In what ways do the quilts hold different meanings for Dee and for Maggie in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's clear that the quilts are, to Maggie and Mama both, things of sentimental value. When Dee asks if she can take them, Mama is reluctant to give them up because they contain "scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty or more years ago," and a section of Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform from the Civil War. To Mama, they represent the family history; to Maggie, in receiving the quilts when she marries John Thomas, they will be a recognition of the fact that she is embarking on a journey which will, hopefully, lead to a continuation of that family history. While Dee is horrified at the thought that Maggie would put the quilts to "everyday use," Mama says, "I hope she will." For Mama and Maggie, the quilts are symbols of family love; they were made to be used, and using them is a way of honoring the memories of those who came before. Maggie says she can remember Grandma Dee "without the quilts," but it is clear that they are reminders of her grandmother for her.

As far as Dee is concerned, however, the quilts represent a history that has passed, or which she would like to have passed, rather than a living tradition of which she is part. She wants to acquire the quilts as trophies to hang up on her wall as a symbol of the way black people used to live. She believes that this means she is enlightened and is moving forward in rejecting the way her family has lived in the recent past and embracing a half-imagined African heritage. She doesn't realize that, in taking the quilts away from their intended purpose and hanging them on her wall, she is rejecting her own true heritage rather than celebrating it.

In depositing the quilts firmly in Maggie's lap, then, standing up to Dee for the first time, Mama is making a clear statement that it is Dee, not Maggie, who "just doesn't understand" her heritage.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The quilts hold different meanings for Maggie and Dee because heritage means different things to Maggie and Dee.  For Maggie, heritage is something living, something that exists in the present: Maggie and Mama routinely use various items that were handmade by family members living or dead.  Heritage is about remembering the grandparents and aunts and uncles that have passed on, who have stories to keep passing down.  It isn't tied up in keeping things nice, or putting them on a shelf; it's about using the benches and the dasher and the quilts, even if that means they wear out and fall apart (because those people made those things to be used).

For Dee, heritage is about preserving things, not using them.  Heritage is something past for her, and she wants to acquire the quilts so that she can hang them on the wall.  She isn't connected to her heritage at all; she doesn't know the stories, and she doesn't care to.  The quilts seem to be something to show off, to hang up, not to enjoy or to use.  They represent Maggie's connection to her heritage and her family, and they represent Dee's alienation from them.