Cultural Impacts in Everyday Use
The objective of this study is to examine the work of Alice Walker entitled “Everyday Use” and the how culture impacts values and material objects and the manner in which culture in reality impacts people and their lifestyle.
The work of Alice Walker entitled “Everyday Use” examines the connotations of culture on material objects. The story involves a woman named Dee who is disgusted with what she sees as a historical oppression in her own family. For this reason, Dee rejects her own cultural heritage and creates what she sees as a new cultural heritage in her own life. In her story it is reported that Alice Walker “takes up what is a recurrent theme in her work: the representation of the harmony as well as the conflicts and struggles within African-American culture.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) Her work, “Everyday Use” focuses on the encounter between members of the Johnson family, a rural African-American family. Dee is the only member of this family that is in receipt of a formal education. Dee and her male companion are reported to “return to visit Dee’s mother and younger sister Maggie’ in what is reported to be “essentially an encounter between two different interpretations of, or approaches to, African-American culture.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) It is reported that Walker, “employs characterization and symbolism to highlight the difference between these interpretations and ultimately to uphold one of them, showing that culture and heritage are parts of daily life.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1)
I. The Story
The story begins with Mrs. Johnson’s narrative which explains how Dee views her. Mrs. Johnson states that she is a heavy woman who wears overalls during the day and who sleeps in flannels at night. Mrs. Johnson is a woman who can handle her own as she relates that she can kill hogs just as good as any man and that she is hearty and strong and just as capable as any man. Mrs. Johnson obviously has looked life straight in the eye and come forth to handle whatever life throws at her. However, Mrs. Johnson relates that she never looks the ‘white man’ straight in the eye and always has her foot raised to run from him. Her daughter Dee, on the other hand, always looks everyone straight in the eye and has no fear of anyone. The language of Mrs. Johnson is reported to denote a “certain relationship between herself and her physical surroundings: she waits for Dee “in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy’. (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) It is stated that Mrs. Johnson, in her emphasis on “the physical characteristics of the yard, the pleasure in it manifested by the word ‘so,'” points to the attachment that she and Maggie have to their home and to the everyday practice of their lives. The yard, in fact, is “not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” which confirms that “it exists for her not only as an object of property, but also as the place of her life, as a sort of expression of herself.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) It is also reported that Mrs. Johnson’s description of herself “likewise shows a familiarity and comfort with her surroundings and with herself: she is ‘a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands’ — in other words, she knows the reality of her body and accepts it, even finding comfort (both physical and psychological) in the way that her ‘fat keeps [her] hot in zero weather’.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) This emphasizes the fact that Mrs. Johnson is very much ‘at home’ with herself and fully accepts who she in reality is. Seeming to be implied by Walker “where she stands in relation to her culture:” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1)
II. Mrs. Johnson’s Daughter Maggie
Mrs. Johnson’s other daughter, Maggie is described as “rather unattractive and shy: the scars she bears on her body have likewise scarred her soul, and, as a result, she is retiring, even frightened. Mrs. Johnson admits, in a loving manner, that ‘like good looks and money, quickness passed her by’.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) Mrs. Johnson additionally relates that Maggie “stumbles” as she reads, but clearly Mrs. Johnson thinks of her as a sweet person, a daughter with whom she can sing songs at church. Most importantly, however, Maggie is, like her mother, at home in her traditions, and she honors the memory of her ancestors; for example, she is the daughter in the family who has learned how to quilt from her grandmother.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1)
II. Mrs. Johnson’s Daughter Dee
Dee is reported to be the exact opposite of Maggie as she is “characterized by good looks, ambition, and education (Mrs. Johnson, we are told, collects money at her church so that Dee can attend school). Dee’s education has been extremely important in forging her character, but at the same time it has split her off from her family. Mamma says, ‘She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice’.” (, p. 1) Dee has transitioned toward traditions that are in complete contrast to the traditions of her own family and appears to be “on a quest to link herself to her African roots and has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) By doing this and in the attempt to discover her own and ‘ancient’ roots, she has simultaneously, “denied, or at least refused to accept, her more immediate heritage, the heritage that her mother and sister share.” (Lone Star College System, 2014, p. 1) Dee in addition, refuses to eat pork and collard greens and by doing so has effectively deni9ed her own African-American culture.
