What is the main conflict in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

The main conflict in "Everyday Use" is cultural and plays out over the best use of a beautiful handmade quilt, a piece of traditional Americana. Is it better off preserved and kept perfect hanging on the wall of the home of Dee, an urban intellectual, or in the hands of the humble Maggie, to be used and worn out as a blanket?

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The main conflict in the story is cultural. Dee, the more "perfect" daughter, has transcended her humble farm roots to become an educated, urban intellectual, an upward trajectory our society values as an expression of the American Dream. Her values and priorities clash with those of Maggie and her mother who stayed behind living in a traditional way in a humble cabin.

The culture clash primarily plays out over which daughter has the best right to a handmade quilt. Dee, who takes pride in her education and unquestioningly considers herself superior to the mother and sister she has left behind, wants the beautiful and painstakingly crafted quilt so that she can hang it on her apartment wall as an example of Black Americana. To her, it is a valuable artifact representing her heritage that she will protect from damage. She will not use it, but treat it as work of art.

Maggie, on the other hand, would use the quilt everyday as a covering to keep herself warm, the use for which it was intended. In her hands, the quilt would get worn out, but it would have a practical and functional use value.

In choosing Maggie to receive the quilt, the mother affirms the traditional value of practical utility, the idea that things are made to be used, not become static, frozen art objects. In doing so, she affirms the worth and humanity of her humble and damaged younger daughter. Things and people, the story implies, don't have to be preserved and perfect to be of greatest value.

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The main conflict in Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" might be seen as the choice that the mother needs to make in how she treats her two very different daughters. To me, the mother-as-narrator calls attention to her central role in the main conflict, and the use of the phrase "everyday use" calls attention to the two daughters' different views of the quilts and other family heirlooms.

As might be expected in this conflict, the reader is prompted to take sides, too. I have the strong impression that most readers side with Maggie and believe that she, not Dee, truly knows how to value the family heirlooms and the heritage that they represent. All it takes are a few questions, though -- such as "Is it always wrong to protect unique and irreplaceable quilts from the wear and tear of 'everyday use'?" or "Is it always wrong to leave home when you grow up and to make deliberate, conscious changes in how you live your life?" -- to challenge the oversimplified view that one daughter is correct and the other is wrong in all things.

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Another way of phrasing that main conflict is to consider it in terms of identity, the ways in which our culture constructs it and we search for it.  In this way, the dominant internal conflict is the individual asking herself "who am I?" Within each of us different ideas of who we are compete with each other, and Walker would argue this is particularly true for black women. In an interview Walker says that she thinks Dee (a photographer and collector of art and even creates herself as a work of art), Maggie (the quilt maker, symbolic of traditional women's art), and mama, who narrates the story are all artists, and all represent herself split into 3 parts conflicting with each other.  For Walker as a writer, "Everyday Use" is the story of the conflicts within her to develop her own identity and become the writer that she is.

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The basic conflict in this story is Maggie's knowledge of every day things and her intention to use them for their purposes, and her sister (Dee), who considers herself more worldly and educated and who thinks these every day things should be hung up and admired as antiques.

Maggie is not stupid, but she is scarred from a housefire, and her confidence is lacking.  She is a humble, loving, and simple person who adores her mother and just wants to live.  She knows how to sew, quilt, and make butter like her mother and grandmother.

Her sister is lovely, has gone off to school, treats both Maggie and her mother as beneath her...almost embarrassing because of their simple and backward ways.  She is arrogant, not used to being told "no," and suddenly aware of her African roots as she indicates in her dress and her boyfriend who has adopted an African name than no one can pronounce.

Maggie is quiet and is used to giving in to her sister.  When her sister insists on the quilts that her mother has already promised to give Maggie as a wedding gift, Maggie slams the kitchen door to show her anger.  She does finally come back into the house resigned to give her sister her wedding quilts.  However, Mother finally stands up to Dee and tells her she can not take Maggie's quilts.

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Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" is a classic short story from 1973.

The main conflict in the story is between materialism, representing the New, and tradition, representing the Old. The culminating event of the story occurs at the end, when Dee, the materialistic sister, fights with her mother about the distribution of family quilts:

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

"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!" I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told they were old-fashioned, out of style.

"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"

"She can always make some more," I said. "Maggie knows how to quilt."

Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. "You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!"

"Well," I said, stumped. "What would you do with them?"

"Hang them," she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts.
(Walker, "Everyday Use," xroads.virginia.edu)

Dee, in her drive to forget her past and embrace the progressive future, has already changed her name (the parenthetical Wangero) to distance herself from her family. Here, she wishes to receive the quilts she rejected in her youth so she can hang them and show off her cultural heritage to friends -- but without actually living the heritage. Her mother, the narrator, wants the quilts to be used for their real purpose, as blankets to keep people warm, not as decorations where they will be examined and exclaimed over like museum pieces. Dee cares only about her superficial outward appearance; her mother and Maggie care about their inner knowledge and heritage, and Maggie will make new quilts when these fall apart. Dee, however, would be forced to buy new ones, since she has no real concept of her heritage.

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