What are some examples of figurative language in Walker's "Everyday Use"?

Some examples of figurative language in Walker's "Everyday Use" include metaphor (the yard as a living room), zoomorphic extended metaphor (Mama as a hog and Maggie as a wounded dog), simile, synecdoche, and hyperbole. Walker presents similes throughout the story to reveal characters’ attitudes. Dee is introduced through synecdoche, with her feet, dress, and jewelry representing her personality. Walker concludes with hyperbole, as Mama feels as if she is charged with electricity (or God) to protect Maggie from Dee.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Instances of simile, metaphor, and implied metaphor appear in "Everyday Use."

Figurative language has many effects. One is to make a complex and idea (by nature abstract) spring to life in a more visual manner; another is to render a more concrete image in our heards (sensory description with imaginative resonance).

In the first paragraph, the narrator (the mother) talks about the yard "is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room." An outdoor space is being compared to an indoor. Already an abstract concept is clarified for us: that the narrator feels at home outside, that she lives outside quite comfortably. Later she reinforces this idea with sensory detail, how she is comfortable outside in zero weather due to her fat, can kill a hog easily, and so forth: she is a competent farm woman. How does this idea of outside being "good enough" for the mother and Maggie contrast with Dee's attitude toward indoors/outdoors? To the theme implied by the title, "Everyday Use"? This initial simile taps into the theme of functional, commonplace items being colonized by those who feel they have superior intellect and need to put them in a museum. No one would put this yard in a museum, but that's only because a well-combed yard doesn't have a market value for intellectuals such as Dee.

In paragraph 5, we get another simile: "my skin like an uncooked barley pancake." Why is it important that the mother picture her skin tone in this manner? Later in the story, as issues of race are explored in more depth (plus the fact that the mother works outdoors), we can assume that the mother's skin is definitely darker than an uncooked pancake. We have a strong sensory details here, sight and taste with this simile -- a light tan food item, not ready for eating, decidedly a nonfunctional image (who wants to eat something uncooked?) But to get on a TV show, one ought to be lighter skinned, this woman is saying. She's also saying that with this color, she is "the way Dee would want me to be." So we have a concrete image with resonance: daughter wants mother to be a color of something that is useless, something "uncooked." To lighten one's skin is about as smart as eating something uncooked.

Implied metaphor -- that Dee has a temper and an effect on people that's hot and dangerous as fire -- appears in implied comparisons:

  • "(Dee) burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know"; and
  • "the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye."

Take these images and balance that with the image of Dee watching the house burn. What do we learn about Dee as a person, where she fits in this family and the effect she has on things and people who are best for "everyday use"?

There's lots more to examine; these instances are just a start. If you're not sure how to find resonance in figurative language, start by reading the themes analysis (see below) and then examine the figurative language to see where such themes crop up.

Good luck!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial