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What are some examples of figurative language in the short story "Everyday Use" by...

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ebuck921 | Student, Grade 10 | eNotes Newbie

Posted March 22, 2009 at 12:27 AM via web

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What are some examples of figurative language in the short story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

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madelynfair | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted March 22, 2009 at 10:29 AM (Answer #1)

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Instances of simile, metaphor, and implied metaphor appear in "Everyday Use."

Figurative language has many effects. One is to make a complex and idea (by nature abstract) spring to life in a more visual manner; another is to render a more concrete image in our heards (sensory description with imaginative resonance).

In the first paragraph, the narrator (the mother) talks about the yard "is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room." An outdoor space is being compared to an indoor. Already an abstract concept is clarified for us: that the narrator feels at home outside, that she lives outside quite comfortably. Later she reinforces this idea with sensory detail, how she is comfortable outside in zero weather due to her fat, can kill a hog easily, and so forth: she is a competent farm woman. How does this idea of outside being "good enough" for the mother and Maggie contrast with Dee's attitude toward indoors/outdoors? To the theme implied by the title, "Everyday Use"? This initial simile taps into the theme of functional, commonplace items being colonized by those who feel they have superior intellect and need to put them in a museum. No one would put this yard in a museum, but that's only because a well-combed yard doesn't have a market value for intellectuals such as Dee.

In paragraph 5, we get another simile: "my skin like an uncooked barley pancake." Why is it important that the mother picture her skin tone in this manner? Later in the story, as issues of race are explored in more depth (plus the fact that the mother works outdoors), we can assume that the mother's skin is definitely darker than an uncooked pancake. We have a strong sensory details here, sight and taste with this simile -- a light tan food item, not ready for eating, decidedly a nonfunctional image (who wants to eat something uncooked?) But to get on a TV show, one ought to be lighter skinned, this woman is saying. She's also saying that with this color, she is "the way Dee would want me to be." So we have a concrete image with resonance: daughter wants mother to be a color of something that is useless, something "uncooked." To lighten one's skin is about as smart as eating something uncooked.

Implied metaphor -- that Dee has a temper and an effect on people that's hot and dangerous as fire -- appears in implied comparisons:

  • "(Dee) burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know"; and
  • "the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye."

Take these images and balance that with the image of Dee watching the house burn. What do we learn about Dee as a person, where she fits in this family and the effect she has on things and people who are best for "everyday use"?

There's lots more to examine; these instances are just a start. If you're not sure how to find resonance in figurative language, start by reading the themes analysis (see below) and then examine the figurative language to see where such themes crop up.

Good luck!

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