How does characterization play an important role in the story "Everyday Use", by Alice Walker?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Characterization is an especially important feature of Alice Walker’s short story titled “Everyday Use.” After all, the story does not have an especially dramatic plot, nor is its setting particularly remarkable. By the same token, the language of the story does not call any great attention to itself (through, for example, vivid metaphors, striking similes, or unforgettable imagery). The dialogue, for the most part, is not particularly memorable. Instead, the story is, largely, a story about three distinct characters, and our interest in the work derives mainly from our interest in these characters and their interactions.

Particular examples of Walker’s emphasis on characterization include the following:

  • The very first words of the very opening sentence already introduce the story’s focus on the three main characters: “Iwill wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean” (emphasis added). Relations among these characters will be crucial to the story, and so Walker mentions all three of them immediately.
  • The opening words of the opening sentence of the second paragraph also emphasize relations between characters; “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes.” Now we know the exact relationship between Maggie and the unnamed “her” mentioned in the very first sentence (they are sisters), and we also know something about the nature of their relations: Maggie is nervous around her sibling. Once again, then, Walker highlights the importance of characters, and now she begins to characterize, in particular ways, the main figures of the text. This focus of characters and characterization continues when the narrator comments that Maggie

will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.

These comments by the narrator help remind us that the narrator is a character, too.  Everything that the narrator says about the other characters will necessarily and inevitably characterize her as well.  Thus, when we read the sentences just quoted, we immediately wonder about the narrator’s attitudes toward her two daughters. Does she sympathize with one more than the other? Does she accept Maggie’s assessment of the unnamed “her,” or does she just report it?  Similarly, the quoted sentences raise additional questions about Maggie and her sister. Is Maggie correct in her assessment of her sister, or is Maggie overly sensitive and insecure? With which of the two sisters (if either) will we, as readers, finally sympathize more?

  • A particularly interesting moment in the story occurs when the mother/narrator turns directly to the readers of the story and addresses us as “You”: “You've no doubt seen those TV shows . . . .” This habit of directly addressing readers – as if readers themselves were also characters in the story – continues intermittently throughout the work. This technique draws us closer to the mother and helps prepare us, ultimately, to share the mother’s perspective on her two daughters. The mother/narrator speaks to us as if she knows us, thus enhancing our sense that we know her.

In all these ways, then, Walker implies and/or demonstrates the importance of characterization as a crucial feature of “Everyday Use.”