III. Signifiers of Cultural Heritage
Mrs. Johnson states that she has ‘”man-working hands” and can “kill a hog as mercilessly as a man” and this is clearly indicating her hard life and her hard work that life has required of her. Maggie’s scars are also symbolic of that hard life which she sustained during a house fire. Mrs. Johnson has promised that when Maggie marries that she will be given the quilts the family owns and these are highly symbolic of the African-American culture to which Mrs. Johnson and Maggie belong and from which Dee has removed herself with her refusal to have anything to do with anything that is representative of that culture.
In Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use,” Walker provides lessons on true inheritance in terms of ‘what it is, and who can receive it. The hand stitched quilts become the center of conflict in the story. They are also used to symbolize the true inheritance. Like a quilt, a person’s world view is made up of events, circumstances and influences that shape how they see and respond to the world..” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) The daughter, Dee is reported to have “ventured from the rural world she grew up in but never felt part of. The story is set in the context of her returning home for the first time since she left for college. Maggie the younger daughter has never left home.” (Eshbaugh, 2008,. p. 1) The motives of Dee are clear as she has “come home to retrieve objects from her former life that are meaningful to her. She plans to incorporate them into her decor.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1)
Mrs. Johnson is reported to relate that Dee’s “sad attempt to find value in her family and claim her inheritance. Maggie’s quiet backward nature on examination is a portrait of a person who receives from life whatever is given, just as a quilter often uses scraps she has at hand. Maggie brings Dee’s dissatisfaction into sharper focus.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) It is stated that just before Dee leaves, that she puts on sunglasses and that “style is the color of glass Dee sees life through” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) The story moves on and culminates in Dee’s stating her case for receiving the quilts by supporting that idea with the statement that she is the only daughter who will truly appreciate the quilts since she believes that they will be used by Maggie for everyday use while she will “place them on her wall as works of art.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) Mrs. Johnson remembers that Dee had refused to take the quilts with her to college because they were “old fashioned and out of style.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) The quilts that Mrs. Johnson offered to Dee are reported to have been “machined stitched” and it is reported that after Dee had assessed them “like a professional collector, she concludes they will never do. Dee wants the quilts she believes were all hand stitched by grandma herself and all the cloth came from grandma Dee’s dresses. This isn’t quite true so Mama tries to fill in the details of the quilt’s history by pointing out that the lavender material was from her great grandmother.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) Dee caresses the quilts and exclaims “Imagine!” (Eshbaugh, 2008,, p. 1) It is related that Mrs. Johnson and Maggie both have “intimate knowledge and appreciation of the family’s heritage.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1) It is reported as well that Dee is almost successful in getting the quality but that in a “moment of clarity” that Mrs. Johnson realizes that the quilts “can never belong to Dee. Maggie has inherited what the quilts embody.” (Eshbaugh, 2008, p. 1)
Summary and Conclusion
Dee has rejected her heritage and this results in her losing her inheritance of the quilts as the quilts are part of Maggie’s existence and have formulated in part what Maggie’s life represents. It is clear that cultural artifacts and personal belongings as well as even the food that people consume are representative of cultural traditions and ways of life and that these items and food signify to the individual the culture to which they belong.
Eshbaugh, R. (2008) A Literary Analysis of Alice Walker’s Short Story Everyday Use: The True Inheritance. Yahoo Voices. 21 Aug 2008. Retrieved from: http://voices.yahoo.com/a-literary-analysis-alice-walkers-short-story-everyday-1818229.html?cat=44
Characterization and Symbolism in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” (2014) Lone Star College System. Retrieved from: http://www.lonestar.edu/13778.htm
Everyday Use (nd) Alice Walker. Online Retrieved from: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/quilt/walker.html
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