stage in the story does the reader sense that Dee’s motives are honest. Rather thought-out she appears to be only concerned about what she can take from her mother’s house. Where once she was embarrassed about her upbringing now she is embracing it not so much as part of her heritage or tradition but to highlight to others that she comes from a tradition that is not American. She is identifying herself as being a strong black African woman. Though unlike Mrs Johnson and Maggie, she has made no contribution to her heritage. Though she is wearing a dress (full of colours) that Mrs Johnson considers to be too bright and unfitting for her daughter this is as far as Dee has gone when it comes to embracing African tradition. Everything for Dee is on a surface level. The clothes she wears, her desire to get the quilts. It is as if she wishes to boast to others – this is where I really come from. Though again she has made no contribution. If anything she is acting selfishly and rather than embracing her heritage wants to not only use the quilt as an ornamental piece but also longs to forget where she has come from. She is looking at her heritage and tradition through a global lens rather than through an individual lens. Which would be more honest. Her mother after all can trace her name back to the Civil War. Something that displeases Dee.
Of all the characters in the story it is only Mrs Johnson and Maggie who are continuing with tradition and ironically Walker’s physical description of both women is that of individuals who are scarred. Maggie by the fire when she was younger and Mrs Johnson by her wish to be skinny. Neither woman places a high level of importance on appearance unlike Dee. Which may suggest that appearance is more important to Dee than substance. While Dee has changed her name (identity) both Mrs Johnson and Maggie remain true to who they are and who they have always been.
There is also a sense that Maggie is validated by her mother. Though Maggie says very little throughout the story and appears to have an inability to stand up for herself. Mrs Johnson by handing Maggie both quilts is ensuring not only does Maggie have a voice but she is also the one Mrs Johnson is choosing to carry on with tradition. Though Dee thinks the quilts will be used every day by Maggie and as a result they will no longer be any use. Mrs Johnson knows that Maggie can make another quilt. This is important as it suggests the continuation of tradition and heritage. Unlike Dee who is looking at the quilts as being unique to her family heritage. Maggie has the ability to sew another quilt and continue the tradition she learnt from her mother and grandmother.
The end of the story is interesting. When Dee tells Maggie ‘You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’ There is a sense that Dee has forgotten where she has come from or at least is not prepared to go back to where she came from. Rather she wants objects from the house which she can use to highlight to her friends where she came from but yet has no real pride in her family history. Dee lacks substance. She wants to display each object in her home yet the reality is she is embarrassed about where she came from. Having received her education she is looking at people’s lives (particularly her families) as one would look at the life of an individual in a text book. There is no heart or soul in Dee’s interpretation of what it means to be an African American. Gone are the practicalities that those who came before her had with Dee viewing tradition as being something that she can display in her house. Without ever thinking about carrying on the tradition herself. Though Dee thinks she can identify with her tradition or heritage, she is not really a part of it.