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In Alice Walker’s story Everyday Use, you could say that the theme is that people sometimes fail to look at others, even their own family members, as human beings. Keep in mind that there are many ways to express the theme of a work, and ten people could easily come up with ten different ideas about the theme of any particular work.
In Everyday Use, one of the main characters, Dee, comes home from college to visit her family (her sister Maggie and Mama). During her visit her words and actions reveal that she looks at her family as “artifacts” from a bygone era. Her attitude is evident in the way she then goes on to claim household items that she wants. Even though these items are part of her family’s everyday life, she views them as “museum pieces.”
At one point, Dee looks at the family’s churn and says,
This churn top is what I need . . . didn’t Uncle Buddy whittle it out of tree you all used to have?
It’s ironic that Dee uses the word “need” here, because she doesn’t really need it all. Her family however, does need it, as they still make their own butter. A moment later, Dee, in her excitement, asks for more:
Uh huh, . . . and I want the dasher, too.
After the family eats dinner together, Dee declares that she wants to take the quilts that had been made by Grandma Dee back home with her as a decorative keepsake. This is a problem because these quilts have been promised to Dee’s sister Maggie, who is to be married soon. When Dee hears this she shows her complete failure to understand her family with the following remark:
Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts . . . She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.
This statement shows what Dee thinks of her sister Maggie and her family in general. They are “backward.” Their lives are outdated and inconsequential. She simply is not looking at them as people, but as historical relics.
Finally, at the end of the story, Dee is leaving. Her mother has not allowed her to take the quilts from Maggie. Standing up to the headstrong Dee is a big deal, something her mother has never done before. Dee is taken aback by it, and her last words to her sister Maggie are:
You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live, you’d never know it.
Dee isn’t being consciously condescending here. It is just her nature. She cannot understand that others could be happy living a simple, common life. She cannot see her mother and sister for what they are, uncomplicated people who are satisfied with their lives.
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