Study Guide

Everyday Use

by Alice Walker

Everyday Use Summary

Introduction (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Everyday Use” is probably Walker’s most frequently anthologized short story. It stresses the mother-daughter bond and defines the African American woman’s identity in terms of this bond and other family relationships. It uses gentle humor in showing Dee/Wangero’s excess of zeal in trying to claim her heritage, and her overlooking of the truth of African American experience in favor of what she has read about it. Dee has joined the movement called Cultural Nationalism, whose major spokesman was LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). In fact, however, Dee’s understanding of the movement’s basics is flawed, and she is using bits of African lore rather than a coherent understanding of it. Walker doubtless intended this misinterpretation. The contrast is clear—the snuff-dipping, hardworking mother who tells the story has passed her true inheritance, not quilts but love, to the daughter who is not book-educated but who belongs to the tradition.

The speaker in this story is the mother of two very different girls, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has stayed home with her mother and lived an old-fashioned, traditional life, while Dee has gone off to school and become sophisticated. Dee comes home with a new name, Wangero, and a new boyfriend; she claims that she wants to take the family heirlooms along as a part of claiming her true identity as an African American. She especially wants the quilts, which she plans to display on the wall as artworks because of their fine handiwork. Maggie, on the other hand, had been promised the quilts for her marriage; she loved them because they reminded her of the grandmother who made them. Dee feels entitled to them, but the speaker chooses to give them to Maggie—not to show but, as Dee says scornfully, “for everyday use.” Dee sweeps off with her other trophies, and the mother and Maggie remain together, enjoying a heritage that is experience and memory, not things to put on display.

Everyday Use Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Everyday Use Published by eNotes.com, Inc.

“Everyday Use” is narrated by a woman who describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” She has enjoyed a rugged farming life in the country and now lives in a small, tin-roofed house surrounded by a clay yard in the middle of a cow pasture. She anticipates that soon her daughter Maggie will be married and she will be living peacefully alone.

The story opens as the two women await a visit from the older daughter, Dee, and a man who may be her husband—her mother is not sure whether they are actually married. Dee, who was always scornful of her family’s way of life, has gone to college and now seems almost as distant as a film star; her mother imagines being reunited with her on a television show such as “This Is Your Life,” where the celebrity guest is confronted with her humble origins. Maggie, who is not bright and who bears severe burn scars from a house fire many years before, is even more intimidated by her glamorous sibling.

To her mother’s surprise, Dee arrives wearing an ankle-length, gold and orange dress, jangling golden earrings and bracelets, and hair that “stands straight up like the wool on a sheep.” She greets them with an African salutation, while her companion offers a Muslim greeting and tries to give Maggie a ceremonial handshake that she does not understand. Moreover, Dee says that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, because “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Dee’s friend has an unpronounceable name, which the mother finally reduces to “Hakim-a-barber.” As a Muslim, he will not eat the pork that she has prepared for their meal.

Whereas Dee had been scornful of her mother’s house and possessions when she was younger (even seeming happy when the old house burned down), now she is delighted by the old way of life. She takes photographs of the house, including a cow that wanders by, and asks her mother if she may have the old butter churn whittled by her uncle; she plans to use it as a centerpiece for her table. Then her attention is captured by two old handmade quilts, pieced by Grandma Dee and quilted by the mother and her own sister, known as Big Dee. These quilts have already been promised to Maggie, however, to take with her into her new marriage. Dee is horrified: “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she says, “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”

Although Maggie is intimidated enough to surrender the beloved quilts to Dee, the mother feels a sudden surge of rebellion. Snatching the quilts from Dee, she offers her instead some of the machine-stitched ones, which Dee does not want. Dee turns to leave and in parting tells Maggie, “It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.” Maggie and her mother spend the rest of the evening sitting in the yard, dipping snuff and “just enjoying.”

Everyday Use Summary

Alice Walker's modern classic "Everyday Use" tells the story of a mother and her two daughters' conflicting ideas about their identities and...

(The entire section is 622 words.)