In "Everyday Use," what do Dee and Maggie have in common? How are they different?

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As sisters, almost the only thing Dee and Maggie have in common is that they are sisters. Both have relatives in common, most significantly their mother, and they grew up together in Southern poverty. A more subtle similarity, however, can be noted between them. Both sisters have strong personal desires in their lives; both of them achieve their dreams, but in very different ways--and here the similarity essentially ends and the sharp differences between them begin.

From the time she was a young girl, Dee rejected the circumstances of her birth and wanted nothing in the world more than she wanted to leave her home and family behind in search of what she believed to be a more meaningful life. Dee craved education, sophistication and success in the world. She wanted a larger life on a bigger stage, surrounded by interesting people. She wanted to cut her ties to the family and the impoverished community that had produced her, and so she did.

In the story she returns only to carry away those of her mother's few possessions that she deems to be valuable antiques. She wants her mother's quilts not for sentimental reasons, but because they would look attractive in her big-city home. The fact that her grandmother had made the quilts means nothing to her. Dee is completely self-centered, completely insensitive to the feelings of others. Details in the story suggest that this is not new behavior for Dee. She had been selfish and aggressive  as a child, and her will had always subjugated any of Maggie's wants and needs. The Dee who comes home is an educated, sophisticated, fashionable young woman, in tune with current social trends. She is also cold and unfeeling.

In contrast, Maggie is eclipsed by her sister's star. She is shy and undemanding. Maggie has grown up always expecting second best. Bearing the scars from a terrible fire, she has remained at home with her mother, uneducated and unworldly. There is in Maggie, however, a sweetness and a vulnerability that make her a very appealing character, in contrast with her grasping sister. Maggie truly loves her mother and honors her family. When her one dream in life is about to come true--she will be married and have a home of her own--she wants her mother's quilts to use every day in her home, and she loves them because she remembers her grandmother's making them.

The title of the story, "Everyday Use," points the reader toward the most profound difference between Dee and Maggie, as shown by each sister's attitude toward their mother's quilts. For Dee, using the quilts every day is unthinkable because of their monetary value; for Maggie, using the quilts every day would be an act of love and remembrance. Dee's shallowness and her lack of emotional connection to her family is thus contrasted with Maggie's loving spirit.

James Kelley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my view, the only thing that Dee and Maggie, two characters in Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," have in common is their parentage. Both are children of the mother-narrator. The differences between the two are enormous. Dee is outgoing and confident and adventuresome, Maggie is not. That's only the beginning. In my experiences of teaching this story, readers tend to follow the mother-narrator's prompts and identify with Maggie. Dee's position seems to be vilified, but I'm a supporter of Dee, as is Alice Walker, and when I ask students what they would do with a precious quilt, most agree that the quilt shouldn't be put to "everyday use."