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Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" allows the reader to compare the values of two very different sisters and their mutual desire to own the Johnson family's two heirloom, hand-sewn quilts.
As the narrator describes her home and her history, we learn that she and her daughter Maggie live a very simple life. The house they presently live in has replaced the one that burned down ten or twelve years before. It has three rooms and there are no windows—just holes in the walls that are covered with shutters. Maggie is a quiet young woman with little self-confidence because of the scars of burns she received when they lost their previous house. However, Maggie is made of her mother's stock: she appreciates what they have and does not complain over their meager way of living. She knows stories about family members; she is closely tied to her aunt and grandmother who taught Maggie how to quilt. She has not forgotten her past. We can infer that she is proud of her history and what has been handed down to her—most especially her memories.
Dee, on the other hand, could not wait to leave the life she knew at home. She hated the old house that had burned. She had to have a beautiful dress for graduation and new pumps to go with a suit she had made. Her mother and the church raised money to send her off to school. She was something of a celebrity with the other young people with her polished ways and quick mind. Her heritage has meant nothing to her. In fact, when she arrives with Hakim-a-barber to visit, not only has she adopted the dress of the African people, but she has changed her name—taking an African name because she did not want one that had been given to a distant relative, by a slave owner. (There is no support for her assertion that "Dee" ever came from a slave owner; it has been in the family for so long, even her mother cannot remember where the name had come more than a hundred years before.)
Dee starts looking around the very small house and asks her mother for a couple of old, work-worn pieces: the churn top and the dasher. While Dee is uncertain of the dasher's history, Maggie knows exactly who made it. Dee goes on to look through her mother's trunk for other things she might want. It is important to note that Dee demonstrates a sense of entitlement—that she should be given what she wants. She never asks if Maggie would want any of the things she chooses.
Dee comes across two old quilts that are different than the others. They are hand-made with pieces of clothing that had belonged to the girls' dead grandmother, grandfather and great-grandfather. (Dee, upon leaving for college had had the opportunity to have a quilt, but she refused saying they were "old-fashioned and out of style.")
While Maggie is straightforward, Dee is sneaky.
"Mama," Wangero said sweet as a bird. "Can I have these old quilts?"
"Old" is supposed to promote the idea that they have no real value and can easily be parted with, except that Dee wants them terribly...and for all the wrong reasons.
The narrator tells her oldest daughter to take one of the other quilts, but Dee wants the ones that are entirely handmade. For Dee, who has turned her back on her heritage and even her name—given out of respect for loved ones going back for many years—it is not about owning something that is drenched in family history and familial love. These "old" quilts are now popular to display in the homes of city people like the woman Dee has become.
Dee strokes them as if the quilts are already hers:
"Some of the pieces, like those lavender ones, come from old clothes her mother handed down to her," I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee (Wangero) moved back just enough so that I couldn't quite reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
The narrator quickly explains to Dee that she had promised them to Maggie for when she marries.
Dee is not happy. Her snobbery flashes like a new knife:
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
In truth, it is exactly what Maggie would do—and for every day she had them she would feel that much closer to her people...those who had worked so hard to survive and had passed on what they had to their children and their children's children.
The narrator is fine with the idea. Dee expresses her real interest:
"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously..."Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags..."
Her mother is unmoved by this as well, noting that if the quilts turned to rags, Maggie could make more because she can quilt. This also shows the connection Maggie has with the past—one from which Dee has walked away. Dee looks at her mother with "hatred," saying that her mother cannot understand that it is only these quilts that she must have. So her mother asks Dee what she would do with the quilts. Dee would put them on display and never use them. They would be nothing more than pieces of her decor.
Maggie, who has been struggling with the entire exchange from the kitchen, now comes in the door.
"She can have them, Mama," she said, like somebody never used to winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts."
This is the key to the entire story. For Maggie, the quilts represent the past and those that loved her and all that family meant. Maggie is ready to let the quilts go because it is not the quilts that matter to her, but the memories of, and connections to, her family. Maggie is not angry about it:
[Maggie] looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad at her. This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work.
Suddenly the narrator experiences something...
...like when I'm in church and the Spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I had never done before: hugged Maggie to me...
She pulls Maggie into the room, snatches the quilts from Dee and places them in Maggie's lap.
Ironically, as she leaves Dee tells her mother that her mother does not understand. When her mother asks what she does not understand, Dee responds, "Your heritage."
Dee obviously has no concept of heritage. She wants the quilts because old things are in style and they will look nice hanging in her home. Maggie wants them because they are a part of her heritage. Not only has her mother given her something dear to Maggie's heart, but also she has brought Maggie into the line of women that have descended from the first "Dee." Maggie's heritage becomes more tangible: she now will keep her family's legacy alive for her children.
Because of the intrinsic value of the quilts to the Johnson line, I totally agree with the mother's decision to give them to Maggie. Because Dee wants the quilts simply to edify herself and her home, to receive compliments when entertaining and take pride in her decorating, I can find no reason why Dee should have received the quilts.
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