Themes and Characterization in the short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
American literature of the 20th century was known for its subsistence to ideologies that have proliferated for years, as society responded to act upon the continuing oppression and inequality that some sectors of the society still experience even during the period of modernism and social progress. One of these oppressed sectors of the society is the black American sector, which is composed of the African-Americans and second-generation African-Americans. The emergence of the 20th century, unfortunately, did not signal a change in society’s perception and judgment of black Americans as this sector continued to have prejudiced, unprivileged, and poor lives.
This facet of American society was mirrored effectively in the short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker. In it, she mirrored the poverty and hardships black Americans had to go through despite the relative progress society had experienced. It is important to note that Walker did not intend to address and attribute prejudice against black Americans to white Americans, but surprisingly and sadly, to her fellow black Americans as well, who have also played a significant role in perpetuating and proliferating oppression against this sector of the society.
Given this social reality that Walker depicted in “Everyday Use,” this paper provides an analysis of the dominant themes and characterization shown in it. This paper posits that “Everyday Use” was a story that centered on the continuing oppression of black Americans, primarily because the sector had been assimilated with American culture, influencing black Americans with the prejudice and judgmental attitude that society had always treated African-Americans, black Americans, and their native African heritage. Through the themes and characters depicted in the story, Walker was able to emphasize on this point, creating the contrasting characters of Maggie and Dee to illustrate the animosity that exists among black Americans who have been thoroughly assimilated with American society.
The story highlighted two dominant themes that are essential in developing the characterization of Dee and Maggie. The first theme centered on the evident prejudiced held against black Americans by their fellow black Americans. It is apt to say that Walker intended to extend the message that black Americans, by holding prejudiced views against their fellow black Americans, perpetuated the prejudice and oppression against them. That is, the oppressed contributed to their own oppression.
This important theme was reflected early on in the story, wherein readers witnessed how Dee, being the educated member of the family, looked down on her mother and Maggie because of their poverty and lack of education. This fact was not unknown to the mother, who was also the narrator of the story. In the mother’s own words, she described how their ‘low status’ in life had been a source of scorn and frustration for Dee: “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.”
This passage reflected a lot about the mother’s psyche and perception of her life as a black American. For her, education was both a goal and a barrier that benefited and cursed her family. Educating Dee made her ‘immune’ to the suffering her mother and her sister Maggie went through; however, it was also the family’s curse, as the mother and Maggie involuntarily became controlled and eventually succumbed to Dee’s dominant personality. Lacking the education made the mother submissive to Dee and her opinion about their life. Dee’s low regard for her and Maggie showed that they had also succumbed to the social institution of education, becoming ‘labeled’ people whose selves are determined by the society, particularly the educated class.
Though the mother and Maggie appeared submissive to Dee, Walker portrayed this behavior of submissiveness as a form of oppression, a negative behavior that must not be tolerated. The author made it clear that educating Dee was not a bad decision, but for Dee to undermine her family just because they preferred to live simple, humble, rural, and traditional lives did not mean they are any lesser than Dee herself. This family dynamics among the mother, Dee, and Maggie reflected the development of prejudice among learned black Americans who have, in the course of acquiring their education, inevitably immersed themselves with the dominant white American society. This oppression by the oppressed themselves was aptly put by the mother, who reasoned, “She washed us in a river of make-believe … To shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.”
The second theme prevalently shown in the story was the evolving regard that educated black Americans like Dee had for their African heritage and culture. Growing up in white American society, Dee had noticeably regarded African heritage and culture more as a “fad,” a novelty that became popular as a result of the rising popularity of the civil rights movement and creation and propagation of new ideologies in modern American society.
Dee’s attitude was illustrated in the sudden interest she had shown towards her African heritage towards the end of the novel. Though she had shown scorn at the lives of her mother and sister, Dee wanted to portray herself as grateful of her heritage by admiring the quilt made by her ancestors. Dee considered it her right to have the quilt, since she believed she was the only one who truly knew and respected her family’s heritage: “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”
Dee’s remark is ironic. The quilts were made by their ancestors primarily for everyday use, for this was the purpose why these quilts were made. Evidently, she lost the point of the function of these quilts, and the meaning of respecting her African heritage: it is on how one uses and treats his/her culture and heritage that true respect to these (African culture and heritage) emerges. Apparently, Dee’s understanding of her heritage was too shallow, and this was the turning point in which the mother realized that learned or not, Maggie had remained true to herself as the daughter of her African ancestors, thus making her the worthy and rightful owner of the quilts.
It was also in the family’s dynamics that the stark contrast in the characters of Dee and Maggie emerged. Initially, Dee was described by her mother in a respectful manner; it appeared that being educated, Dee commanded more respect than her mother and sister Maggie. As a child, the mother spoke highly of Dee’s desire to be educated and to leave the poor and rustic life they have: “Dee wanted nice things … She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts ….At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.”
Dee as the “more civilized” member of the family was expected to be more understanding of her family and heritage. However, she had been misled and had misunderstood the true meaning of her being a black American. For Dee, being a black American meant changing her name to a more radical, non-American sounding name, “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” Her insistence to use the quilts as decorative material by hanging them reinforces the image of an individual who had a shallow and distorted understanding of African culture.
Maggie, meanwhile, had not been depicted as remarkable or strong in personality at the beginning of the story. Both Dee and even her mother looked down on her, not only because she lacked education, but she had a physical deformity and lack of confidence in herself. Her mother portrayed her as a “lame animal,” a “dog run over by some careless person,” illustrations of how she perceived Maggie as dependent on others and cannot stand alone, nor defend herself from oppression and criticism, especially by her sister.
Despite the weak characterization of Maggie, Walker made it evident that Dee was the hypocrite between her and Maggie, a ‘traitor’ of her own culture and heritage because of the apparent disgust she shows to the two people who embody the true African heritage — the narrator, Dee’s mother, and her sister, Maggie. As the story ends, Walker illustrates the true nature of Dee’s character: like the sunglasses she wore when she left home, Dee is the picture of the black American individual who wanted to show that she is proud to be a member of the black American race; yet, she does not show true appreciation of what her true identity is.
Gruesser, J. (2003). “Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.'” Explicator, Vol. 61, Issue 3.
Rubin, M. (2000). “A time to mourn, a time to dance in Alice Walker’s short stories.” Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 92.
Walker, A. E-text of “Everyday use.” Available at: http://www.bow.k12.nh.us/jmcdermott/everyday_use__by_alice_walker.htm.
Wyatt, C. (2000). “Alice Walker.” Women’s Studies, Vol. 28, Issue 6.
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