The Image of the Quilt: Alice Walker’s the Color Purple and “Everyday Use”
What makes us who we are? A large part of our current lives are derived from the lives of those who came before us. Our family traditions and heritages are an important part of ourselves. In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and “Everyday Use,” cloth, quilts, and the act of sewing are highlighted as a way to bring together the diversity of a family to provide for a strong structural foundation for preserving family traditions, allowing any family to survive and thrive despite any wide number of obstacles.
It is clear that Walker uses patchwork quilts and the act of sewing itself as an obvious motif in her work The Color Purple. Celie finds individual success through sewing. Based on her skills, she is allowed to become financially independent, which is a huge deal based on the large history of abuse she had to endure. This makes the process of sewing an active one. Celie says “I plan to make them by hand. Every stitch I sew will be with a kiss” (Walker 192). Her success in sewing shows that she has found a way to overcome the intense struggles of her life. Years of abuse and neglect can be overcome through the process of hand crafting cloth. Here, the research states that “Celie has faced her demons — self-loathing, lack of self-definition — and despite the odds has created a new life tapestry” (McKever-Floyd 431). Sewing finds Celie peace through independence.
Moreover, the concept of what is sewn is important within Walker’s The Color Purple as well. Essentially, “sewing — the stitching together of disparate parts into an aesthetically pleasing whole — is an appropriate metaphor for the final stage of her transformation” (McKever-Floyd 431). As stated previously, it helps Celie find herself and her position in the world. Yet, it is also a way for Celie to find success and make a better world for the future generations of her family. Sewing focuses on bringing in their history, but strengthening it to provide for them a better future than the life she had. Celie sews trousers for women, which essentially highlights her new found independence that she will pass on to her own family through the clothing she makes for them. The quilt is an especially powerful cloth symbol used by Walker in the novel The Color Purple. The image of the quilt is seen as a way for Celie to focus on strengthening of family roots and traditions through cloth. Here, the research states that “thus, like the scraps of cloth sewn into Celie’s patchwork quilt, characters’ lives in The Color Purple are stitched together into a unity whose strength and vibrancy depend on each individual’s identification with a distinction from the others around him or her” (Fiske 151) . Just as sewing the quilt has strengthened her own life, it is ultimately strengthening the lives of her entire family as well. Celie is bringing in their shared experiences in order to provide a stronger foundation for the future generations of the family. It is clear that “what unites the characters of The Color Purple is a share experience of suffering and a common struggle to survive in the face of oppression, violence, and abuse” (Fiske 151). The metaphor of the quilt allows them to all contribute their unique experiences in order to strengthen the family as a whole. This allows the family to survive and thrive, despite such huge obstacles that were faced earlier on.
Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” also highlights the power of the cloth motif. Sewing and patchwork play a huge role in the development of the story and the drive of the narrative as a whole. Like Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, sewing and patchwork tend to come to represent a type of shared family lineage that connects the female and male members of the family through a shared tradition exhibited in cloth. The main piece of cloth that is important in this case is the image of the family quilt. Essentially, the image of the quilt shows the bringing together a family heritage through clothing and cloth. The two quilts that Dee wants “had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them” (Walker 374). These were two family heirlooms that were created by the family members out of both necessity for the cloth’s use, but also in respect of their own familial traditions and history. They are made from the old garments of the family’s lost relatives. Here, Walker states that “in both of them were craps 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 374). As such, it is clear that the quilt is more than just a warm blanket. It holds the pieces of the family history together through patchwork. This makes it an important symbol that drives the direction of the story’s thematic elements.
In this short story, Walker shows how such important pieces of cloth can actually be used to represent the type of person an individual is. In this, Walker is using clothing as a way to define a person. This is especially true with the case of Dee. She is described as an individual, who “at sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was” (Walker 371). She tends to view clothes and fashion not as a necessity or from the practical perspective her mother and Maggie share. Rather, Dee uses clothes to make herself stand out. When the reader is first introduced to Dee when she gets out of the car, the narrator describes here as wearing “a dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes” (Walker 372). It is not a piece of practical clothing, showing how Dee has given up her familial heritage to live a life of luxury, based more on the desire for aesthetics than respect for her family’s traditions and ways of life. The way she wears her clothes highlights her transgression away from the roots of her own family. She is no longer on the farm, as she clearly shows with her disgust of her mother’s living conditions. “Farming and raising cattle is not my style” says Dee’s suitor, showing how far she has strayed from her original roots that her mother and sister still uphold on an everyday basis (Walker 373). Essentially, Walker uses clothing as a way to show people’s inclusion or exclusion from the familial unit. Dee is clearly marked as having removed herself from the tradition of the family long ago. By looking at her attire, it is clear that she has forgotten where she comes from, the very roots which allowed her to go off to school and get an education. Her clothing and style then reflects how she is adopting a new identity and life, one that rejects her roots. Dee doesn’t even use her given name any more; “she’s dead,’ Wangero said, ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker 373). She is trying to run away from the very traditions and situational contexts which made her who she is today. Mainly, she blames this on trying to rid herself of the oppression her black ancestors had to endure for so long. Yet, the oppression is part of the family heritage and has been a factor in making the patchwork of their lives. The quilt represents the family’s ability to overcome oppression and struggle, as seen in the quilt image in Walker’s larger novel The Color Purple. Even if that patchwork is hurtful, one cannot simply deny its existence by changing a name or wearing new, fancy clothes.
She is not taking her family heritage seriously, as shown in her disrespecting of her family heirlooms which she wishes to take in order to make into art decorations. By refusing to accept the life that was before her, she is disrespecting her ancestors who suffered so much to allow her to live the life she lives today.
On the other hand, Maggie and their mother are completely different. Maggie and her mother are seen in practical garb, although Maggie is beginning to show signs that she wants to dress nicely. Still, in comparison to Dee, the two of them are dressed very practically, in able to fit the style of their lives. They do not have the option to choose where they want to live or what clothes they want to wear for aesthetic purposes. Dee simply cannot understand why they continue to live the way their family had for so long in a world where there are now other opportunities for them. She tells her sister, “you ought 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” (Walker 375). It is clear that she doesn’t understand how important it is to respect and honor one’s roots, rather than just run away from them. That’s why their mother wants Maggie to have the quilts that are representative of their true heritage, because Maggie is more representative of it. The narrator states “the truth is, I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas” (Walker 374). Maggie is much more representative of the family’s traditions and thus deserves to have the quilts more so than her sister Dee. Dee says that “she’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker 375). Yet, this is exactly why the narrator wants Maggie to have the quilts. It represents the idea that the individual must live with their heritage prideful on an everyday basis, and not just when it suits them. Maggie wears her tradition daily, and embodies the family which she was raised in, whereas Dee only does so when it is convenient for her won selfish desires.
Fiske, Shanyn. “Piecing the Patchwork Self: A Reading of Walker’s The Color Purple.” Explicator. 66.3(2008): 150-153. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Dec 2012.
McKever-Floyd, Preston L. “Tell Nobody But God: The Theme of Transformation in The Color Purple.” Cross Currents. 57.3(2007): 426-433. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Dec 2012.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” American Literature Since the Civil War.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 2006.
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