Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is rich with figurative language to enhance the story of tensions (tradition versus progess) within an African American family. The story opens with a metaphor:
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
Simple and humble, the yard is welcoming and neat like a living room but less glamorous and formal; it is more comfortable and connected with nature. Maggie and Mama are like the yard and the uppity older sister Dee is like a stuffy living room.
Walker uses animal metaphors or zoomorphism to describe Mama and Maggie. Mama’s strength and toughness are evident in repeated references to a hog:
I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog.
Initially, Walker seems to compare Mama to a man. The power and grit of a hog, however, describe Mama more accurately. She is a large, forceful woman whose seeming gracelessness is more than compensated for by her capable strength.
Later Walker introduces Maggie through a zoomorphic extended metaphor:
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground.
Shy and damaged, Maggie is the less flashy younger sister; she is the helpless stray considered unworthy and left behind by “careless” Dee. With low-to-no self-esteem, Maggie withers physically.
Walker sprinkles similes throughout the story to demonstrate, quickly and bitingly, characters’ attitudes. Mama knows that Dee wishes for her mother’s skin to be lighter, “like an uncooked barley pancake.” Mama describes Dee’s burning, hurtful wit as “scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye.” Maggie tries to avoid shaking hands with Dee’s boyfriend by offering a hand that is “as limp as a fish, and probably as cold.” Dee (aka Wangero) mocks Maggie’s memory with the comment, “Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s.” When Mama declares that she will give Maggie their family’s heirloom quilts, the shocked and horrified Dee “gasped like a bee had stung her.”
Walker uses synecdoche to introduce Dee; each physical feature reveals Dee’s forceful personality. When Dee arrives for a visit, Mama first glimpses her little by little:
The first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style. …[then] A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress 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. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits.
Having escaped from what she considers her backwards home, Dee considers herself more enlightened and sophisticated. Her neat, perfect feet appear manicured and untouched by manual labor. She wears a bright, “loud” dress that announces her presence; she overwhelms others with her words and opinions just as the sun blinds everyone. The gold earrings, jangling bracelets, and large flowing gown are too much for Mama’s eyes and ears. These features all contrast Mama and Maggie’s simpler clothes, plain appearances, and humble attitudes.
Walker employs hyperbole to emphasize Mama’s reaction to Maggie’s acquiescence to Dee’s demand for the quilts:
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open.
“Take one or two of the others,” I said to Dee.
A lightning bolt seems to strike Mama; she becomes infused with a surge of electricity or the power of God and decisively protects Maggie from her older sister’s self-centered greed. Mama may not have protected Maggie from their burning house years earlier, but she shields her from further injustice.