The Quilting Metaphor in "Everyday Use"

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Alice Walker's early story "Everyday Use" is clustered around a central image: quilting and quilts. Her use of this metaphor is important to critics because she went on to develop the theme more fully in her later work, especially the novel The Color Purple. Simply put, the quilt is a metaphor for the ways in which discarded scraps and fragments may be made into a unified, even beautiful, whole. Quilting symbolizes the process out of which the unimportant and meaningless may be transformed into the valued and useful. Walker finds this metaphor especially useful for describing African-American women's lives, which traditional history and literature have often ignored and misrepresented.

Alice Walker is not the first to turn her attention to the importance of cloth making in women's culture. Women have been associated with textiles since the days of recorded history. Although weaving and sewing has often been mandatory labor, women have historically endowed their work with special meanings and significance. In classical mythology the fates were portrayed as women, but nearly all mythologies bear traces of the Triple Goddess as the three fates, rulers of past, present, and future. One type of goddesses spin time, another group measure it and weave events together, and yet another group cut off lengths of cloth. In Homer's Odyssey, for example, Odysseus's wife Penelope uses her skill at the loom to keep suitors at bay until her husband returns.

Walker herself explained the significance of quilting (and gardening) to the collective lives of women, especially those of African-American women, in an essay written the year after "Everyday Use" was first published. In the essay titled "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," Walker asks us to consider what would have become of black women artists who lived in slavery and oppression. Would they have been "driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release"? Walker explains how she discovered her mothers' gardens, by which she means her creative female ancestors. Having looked ''high when she should have been looking low,'' Walker discovers that "the answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it." When she sees a stunning quilt of the crucifixion hanging in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and sees that it is credited only to "anonymous Black woman in Alabama," she knows she is in the presence of "an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use."

Critic Barbara Christian reads Walker's "Everyday Use" as a sort of fictional conclusion to the essay ''In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.'' Christian notes that Walker's major insight in the essay is her "illumination of the creative legacy of 'ordinary' black women of the South." Walker, according to Christian, does more than acknowledge that the quilts these women produced can be regarded as art; she is impressed "with their functional beauty and by the process that produced them." In other words, Walker is asking us to reconsider whether quilts can be counted as art. But more than that, Christian claims, she is also suggesting that the truly artistic objects may be those that have an everyday use. In "Everyday Use," Walker dramatizes the "use and misuse of the concept of heritage" using the quilt as unifying object and metaphor, and at the same time challenges our definitions of what counts as art in our culture.

The conflict between Maggie and Dee (or, Wangero, as she prefers to be called) is about whether heritage exists in things or in spirit, or process. Dee, who ''at sixteen had a style of her own: and knew what style was," has recently returned to her black roots because they are fashionable. As Maggie and her mother watch warily, she goes around the house collecting objects from her heritage that she now sees as valuable. When she gets to the quilts a conflict arises. Her mother recalls that Dee had been offered a quilt when she went away to college, but had then declared it "old fashioned, out of style." Now however, her experience with the larger culture, with "words, lies, other folks' habits," gives her a frame within which to take possession of her own heritage. Walker dramatizes this when Dee declares that she plans to hang, or frame, the quilts, "as though, the mother comments to herself, 'that was the only thing you could do with quilts.'" Dee seems to think that art is always something that comes in a frame.

Dee views her heritage as an artifact which she can possess and appreciate from a distance instead of as a process in which she is always intimately involved. Dee's notion of framing a quilt is in stark contrast to the frame on which the quilts had been made, according to the mother: ''First they had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them." For Dee's mother and her mother and sister, the value of the quilt has to do at least in part with the communal nature of its making. For the women who are, in Houston Baker's and Charlotte Pierce-Baker's words, "accustomed to living and working with fragments,'' the scraps and patches handed down through the generations and stitched into a meaningful and beautiful whole have a value all their own that Dee cannot even approximate when she declares them "priceless."

According to Dee, Maggie's problem is that she does not understand her ''heritage,'' and as a consequence she will never make anything of herself. Maggie may not understand what Dee means by "heritage," but she "knows how to quilt," and furthermore she ''can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts.'' Unlike her sister who is dressed in an outfit made out of whole cloth that is so loud it hurts her mother's eyes, Maggie's own scarred body resembles the faded patches of the quilt, where stitching resembles healing. She is literally making something of herself every day, just as she and her mother make things every day. Baker and Pierce-Baker call Maggie "the arisen goddess of Walker's story... the sacred figure who bears the scarifications of experience and knows how to convert patches into robustly patterned and beautifully quilted wholes." Dee's final dismissal of her sister—"She'll probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use''—is meant to sway the mother to her side. Instead, her mother suddenly sees through Dee's artistic frames, and contemptuously calling her ''Miss Wangero," snatches the quilts from her hands. She recognizes that like Maggie and herself, ''quilts are designed for everyday use, pieced wholes defying symmetry and pattern,... signs of the sacred generations of women who have always been alien to a world of literate words and stylish fancy" (Baker and Pierce-Baker). Dee's final gesture is to put on a pair of sunglasses ''that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin," which suggests that despite this lesson in what heritage really means, she will continue to see the world through the frames she chooses.

For Barbara Christian as well as Houston Baker and Charlotte Pierce-Baker, the mother's recognition of Maggie's connection to quilts and to quilting is crucial to the story. The mother's choice of Maggie over "Miss Wangero" signifies Walker's discovery of her own literary ancestor, thus writing in fiction a conclusion to the essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." Baker and Pierce-Baker argue that when Maggie finally smiles "a real smile" at the end of the story as she and her mother watch Dee's car disappear in a cloud of dust, it is because she knows her "mother's holy recognition of the scarred daughter's sacred status as quilter is the best gift of a hard-pressed womankind to the fragmented goddess of the present."

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, for Short Stones for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Piedmont-Marton is a professor of English and the coordinator of the writing center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'

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Commentaries on Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" typically center on Mama's awakening to one daughter's superficiality and to the other's deep-seated understanding of heritage. Most readers agree that when Mama takes the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie, she confirms her younger daughter's self-worth: metaphorically, she gives Maggie her voice. Elaine Hedges, for example, refers to the "reconciliation scene" in which "Mama's gift of the family quilts to Maggie empowers the previously silenced and victimized daughter." The text underscores such a reading by stating that immediately after the incident Maggie sits with her "mouth open."

This story is distinctive, however, in that Walker stresses not only the importance of language but also the destructive effects of its misuse. Clearly, Dee privileges language over silence, as she demonstrates in her determination to be educated and in the importance she places on her name. Rather than providing a medium for newfound awareness and for community, however, verbal skill equips Dee to oppress and manipulate others and to isolate herself; when she lived at home, she read to her sister and mother "without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.'' Mama recalls that Dee "washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand." Dee uses words to wash, burn, press, and shove. We are told that the "nervous girls" and "furtive boys" whom she regarded as her friends "worshiped the well-turned phrase" and her "scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye."

It is not surprising, then, that Mama, mistrustful of language, expresses herself in the climactic scene of the story not through words but through deeds: she hugs Maggie to her, drags her in the room where Dee sits holding the quilts, snatches the quilts from Dee, and dumps them into Maggie's lap. Only as an afterthought does she speak at all, telling Dee to "take one or two of the others." Mama's actions, not her words, silence the daughter who has, up to this point, used language to control others and separate herself from the community: Mama tells us that Dee turns and leaves the room ''without a word.''

In much of Walker's work, a character's dawning sense of self is represented not only by the acquisition of an individual voice but also through integration into a community. Mama's new appreciation of Maggie is significant because it represents the establishment of a sisterhood between mother and daughter. Just before taking the quilts out of Dee's hands, Mama tells us, ''I did something I never had done before." The "something" to which she refers is essentially two actions: Mama embraces Maggie and says "no" to Dee for the first time. Since we are told that she held Maggie when she was burned in the fire, and since Mama's personality suggests that she would most likely hug her daughter often. She is of course referring not merely to the literal hug but to the first spiritual embrace, representing her decision no longer to judge her younger daughter by the shallow standards Dee embodies—criteria that Mama has been using to measure both Maggie and herself up until the climax of the story. When Mama acts on Maggie's behalf, she is responding to the largely nonverbal message that her younger daughter has been sending for some time, but which Mama herself has been unable fully to accept. Now Maggie and Mama are allied in their rejection of Dee's attempts to devalue their lifestyle, and their new sense of community enables Maggie to smile ''a real smile, not scared." Significantly, the story ends with the two of them sitting in silence, ''just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.''

