What is the theme of "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

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In Everyday Use , there is a conflict between how Dee views the world and objects around her (and her relationship to them), and how Mama and Maggie view the material world. Dee represents a human desire to assign cultural and artistic meaning to practical objects, particularly to items hand...

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In Everyday Use, there is a conflict between how Dee views the world and objects around her (and her relationship to them), and how Mama and Maggie view the material world. Dee represents a human desire to assign cultural and artistic meaning to practical objects, particularly to items hand made by a loved one. She wishes to transform everyday objects that are used by her family, such as the butter churner and the quilts, into artistic representations of her family's life. Dee appreciates objects for their visual and cultural significance, rather than their use.

Conversely, Mama and Maggie appreciate objects for their practical application. The quilts are intended to be used to keep one warm, and while Dee covets the quilts made by her mother for their visual beauty and connection to her family, Mama appreciates the quilts for their use. Mama gives the quilts to Maggie because she knows that Maggie will use the quilts as they were intended. The theme of this short story can be understood in this tension between appreciation of practicality and appreciation of visual beauty and sentimentality.

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An apparent theme in "Everyday Use" can be seen in the title of the short story. Mama sees value and beauty in the usefulness and practicality of people and objects. For example, Mama describes her own physical appearance and qualities as being useful to her life. She has strong bones and "man" hands that allow her to survive and perform her duties. She wears clothing not for show but for practical purposes as seen in her flannel nightgown that keeps her warm.

Dee, in contrast, sees beauty and value in more superficial qualities. Mama knows that Dee would rather see her "a hundred pounds lighter" and with lighter skin. When Dee arrives at Mama's house, Mama notices that Dee wears a long, brightly colored dress and is adorned in earrings and bracelets in spite of the hot weather.

Dee wishes to take two of Mama's quilts. The quilts contain scraps of material taken from clothing worn by relatives and are hand-stitched around the edges. Mama explains that she plans to give the quilts to Maggie. Dee becomes upset because she feels Maggie will not appreciate the quilts and will put them to "everyday use." While that seems shameful to Dee, Mama sees "everyday use" as beautiful. Mama stands by her decision to give the quilts to Maggie because Maggie will use the quilts as they are intended to be used. The theme of the usefulness of objects and people becomes evident in the end of the story as well when Mama states that "Maggie knows how to quilt." Mama sees beauty in Maggie where Dee does not.

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One major theme of this story is that one's heritage is meant to be used and made a part of daily life, not preserved and put on a shelf or a wall.  Although mama and Maggie still regularly use their butter churn, Dee wants to take the dasher and the churn top as souvenirs of her heritage.  She doesn't intend to use them, as she says, "'I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table, [...] and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.'"  Dee happily takes the items that her family uses to prepare their food on a daily basis because they have been handmade by other family members, and she seems to want to have something to show off.  It's the same for the quilts.  Dee says that she wants to hang them on the wall when they've been promised to Maggie, and she says that Maggie would be "backward enough" to use them every day, as if that were the wrong thing to do with them.  Mama realizes how wrong, how selfish, Dee is, and it seems that we, the readers, are meant to as well.  Dee's idea of heritage is wrong, but mama and Maggie have it right.

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