Select three key symbols in "Everyday Use." How do they differ in the way that Dee and her mother understand them?

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The house that burned down when Dee and Maggie were children can be interpreted as a symbol of Dee's disdain, even hatred, for her family and their lives. Dee's sister, Maggie, nearly died in the fire, and her arms still carry the scars from the burns she got. Dee, however,...

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The house that burned down when Dee and Maggie were children can be interpreted as a symbol of Dee's disdain, even hatred, for her family and their lives. Dee's sister, Maggie, nearly died in the fire, and her arms still carry the scars from the burns she got. Dee, however, was safe and sound, "standing off under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of" with a look of concentration on her face as she watched the house go up in flames. "Why don't you do a dance around the ashes?" her mother had thought to ask her. "She had hated the house that much." Mama Johnson says that she used "to think [Dee] hated Maggie" as well. Dee even said, once, that she would never bring friends to visit their home, as she was, evidently, so embarrassed by it (and, it seems, her family). Mama sees their lives as contented and satisfying; Dee, however, does not.

Dee's original name is a symbol of her family heritage. When Dee arrives, she explains that she could not bear "being named after the people who oppress [her]," and so she has changed her name to something more African-sounding: Wangero. Her mother explains that Dee was actually named for her aunt, and her aunt was named for her own mother (Dee's grandmother), and she was named for her mother, and so on back. Dee does not truly understand or appreciate her family's heritage and significance (though her mother and Maggie, certainly, do).

The family's possessions also serve as symbols of Dee's lack of appreciation for her family's heritage and life. She marvels over the "rump prints" on the benches, as well as Grandma Dee's "butter dish" and the "churn top" for the family's butter churn. The thing is, her family uses these objects on a daily basis, and yet she wants to take them to do "something artistic" with them. She wants to display these items, while her family would continue to actually use them. Her mother and sister understand heritage as something that is put to everyday use, and the stories of family members and their items are passed down from person to person. Dee, however, only sees heritage as a thing to hang on her wall; she doesn't care about the actual stories or the people attached to the objects.

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The short story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker tells of a family of a mother and two daughters. It is narrated by Mama. She lives with her younger daughter, Maggie, a simple and shy girl whose skin is scarred from a house fire. Dee, the older daughter, is more intelligent and attractive. She comes to visit with a man who is either her boyfriend or husband. It's clear that Mama and Dee have very different worldviews, and there are numerous symbols in the story that support this. I'll list several, and then you can choose which three you think are most important.

The first symbol that is presented is the yard. Mama keeps it swept and clean and considers it an extension of the house, but Dee does not even notice it.

The TV show that Mama describes is a symbol of the way that she wishes that Dee would see her: as an ideal mother in a sort of fantasy reality. It is obvious, however, that Dee does not see her mother and sister like that, but instead she looks down on them and considers herself superior.

The house is another symbol. The way that Mama describes it is simple and basic, and yet she and Maggie are comfortable there and see it as home. Dee, however, regards it as an expression of their poverty, as Mama comments: "No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down."

Dee's dress, accessories, and hair style are symbolic. To Dee they represent her modernity, good fashion sense, cultural assimilation, and break from the poverty of her past. However, Mama and Maggie think these things are unnecessarily ostentatious and overly bright.

The hand-whittled churn top that Dee takes is symbolic. To Dee it is merely something she can use to decorate her tabletop, but to Mama it is an object of practical value.

Finally, the quilts that Dee tries to take are important symbols. Like the churn top, Dee doesn't want to use the quilts for what they were made for. She wants to hang them as works of art. She protests that if Mama gives them, as they are promised, to Maggie, she will probably use them as bedding and ruin them. In this case, Mama sides with Maggie, puts her foot down, and insists that Dee not take the quilts. Dee remarks that Mama doesn't understand her heritage, but Mama understands enough to know that Maggie will make better use of the quilts.

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The quilts are one example of symbolism in "Everyday Use." Dee sees the quilts as art and intends to display them as such. However, in Mama's opinion, the importance of the quilts lies in their usefulness. She feels that Maggie will use the quilts as they are intended to be used.

Dee's clothing is another example of symbolism. When Dee arrives, she wears a long, brightly colored dress. The dress symbolizes Dee's identity and her appreciation of her African heritage. Mama sees the dress as being too long and unsuitable for the hot weather. Again, Mama sees value in what is useful and necessary, while Dee sees value in appearance.

A third example of symbolism can be seen in the differences between Mama's body and Dee's body. Mama shares that she has large, rough hands. Her hands and her large size allow her to do what needs to be done to provide for herself and her family. When Dee arrives, Mama immediately recognizes her by her feet. She describes Dee's feet "as if God himself had shaped them." Dee's delicate feet are in contrast with Mama's hands, again making clear the distinction between that which is useful and that which is to be admired.

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