Ultimately, however, Mama has the last word; it is she, after all, who tells the story. Yet her control over the text is won gradually. Walker employs an unusual narrative structure to parallel Mama's development as she strengthens her voice and moves toward community with Maggie. Rather than reporting the entire event in retrospect, Mama relates the first half of the story as it occurs, using present and future tenses up until the moment Dee announces her new name. The commentary that Mama makes about herself and Maggie in the first portion of the story is therefore made before the awakening that she undergoes during the quilt episode—before she is able to reject completely Dee's desire that she and Maggie be something that they are not. Prior to the encounter with Dee over the quilts, although Mama at times speaks sarcastically about Dee's selfish attitude, she nonetheless dreams repeatedly of appearing on a television program "the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake," wielding a "quick and witty tongue." Mama's distaste for Dee's egotism is tempered by her desire to be respected by her daughter. In part, then, Mama has come to define herself in terms of her failure to meet the standards of what Lindsey Tucker calls a "basically white middle-class identity"—the white-male-dominated system portrayed in the television show. When Mama holds up her own strengths next to those valued by Dee and the white Johnny Carson society, she sees herself as one poised always in a position of fear, "with one foot raised in flight."...

The subsequent action of the story, however, in no way supports Mama's reading of her younger daughter. Instead, Maggie's behavior—even her limited use of language—conveys disgust with her sister rather than envy and awe. She responds to Hakim-a-barber, to Dee's hair, and to the discussion over the name "Dee" with the guttural "uhnnnh," a sound of revulsion. Even prior to Dee's arrival, when Mama recalls [Dee's] vow never to bring any friends home with her lest she be embarrassed, Maggie questions, "Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends? " She further reveals her distaste for Dee not by standing hopelessly, as her mother had predicted, but by acting decisively: she pulls away when Hakim-a-barber tries to hug her; she acts uninterested, her hand "limp as a fish," when he tries to teach her an unfamiliar handshake; and when she hears Dee asking for the quilts that are hers by right, she drops something noisily in the kitchen and slams the door. Whereas her mother describes Maggie as "cowering behind me," Maggie's first remarks are unsolicited, direct, and informed: "Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash. ... His name was Henry, but they called him Stash." Her mother's observation that Maggie's voice was "so low you almost couldn't hear her" merely amplifies the vast difference between Dee's aggressive, oppressive, self-seeking use of words and Maggie's calm, selective, community-building use of language.

The story shifts abruptly to the past tense immediately after Dee declares that she has changed her name. Up until now, Mama has been caught in the tension between her annoyance with Dee and her instinctive desire to be ''the way my daughter would want me to be." Yet when Dee goes so far as to disown her family identity, Mama reaches a watershed. As Hirsch explains, Mama has previously been unable to express her anger at Dee, but now her older daughter has pushed her too far; now she is able to objectify the situation, to distance herself from it. The use of present-tense verbs in the first half of the story suggests less narrative authority: if Mama is telling the events as they happen, she is merely reacting. By shifting to the past tense, Walker strengthens Mama's voice, giving her more control. That the tense shift is subtle—it is buried in the very center of the story, in the middle of a conversation—underscores the fact that although Mama has crossed an important line, she is as yet unable fully to recognize or articulate her new position. As the story moves toward the turning point, however, she gains increasing emotional distance from Dee and is ultimately able to tell her "no."

Until midway through the story, Dee's abuse of language appears to have successfully undermined the hierarchy privileging language over silence in most of Walker's works. Walker, however, cleverly derails Dee's efforts to subvert language by giving Mama more narrative control as the story unfolds—authority that she uses to affirm her allegiance to Maggie and to assert her emotional freedom from Dee. In the final paragraph of the story, Dee is not mentioned by name at all. Instead, Mama mentions only "the sunglasses," which she and Maggie find amusing, and the "car dust," which settles as Dee rides away. Maggie, on the other hand, is mentioned twice by name and is referred to a third time when Mama describes the two of them sitting together on the porch. Dee's absence in the final lines contrasts with her overbearing presence in the beginning of Mama's story, when she says, ''I will wait for her'' and ''Maggie will be nervous.'' Indeed, in the end, Dee's oppressive voice is mute, for Mama has narrated her out of the story altogether.

Source: Nancy Tuten, "Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use,'" in Explicator, Volume 51, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 125-28.

Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

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A patch is a fragment. It is a vestige of wholeness that stands as a sign of loss and a challenge to creative design. As a remainder or remnant, the patch may symbolize rupture and impoverishment; it may be defined by the faded glory of the already gone. But as a fragment, it is also rife with explosive potential of the yet-to-be-discovered. Like woman, it is a liminal element between wholes.

Weaving, shaping, sculpting, or quilting in order to create a kaleidoscopic and momentary array is tantamount to providing an improvisational response to chaos. Such activity represents a nonce response to ceaseless scattering; it constitutes survival strategy and motion in the face of dispersal. A patchwork quilt, laboriously and affectionately crafted from bits of worn overalls, shredded uniforms, tattered petticoats, and outgrown dresses stands as a signal instance of a patterned wholeness in the African diaspora.

Traditional African cultures were scattered by the European slave trade throughout the commercial time and space of the New World. The transmutation of quilting, a European, feminine tradition, into a black women's folk art, represents an innovative fusion of African cloth manufacture, piecing, and appliqué with awesome New World experiences—and expediencies. The product that resulted was, in many ways, a double patch. The hands that pieced the master's rigidly patterned quilts by day were often the hands that crafted a more functional design in slave cabins by night. The quilts of Afro-America offer a sui generis context (a weaving together) of experiences and a storied, vernacular representation of lives conducted in the margins, ever beyond an easy and acceptable wholeness. In many ways, the quilts of Afro-America resemble the work of all those dismembered gods who transmute fragments and remainders into the light and breath of a new creation. And the sorority of quiltmakers, fragment weavers, holy patchers, possesses a sacred wisdom that it hands down from generation to generation of those who refuse the center for the ludic and unconfined spaces of the margins....

The Johnson women, who populate the generations represented in Walker's short story "Everyday Use,'' are inhabitants of southern cabins who have always worked with "scraps" and seen what they could make of them. The result of their labor has been a succession of mothers and daughters surviving the ignominies of Jim Crow life and passing on ancestral blessings to descendants. The guardians of the Johnson homestead when the story commences are the mother—"a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands"—and her daughter Maggie, who has remained with her ''chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground" ten or twelve years ago. The mood at the story's beginning is one of ritualistic ''waiting'': "I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon." The subject awaited is the other daughter, Dee. Not only has the yard (as ritual ground) been prepared for the arrival of a goddess, but the sensibilities and costumes of Maggie and her mother have been appropriately attuned for the occasion. The mother daydreams of television shows where parents and children are suddenly—and pleasantly—reunited, banal shows where chatty hosts oversee tearful reunions. In her fantasy, she weighs a hundred pounds less, is several shades brighter in complexion, and possesses a devastatingly quick tongue. She returns abruptly to real life meditation, reflecting on her own heroic, agrarian accomplishments in slaughtering hogs and cattle and preparing their meat for winter nourishment. She is a robust provider who has gone to the people of her church and raised money to send her light-complexioned, lithe-figured, and ever-dissatisfied daughter Dee to college. Today, as she waits in the purified yard, she notes the stark differences between Maggie and Dee and recalls how the "last dingy gray board of the house [fell] in toward the red-hot brick chimney'' when her former domicile burned. Maggie was scarred horribly by the fire, but Dee, who had hated the house with an intense fury, stood ''off under the sweet gum tree ... a look of concentration on her face." A scarred and dull Maggie, who has been kept at home and confined to everyday offices, has but one reaction to the fiery and vivacious arrival of her sister: "I hear Maggie suck in her breath. 'Uhnnnh,' is what it sounds like. Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road. 'Uhnnnh....'"

The dramatic conflict of the story surrounds the definition of holiness. The ritual purification of earth and expectant atmosphere akin to that of Beckett's famous drama (''I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon.") prepare us for the narrator's epiphanic experience at the story's conclusion.

