What is the symbolism in Walker's "Everyday Use"?

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"Everyday Use" is so replete with symbolism it seems difficult to cover all of it.  I would like to add two details that are important but have not yet been mentioned, and both pertain to Dee.

First, her clothing when she arrives. The narrator says "It's so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out." Through this description, we see Dee associated with fire, the same thing that burnt and scarred her sister, Maggie.

Second, when Dee leaves, "She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin." The dark glasses, in other words, hide her identity as well as darken her vision of the world, preventing her from seeing the truth of all she has experienced that day in regard to family and heritage. Immediately before she puts them on, in fact, she tells Maggie:  "You ought to try to make of yourself, too, Maggie.  It's really a new day fro us.  But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it."  With her dark glasses on, unfortunately, Dee will never see that "new day" that her sister and Mother understand and live everyday of their lives.

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  • The quilt is a symbol of the family heritage that can only be appreciated by certain people. It symbolizes a long line of relatives. As you pick up a quilt and look at it, it has several pieces of cloth that are sowed together. The Grandmother made the quilt by hand, which makes it very special.
  • Hakim-a barber is important to the story as a symbol of the new life that Dee has chosen.  He may or may not be her husband, which hints at both his and Dee’s transitional nature. 
  • Maggie’s physical description is also symbolic of her personality.  She has been marked by her surroundings. 
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I would like to add a bit more about the symbolism of the quilts.  Maggie notes their family significance, but there is more to the history than just nostaliga.

Quilting for African-Americans was more than just creating pretty decorations or family heirlooms.  There were symbolism created by the patterns that helped tribes identify one another in Africa; in America, certain patterns helped identify "safe homes" for runaways slaves (the quilt displayed in a window, for example.)

Moreover, it was believed by many that "a break in a pattern also helped keep evil spirits away. Evil is believed to travel in straight lines and a break in a pattern or line confuses the spirits and slows them down."  This may be one of the reasons for the "double ring" pattern so often given to newlyweds. 

Dee (Wangero) wants to take the quilts because she knows such items are valuable to her "African" heritage, but since she...

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does not value their sentimentality and does not care to learn about what the patterns meant to her family, she is trying to create that "straight line" that will not help her understand her real hertiage very much.  Lives, like quilts, are pieced together by many experiences, creating patterns of meaning.   

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The main symbol is how history and the different generations of a family are connected.

Maggie's burned skin represents how she's been "burned" by the events of her life. She's fragile and worn down from the hard life she's lived. Mrs. Johnson's hands symbolize her tough life in trying to survive on the land where they live. She's had to work hard all of her life, doing whatever is necessary to survive.

Names are also important symbols. Dee chooses an African name that has no connection to her family and the generations that have come before her. Hakim-a-barber's difficult African name shows how he has rejected his heritage, especially since he's unable to eat the collard greens and pork that are traditional foods of African Americans. It's ironic that he's shed everything about his heritage in order to "find" his identity as a Muslim.

The clothes the characters wear also say something about the characters themselves. Mrs. Johnson wears clothing that is practical for the kind of life she lives. Her overalls and flannel nightgowns depict her no-nonsense, harsh life that she leads on a daily basis. Maggie's dress that "[falls] off her in little black papery flakes" symbolizes the hurt she's suffered and her vulnerability. Dee's wild, colorful clothing show that she is a colorful, vibrant woman, but is also shows she's unwilling to be characterized as her mother and sister are.

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How is symbolism used in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

The family artifacts owned by Mama Johnson are used, symbolically, to show the characters' differing views of heritage. Dee is newly interested in these artifacts, for which she's never before shown such longing. She says,

"I never knew how lovely these benches are. You can feel the rump prints [...]." Then she gave a sigh and her hand closed over Grandma Dee's butter dish. "That's it!" she said. "I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have." She jumped up from the table and went over in the corner where the churn stood [....]. "This churn top is what I need [....]. And I want the dasher, too."

Dee wants these objects, but it is Maggie who knows not only their stories but also who made them, what their nickname was, when they made them, and so forth. And despite the fact that her family is still using these items daily, Dee wants to take them to do "something artistic" with them. It's a similar story with the family's quilts. Dee is terrified that Mama will give them to Maggie, because Maggie would be "backward" enough to use them every day, and they would fall apart. Dee wants to hang them on the wall, attempting to preserve them. For Maggie and Mama, these objects are symbolic of their heritage, but they seem to feel that heritage is something that is best kept in the present by keeping the objects in use, which reminds everyone of those people to whom they're connected. Maggie knows how to quilt and can make more; it's as though she honors her heritage by remembering the stories, by learning the traditions. Dee, on the other hand, thinks of these objects as symbolic, and she thinks of heritage as something that is past, that ought to be preserved rather than used; she thinks of the quilts as artistic rather than objects meant to serve a purpose. It's a much colder, more distant kind of remembrance.

Color is also used symbolically in the story to help characterize Maggie and Dee. When Dee arrives, for example, she is wearing a bright dress. Mama says, "There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out." Dee wears colors associated with fire. Maggie, on the other hand, wears a "pink skirt and red blouse," the colors of skin that's been burned. Maggie has "burn scars down her arms and legs" as a result of the fire that consumed the family's house years ago. As a child, Dee "burned [her mother and sister] with a lot of knowledge [they] didn't necessarily need to know," treating them like "dimwits." It even seems possible, given Mama's description of events, that Dee might have set the fire to the house that she "hated" so much. Figuratively, certainly, Dee damages and burns others, making them feel small and slow and stupid. Maggie is burned by Dee, by her condescension and derision. The colors associated with each daughter help to illuminate their character.

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How is symbolism used in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

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What is the main symbol in Walker's "Everyday Use" and how does it enhance the story's theme?

Clearly the major symbol of this great story is to be found in the quilts that Dee so desperately wants. Consider how they are presented in the story:

Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieces by Grandma Dee, and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell's paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War.

Clearly this description shows both how valuable they are to the narrator but also what a history the include and show of the family. It is clear that the quilts and who they belong to symbolise a far bigger issue regarding the characters of Dee and Maggie, giving the story its title. Note what Dee says when her mother declares she had promised them to Maggie:

"Maggie can't appreciate those quilts!" she said. She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

The final decision to give Maggie the quilts is an act of love and of upbuilding of Maggie, for the narrator rejects Dee's rather pushy claim on the quilts and gives them to Maggie instead.

Thus the quilts can be said to symbolise the heritage of the family, but also the love and human spirit of Ma for Maggie as she tries to build her daughter up and show her that she is affirmed and deeply cared for.

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