After reading Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," characterize the speaker/narrator and evaluate her reliability as a reporter and interpreter of events in the story "Everyday Use."

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is narrated by one of the story’s main characters – the mother of two highly different daughters (Dee and Maggie).  The mother seems to be basically a reliable narrator. Admittedly, she does seem to have some hard feelings toward Dee, but these feelings seem understandable in light of the past and present events she describes. Nothing in the story suggests that the mother is so full of dislike for Dee that she tells untruths about her attractive daughter.  The mother feels sympathy toward Maggie, her less gifted, less attractive, less worldly, and less educated daughter.  Her sympathy for Maggie grows as the story develops, just as her distrust and dislike of Maggie also become more obvious as the tale approaches its conclusion.  Nevertheless, even at the end of the story the mother is trying to accommodate both daughters.

Several factors contribute to our sense that the mother is basically a reliable narrator, including the following:

  • The mother opens the story by revealing some of her vulnerabilities, especially in her relationship with Dee. If she were harshly prejudiced against Dee from the very beginning, she probably would not confess a longing to be reconciled with Dee.
  • No sooner does the mother describe her dreams about appearing as a witty, attractive guest on a TV talk show hosted by a white man than she immediately torpedoes those dreams:

Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them.

  • If the mother were an unreliable narrative, she probably would not describe her own shortcomings and insecurities so explicitly as in the quotation just cited.
  • The mother does seem to bear some hostility toward Dee, and that hostility seems to date from at least the time when the old family house burned to the ground and Dee watched the event from a distance:

Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.

  • Nevertheless, if the mother were deeply hostile toward Dee and was an unreliable commentator about Dee, she would probably have hidden her misgivings about Dee far more successfully than she even tries to do. Instead, she honestly admits her ambivalence (and even her resentment) toward her daughter rather than pretending to be completely neutral. Ironically, her confessions of her misgivings about Dee make her seem all the more honest and trustworthy.
  • All in all, if Walker had wanted to raise questions about the mother’s reliability as a narrator, she could easily have done so very clearly (as Henry James does, for instance, in “The Turn of the Screw”). Instead, Walker seems to share the mother’s sympathies, perspectives, and values. The mother and Maggie clearly seem to be the heroines of this piece, and if the story has a villain, that villain is almost certainly Dee.

 

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