How are the lives of the three female characters in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" representative of the theme of the story?

Expert Answers
carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The three female characters in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker constitute a small black family.  The story belongs to the first person narrator, Mrs. Johnson, the mother of two girls: Maggie and Dee.   

The theme of the story focuses on heritage and its meaning.  To the author, heritage implies the family legacy and the representation of an ongoing link from past to present culture.  Each of the characters in the story perceive heritage in her own way. 

Mama represents the past and the present.  She grew up without an education.  What she has in her life is important to her. It may not be much, but it is her legacy. The things that she possesses came to her from her ancestors. This to Mama represents her family heritage.

Yet, Mama is a realist.  She tells the reader that she knows that the house they live in now is the same as the one that burned down.  It is a shack with holes in the walls for windows.

Today is important to Mama because Dee is coming for a visit.  Mama and her church provided the way for Dee to get a college education.  When Dee comes, Mama and Maggie will be waiting in the front yard.

The younger daughter is Maggie.  She lives with her mother because she is handicapped.  Maggie understands the importance of family. 

Maggie was burned severely in the house fire.  Due to her injuries, Maggie walks oddly.  Apparently, Maggie did not finish school possibly due to her injuries.

Most importantly, however, Maggie cares about traditions.  She honors the memory of her ancestors. At the knee of her grandmother, Maggie learned how to quilt.  Maggie remembers her Grandmother Dee making and using the quilts that her mother has given her.

In the end of the story, Mama realizes that she has not given Maggie the affection and attention that she deserved. She has taken her for granted.  When Mama understands Dee only wants her mother’s things to show off, she hugs and kisses Maggie for the first time.

Dee Johnson symbolizes the new age. In the 1970s, the Negro became the African American in search of his heritage.  It was the blackness rather than the family that Dee wanted. 

Characterized by her good looks and desire for something better in life, Dee wants to build on traditions that have nothing to do with her own family.  She wants to link herself to Africa.  Dee was named after her grandmother. Now, she has changed her name to Wangero. 

The irony is evident when Dee searches for heritage; yet, she shucks off her family name denying the more important family heritage.  Mama never denies Dee anything.  When she realizes that Dee has come back only to take things away from her home and show them off, Mama says “no” to Dee.

These quilts are symbolic of the family traditions and cultural heritage.  The quilts belong to Maggie who watched her grandmother and listened to her as she made the quilts from fragments of dresses, shirts, and uniforms dating back to the Civil War.

“God knows I been saving ‘em for long enough with nobody using ‘em.  I hope she will.”

Dee may never understand that the quilts were made up of lives and should be used every day.  As Dee leaves angry that she was refused the quilts, she tells her mother and sister that they do not understand what heritage means.  Both Mama and Maggie know it is Dee who fails to grasp the importance of family.