Everyday Use Theme
What is the theme of "Everyday Use" and how is that theme communicated?
The main theme in the story concerns personal values and identity. Maggie and Dee grew up as sisters in the same home, but they could not be more different. To Dee, home was a place from which to escape as soon as possible on the way to a "better" life. She hungered for education and material wealth. She had no meaningful relationship with her mother and sister and felt no interest in or connection to her grandparents and great grandparents. Dee chose to identify with her African ancestors while rejecting her family. She is portrayed as self-centered, insensitive, and abrasive. Maggie, in contrast, shared a loving bond with her mother and embraced her family history. Though far less educated and in no way stylish like her sister, Maggie and her values are far more appealing than Dee's.
The major theme develops through the disposition of a family quilt promised to Maggie when she married. Dee cares nothing about the history of the quilt or her grandmother who sewed it, the woman for whom she was named. To Dee, it represents a "priceless" piece of art to hang on the wall. Maggie, however, values the quilt because it was made by her grandmother whom she remembers with love.
In giving the quilt to Maggie, their mother makes the major theme of the story quite clear. Dee's values are condemned. In rejecting her personal heritage in favor of a different identity, Dee had lost an important part of her life that she was too foolish to even miss.
Alice Walker's "Everday Use" is designed around the theme of appreciating the past & one's family. This can be a difficult task, at times, because our past & family is so familiar to us (like everyday objects) that we often take it/them for granted.
Walker skillfully proves her point through the two sisters, Dee and Maggie (through the eyes of their mother). Dee wants a contemporary identity, but one tied to her African heritage, which she believes to be more important. Scornfully, she tells her mother not to call her Dee anymore:
"What happened to 'Dee'?" I wanted to know.
"She's dead," Wangero (Dee) said. "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me."
Wangero (Dee) thinks she has been named after a white woman. Her mother assures her she was named after her grandmother, but Dee argues that the line goes back to whites.
Maggie, on the other hand, embraces her past, adoring the handmade quilts her grandmother made. Here is revealed the primary difference between the sisters: Dee wants the quilts because they are "art objects" and argues that Maggie "would be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
Everyday use, in the narrator's opinion, is the way to value the past, to keep it alive. It is not keeping it in a museum, or seperating yourself from your family.
The question of identity as it pertains to African-American women in the 1960s and 1970s (as well as now) is an important theme in the short story. The quilts represent generations of Johnson women, a series of mother-daughter relationships that have constructed identities through various conditions. The quilts are art as well, art crafted by women from one generation to the next, signifying that art is grounded in a community of women through relationships, and by passing on this art, they also pass on a shared identity of their unique African (and American) culture. Dee's name change shows her wanting to go back behind this immediate history and identity to an imagined one which is imagined rather than real, one that ignores all that quilting represents in this family. In trying to get to her "roots" as an African-American woman, to claim an identity that is "African," she not only denigrates the relationships of women that construct who she is but also "buys into" a false identity (according to the author) manufactured as a fad rather than based on lived lives.
One important subject that Alice Walker addresses in her short story is humans' varied perspectives of heritage. While it is common to feel sympathy for Mama and Maggie in "Everyday Use" because Dee seems so condescending toward them, Walker doesn't necessarily expect readers to view Mama and Maggie's perspective of heritage as the sole right one. Even though Dee is not as sympathetic a character as the other two women in her family, she is still an admirable figure. She is ambitious and has taken the initiative to see what opportunities exist for her in the world, and she simply has a different view of her heritage and how to show appreciation for it than Mama and Maggie do (i.e., the quilts).
Family heritage and materialism are intertwined themes in this story. Dee wants things from her childhood home for their monetary value and for the status of owning valuable "objects".
Maggie loves and wants them because they represent generations of family and history, not for how much they are worth in dollars.
The short story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker addresses the relationship between two daughters as they vie for their mother's acceptance and love. The quilt in the story represents the item that both girls value. Dee, the daughter who has gone away from her poor environment and made something of herself financially, desires the quilt to display like a materialistic item.
Maggie, the shy daughter who was burned in a fire, wants to use the quilt in the home. She really does not want the quilt so much as her desire to feel as important to her mother as her sister.
The mother chooses to give her daughter Maggie the quilt. Maggie feels pride that her mother has chosen her to receive the quilt and her self-esteem is raised.
The theme that I recognize is the Daughter's competition for the mother's love and pride in them.