Explain the betrayal theme in "Everyday Use."

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term betrayal, in this context, can be understood to mean being unfaithful in guarding, maintaining, or fulfilling a particular expectation. It can also mean to disappoint the hopes or expectations of someone or to be disloyal. Dee, the subject of Alice Walker's story, presents all of these attributes. 

We become aware of Dee's dislike of her living conditions from the outset. She is, for example, happy that their house has burnt down. This rejection of her cultural identity manifests itself throughout the story. Dee discards her rural roots for an education. She later returns to her home and wears traditional African clothing. This act, however, can be seen as the pretentious adoption of what she believes is her true culture, because she rejects the Southern African-American customs that she has been raised with. Dee, in fact, betrays her true identity by adopting a supercilious attitude and she looks down on her mother, her sister, and their living conditions.

Further betrayal of her heritage is displayed when Dee changes her name to one that she believes more accurately reflects her roots. She adopts the name Wangero. Her dismissal of a name that is rooted in her family's history is disrespectful. She also turns her back on what we may assume is a Christian upbringing by having a Muslim partner who Mama (her mother) mockingly (albeit unwittingly) refers to as "Asalamalakim" (an Arabic greeting) and later as "Hakim-a-Barber."

Dee has turned her back on a simple rural value system and has become quite materialistic. She asks to have a churn that her Uncle Bundy carved from a tree they used to have. However, she wants it for the wrong reason, saying that she will use it only for decoration. Also, she wants the quilts that Mama has, stating that she wants them because of the generations of clothing and effort that have been put into making them. These items have become mere objects for Dee. Their only value lies in the fact that they can be items to depict a heritage that she has deliberately forsaken.

In the end, Mama rejects Dee's demands for the quilts and instead chooses to bestow them on her younger daughter, Maggie, who she knows will put the quilts to "everyday use" instead of simply exhibiting them as trophies (as Dee plans to do). Mama and Maggie focus on enjoying their life together with experiences and memories and celebrate their African-American heritage. Mama's decision emphasizes the point that one's culture and heritage are not mere items for decoration but that they form an integral part of one's identity and should be respected as such.   

cldbentley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Everyday Use," a short story written by Alice Walker, a heavy undercurrent of betrayal is present throughout the majority of the story.  There are multiple elements to this theme: Dee betrays her mother and sister in her failure to help save Maggie from the fire and her apparent enjoyment at the loss of their home; Maggie and her mother are betrayed when Dee seems to make every effort to change her identity and become different from the way she was brought up; Dee continues to betray her family heritage by being embarrassed by the way she was raised, yet greedily taking every pretty, valuable, or impressive material possession she can get her hands on, especially when she does not even inquire about her mother's or sister's feelings about those things. 

The most unforgiveable occurrence of betrayal in "Everyday Use" takes place when Dee ("Wangero") attempts to take the family quilts that have been promised to Maggie.  Dee not only hurts her mother and sister in her insistance on taking the quilts to use as art pieces, but betrays her culture, ancestors, and heritage by insisting that it is wrong to use them as they were intended and by implying that Maggie does not deserve them.