In the story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker is the battle external or internal or both?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The conflicts in Walker's "Everyday Use" are internal and external. The most obvious conflict is between Maggie and her mother on one side and Dee on the other. But there is evidence also of internal conflict within the mother, who finds it difficult to know how to love Dee, and internal conflict within Dee, as well as evidence of conflict between Dee and society. 

Dee has chosen to use her rural African-American heritage one way, while Maggie and their mother have chosen to use it another. This is the point of the title.  Maggie and the mother have various objects that they consider part of their everyday existence, to be used for the purposes for which they were created, for example, a quilt, which was made to provide warmth or a butter churn made to churn milk into butter. Dee, on the other hand, believes these objects should be put on display, for example, hanging a handmade quilt upon the wall to admire, rather than to use for its intended purpose.  This conflict is clear throughout the story, as when Dee wants to take a quilt with her, and their mother says that the quilt will be given to Maggie when she marries, for its use as a quilt.  The mother disapproves of Dee's attitude toward these objects, and pokes gentle fun at her throughout the story.  Maggie's attitude is more passive, but it is clear that she goes along with her mother's beliefs about what one does with one's heritage. 

The mother in the story often finds it difficult to love her "wayward" daughter. She fantasizes being on a television show, where Dee will shower her with love and appreciation in front of an audience of thousands, but she realizes this is a fantasy.   As Dee gets older, the mother says "Often I fought off the temptation to shake her (lines 72-73). Dee is so very different from herself (and from Maggie) that she is not so easy to love. 

The evidence of conflict within Dee herself is expressed in her wanting desperately to leave this rural African-American environment in which she was raised and simultaneously needing to return to it.  While she looks down on her mother and Maggie, she also seems to get some sustenance that allows her to live in a larger world.  The mother says that when Dee was sent for further education in Augusta, she would return home to share what she learned and

Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed to understand (lines 67-68).

Thus, even in sharing books with Maggie and her mother, Dee is conflicted, wanting to share in love and yet looking down on them at the same time. 

While Maggie and the mother remain in a rural environment that seems to be mostly African-American, Dee has escaped this environment and lives in a larger world that seems like it is probably urban and integrated, and how she navigates in this world suggests that she is not at ease in it, unable to be fully herself.  She and her boyfriend have adopted African names, they clearly have an interest in impressing others with objects such as quilts to hang upon their walls, and in order to live in this larger society, it seems that Dee must repress large parts of herself and her own heritage. It is not likely that she ever brags to her friends about her mother or Maggie, whom she would find a source of shame if her background were known to others. 

Thus, this story is filled with conflicts, internal and external, as Walker gives us a snapshot of different values, the difficulty of loving someone who is different from you, and the effect that a larger society can have on one's ability to maintain a strong identity. 

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