What impact does Walker's use of point of view have on the reader's understanding of the plot in "Everyday Use"?
The use of the first-person narrative by the story's Mrs. Johnson is especially important to the plot's development because her voice represents the past, and the respect and dignity that it should be afforded, most particularly as it applies to the sacrifices and challenges faced by previous generations that have allowed Dee to move out successfully into the world.
Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Maggie live in a house that is not much better than a shack.
It is three rooms, just like the one that burned, except the roof is tin; they don't make shingle roofs any more. There are no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides, like the portholes in a ship, but not round and not square, with rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside.
Maggie is shy of the world—especially new people—because of scars she suffered as a child when the previous house burned.
How long ago was it that the other house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie's arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes.
Maggie also bears scars that cannot be seen, and her behavior bears this out:
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.
Maggie demands nothing of the world. Maggie's sister, Dee, is very different in several key ways.
Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure.
Dee had been outside watching the fire burn the house, without offering help or showing concern. Mrs. Johnson saw her and expected Dee to celebrate the event:
Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much.
Her mother says Maggie "is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passes her by."
Early on, Dee is her own person. She wanted a better life and better things for herself. We can infer she was hateful toward her sister, until Mrs. Johnson and the church raised money to send Dee away to school. At graduation, Dee had to have a "yellow organdy dress." She understood style when no one else around her knew of such a thing. And she "was determined to stare down any disaster." Life has changed considerably for Dee. When she left, she never looked back. On this particular day, she is returning with the man in her life, "Hakim.a.barber."
Dee and her man arrive, and as one might expect, she is beautiful. Her mother says she has lovely feet that look like God fashioned them himself. Dee is wearing bright and very long native African clothing. She has real gold jewelry on her ears and wrists. Looking at their visitors, Maggie makes a sound in her throat like you would "when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road."
Dee has obviously left her past behind. Not only is she grandly dressed, but she also has renamed herself "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo," refusing to bear, as she says, the name given to her by her people's white oppressors. Mrs. Johnson explains that it is a name given to her in honor of her aunt, but like much of what Mrs. Johnson has to say, Dee is barely listening. Even though her mother is right there, missing nothing, Dee is rude enough to make meaningful eye contact with Hakim.a.barber over Mrs. Johnson's head.
Mrs. Johnson describes her daughters and Dee's man. In describing herself, we find little resemblance to the others—in this woman who whittled out a quiet—though rough—life, surviving as a single mother in her ramshackle home.
In real life I am a large, big boned woman with rough, man working hands. . . I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. . . I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog.
Mrs. Johnson has no illusions about life. She has unrealistic dreams in her sleep sometimes, but when she wakes she knows who see is, what her life is like, and how it is likely to remain. She has lived during difficult times and fended for herself and her family. She does not have a need for frivolousness and fancy behavior. She is, however, amiable enough to try to please Dee in accepting the changes in her daughter's life.
The reason it is so important to the plot that the story is told by Mrs. Johnson is expressly because she knows who she is and where she belongs in this world. She understands the importance of those who have come before her to make her life possible. She remembers those in her past. She recalls being a part of a long line of strong, hardworking women.
Dee, on the other hand, has made it her business to reinvent the world according to what she wants. While it appears she has done well for herself, she is seemingly oblivious to how she might help her mother's meager existence.
As Dee makes her way around the house, she begins to ask her mother if she can have some things that catch her attention, the churn top and the dasher. She then goes into her mother's trunk in her bedroom. It contains quilts, one of which Dee very much wants. Grandma Dee pieced it together; Big Dee and Mrs. Johnson quilted it. There were pieces in the quilt with Great Grandpa Ezra's Civil War uniform. This quilt is almost a living thing, carrying a history with it that Dee cannot and will not ever appreciate. As is always the case with Dee, she believes if she wants something, she should have it. She has no nostalgic ties to any of the items; she sees only how everything would look gracing her home.
Maggie, on the other hand, loves this quilt because of its history. In this way, she is much like her mother. For Maggie, the quilt would not be hung on a wall, but used as it was intended and, with an appreciation for the time and hands that created it, used everyday.
Dee lacks understanding of her heritage.
Maggie does not. Mrs. Johnson understands this truth and the importance of it. Ironically, Dee believes she is becoming more connected with her ancestors by changing her name and manner of dress. In truth, the connections she should strive to establish are with those who came before her: the women who were treaty badly and/ or enslaved. Those women managed to survive, something that ultimately allowed Dee to be born and improve her circumstances beyond her humble beginnings.
Giving the quilt to Dee would be like cutting off a part of the Johnson women's identity. In truth, none of the women are in any way connected to their forbearers in Africa, but there is a steely connection that lies between these women and their heritage—something Dee cannot conceptualize.
Mrs. Johnson drives the plot by allowing the reader to see things from Dee and Maggie's eyes, but she also provides the reader with an understanding that where and who you come from is more important than what you own or where you live. Mrs. Johnson is not a dreamer; she has been a warrior her entire life. She understands the value of the women who have come before them, and recognizes there is no better way to pay homage to these women than Maggie's "everyday use" of the quilt.