The title of Alice Walker's story leads to the central symbol of the quilts about which the returning sister, Dee, and her mother have differing perspectives. Whereas Dee, now calling herself the African name Wangero, views the quilts made by her grandmother as an ethnic work for display, the mother feels that the quilts should be used on a daily basis; that is, they should be used for a practical purpose.
As she reflects upon Dee's visit, the mother ponders the physical and psychological difference between her two girls. She recalls how Dee would read to her and Maggie "without pity."
She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know.
But, Maggie, who cannot see well, "stumbles along good-naturedly," whereas Dee has always found fault in everything. This personality difference becomes vividly clear to the mother when Dee asks for the quilts so she can put them on display. For, Dee will not turn these guilts down as she gets into bed, she will not look upon the square of cloth from the Northern uniform of her grandfather, she will not recognize the scraps of dresses that Grandma Dee wore fifty years ago, and she will not recognize the Paisley scraps from Grandpa Jarrell's shirts. In effect, Dee will not understand her heritage and the tradition of quilting, the piecing together of the lives of family members. But, Maggie, who will use the quilts everyday, will surround herself with her family and the history of this family. As the mother so well comprehends, this heritage will warm and comfort Maggie and provide meaning in her life. Therefore, the mother takes the quilts and gives them to Maggie, who truly deserves to keep them because she will always remember the weaving of her family members' lives with hers.
The title of Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" reflects the different views of the characters in the story toward heritage. The quilts are the obvious symbol in the story. They are made of pieces of material that were passed down to Mama's mother and then, in turn, passed on to Mama and ultimately will go to Maggie. The quilts have been remade over time, and Maggie knows the history of individual pieces of material in the quilts. Maggie also has learned how to quilt and will someday remake the quilts again, adding new materials to them and adding to the family heritage.
Dee, on the other hand, wants only to display the quilts. Dee has rejected her family history, even rejecting her own name, which is a family name. Now Dee has returned from college with a newly acquired and rather superficial appreciation for the items in their home, a home of which she was once ashamed, according to Mama. She has contempt for Mama's and Maggie's view of the items she wants to take with her to show off for her new friends (items including top of the butter churn that Mama and Maggie still use and the butter dish off their table). Dee sees these items as artifacts not suitable for "everyday use."
Dee's name is also symbolic. She wants to be called Wangero, an African name, now, and not Dee, which she says is the name of "people who oppress me." Her mother points out that Dee is a family name that, like the items Dee wants to take, has been passed down through generations. Dee believes she has found a more authentic heritage by exploring her African roots. On the other hand, Mama and Maggie live within their heritage everyday, and it is not something simply on display. Every item has a personal history and connection to loved ones, some of whom are now gone. This is not to say Walker is criticizing the Black Power movement of the 1960's, by which Dee seems to have been influenced. It simply means that Dee's interpretation of it is superficial. Remember, when Dee went away to college, Mama had offered her a quilt, but Dee did not want it then because it was "old-fashioned, out of style." Apparently, quilts are now in style again.