How does Alice Walker use direct/indirect characterization to relate to the theme in "Everyday Use"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Perhaps the key element of the short story, characterization is employed by authors in order to move the action of the plot forward with conflicts and actions that develop the story's theme.

Characterization can be direct or indirect:

Direct or explicit characterization...uses another character, narrator or the protagonist to tell the readers or audience about the subject. 
[http://literarydevices.net/characterization]

With indirect or implicit characterization, a character is revealed through one of the following methods:

  1. By the thoughts, words, or actions of the character
  2. By what other characters say about the character
  3. By the ways in which other characters react to the character
  • Direct Characterization

In Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," one character of the story, the mother, acts as a narrator who directly addresses the reader. With direct characterization, she describes herself as "a large big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands" whose "fat keeps me hot" in the frigid weather of winter. She tells how strong she is. The mother then describes her daughter Dee as lighter-skinned than her other daughter, Maggie, who has a way of sidling up to people. With more description, the mother tells the reader,

[When Maggie reads] she stumbles along good-naturedly but can't see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by.

When Dee, now calling herself Wangero, arrives with her boyfriend, Mama describes how Dee appears in a "dress so loud it hurts my eyes," and she wears gold earrings that hang to her shoulders. The mother also describes how Dee's "short and stocky" boyfriend looks with "hair...all over his head a foot long."

The mother states that Dee has hated her home and has had no interest in her ancestors. As a young girl,

[S]he washed us in a river of make believe [as a child], burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know.... Dee wanted nice things.... She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts.... At sixteen she had a style of her own, and knew what style was. 

  • Indirect Characterization (dialogue, description, and action)

The mother/narrator reports much of what the other characters say and do. For example, when the boyfriend of Dee, Hakim-a-barber, sits down to eat, he informs the mother that 

...he didn't eat collards and pork was unclean....

Dee, now calling herself Wangero, 

...talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn't afford to buy chairs.

The mother also reports the actual words of the other characters, such as Dee's reactions to the old belongings:

"I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table...and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher."

"Mama.... Can I have these old quilts?"

When Mama tells Wangero that she has promised the two quilts to Maggie, she reacts with anger: "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! ... Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"
Now, surprisingly, it seems that Dee is interested in her family's history and her heritage, but from a different perspective.

The mother describes at length how the sisters react to each other as well as how she herself feels. For example, when Dee asks for the quilts that were made by hand by the women of the family, Mama looks at Maggie and "something hit me in the top of my head" as Maggie "looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad at her." Then, the mother feels overcome, much as she does in church when "the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout." She hugs Maggie and pulls her into the bedroom, grabs the quilts, and "dumped them into Maggie's lap." She tells Dee, "Take one or two of the others." An angered Dee departs after saying, "You just don't understand." (Dee's idea of "heritage" is displaying old family items.) 

teachertaylor eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker uses direct and indirect characterization to develop the theme of honoring one's heritage by participating in family traditions.  Throughout the story, Walker characterizes Mama and Dee as contrasting characters to develop tension.  For example, Dee is directly characterized as always wanting "nice things, while Mama is indirectly characterized as settling for the simple things in life (i.e. a small house).  Further, through direct characterization the reader learns that Dee has gone away to college and that Mama never made it past grade school.  Indirect characterization leads the reader to infer that Dee believes in cultural preservation:  she arrives at the home with a new name that relates to her African heritage, and she wants to take family artifacts to put on display in her home.  Mama, on the other hand, is characterized as one who believes in cultural participation:  there is butter in the churn when Dee arrives, and Mama--like her own mother--has learned the art of quilting.  So direct and indirect characterization in the story sets up the contrast between Mama and Dee, which speaks to Walker's theme regarding honoring one's heritage.