Near the end of "Everyday Use," the mother (who is the tale's narrator) realizes that Dee (a.k.a., Wangero) is a fantasy child, a perpetrator and victim of: "words, lies, other folks's habits." The energetic daughter is as frivolously careless of other peoples' lives as the fiery conflagration that she had watched ten years previously. Assured by the makers of American fashion that "black" is currently "beautiful," she has conformed her own "style" to that notion. Hers is a trendy ''blackness'' cultivated as "art" and costume. She wears "a dress down to the ground...bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits.'' And she says of quilts she has removed from a trunk at the foot of her mother's bed: "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use." "Art" is, thus, juxtaposed with "everyday use" in Walker's short story, and the fire goddess Dee, who has achieved literacy only to burn "us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know,'' is revealed as a perpetuator of institutional theories of aesthetics. (Such theories hold that "art" is, in fact, defined by social institutions such as museums, book reviews, and art dealers.) Of the two quilts that she has extracted from the trunk, she exclaims: "But they're 'priceless.'" And so the quilts are by "fashionable" standards of artistic value, standards that motivate the answer that Dee provides to her mother's question: "'Well,' I said, stumped. 'What would you do with them?"' Dee's answer: "Hang them." The stylish daughter's entire life has been one of "framed" experience; she has always sought a fashionably "aesthetic" distance from southern expediencies. (And how unlike quilt frames that signal social activity and a coming to completeness are her frames.) Her concentrated detachment from the fire, which so nearly symbolizes her role vis-á-vis the Afro-American community (her black friends ''worshipped ... the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye") is characteristic of her attitude. Her goals include the appropriation of exactly what she needs to remain fashionable in the eyes of a world of pretended wholeness, a world of banal television shows, framed and institutionalized art, and Polaroid cameras—devices that instantly process and record experience as ''framed'' photograph. Ultimately, the framed Polaroid photograph represents the limits of Dee's vision....

What is at stake in the world of Walker's short story, then, is not the prerogatives of Afro-American women as "wayward artists." Individualism and a flouting of convention in order to achieve "artistic" success constitute acts of treachery in "Everyday Use." For Dee, if she is anything, is a fashionable denizen of America's art/fantasy world. She is removed from the "everyday uses" of a black community that she scorns, misunderstands, burns. Certainly, she is "unconventionally" black. As such, however, she is an object of holy contempt from the archetypal weaver of black wholeness from tattered fragments. Maggie's "Uhnnnh" and her mother's designation "Miss Wangero" are gestures of utter contempt. Dee's sellout to fashion and fantasy in a television-manipulated world of ''artistic" frames is a representation of the complicity of the clerks. Not "art," then, but use or function is the signal in Walker's fiction of sacred creation.

Quilts designed for everyday use, pieced wholes defying symmetry and pattern, are signs of the scarred generations of women who have always been alien to a world of literate words and stylish fantasies. The crafted fabric of Walker's story is the very weave of blues and jazz traditions in the Afro-American community, daringly improvisational modes that confront breaks in the continuity of melody (or theme) by riffing. The asymmetrical quilts of southern black women are like the off-centered stomping of the jazz solo or the innovative musical showmanship of the blues interlude. They speak a world in which the deceptively shuffling Maggie is capable of a quick change into goddess, an unlikely holy figure whose dues are paid in full. Dee's anger at her mother is occasioned principally by the mother's insistence that paid dues make Maggie a more likely bearer of sacredness, tradition, and true value than the "brighter" sister. "You just don't understand," she says to her mother. Her assessment is surely correct where institutional theories and systems of "art" are concerned. The mother's cognition contains no categories for framed art. The mother works according to an entirely different scale of use and value, finally assigning proper weight to the virtues of Maggie and to the ancestral importance of the pieced quilts that she has kept out of use for so many years. Smarting, perhaps, from Dee's designation of the quilts as "old-fashioned," the mother has buried the covers away in a trunk. At the end of Walker's story, however, she has become aware of her own mistaken value judgments, and she pays homage that is due to Maggie. The unlikely daughter is a griot of the vernacular who remembers actors and events in a distinctively black ''historical'' drama....

But the larger appeal of ''Everyday Use'' is its privileging of a distinctively woman's craft as the signal mode of confronting chaos through a skillful blending of patches. In The Color Purple, Celie's skill as a fabric worker completely transmutes the order of Afro-American existence. Not only do her talents with a needle enable her to wear the pants in the family, they also allow her to become the maker of pants par excellence. Hence, she becomes a kind of unifying goddess of patch and stitch, an instructress of mankind who bestows the gift of consolidating fragments. Her abusive husband Albert says: "When I was growing up ... I use to try to sew along with mama cause that's what she was always doing. But everybody laughed at me. But you know, I liked it.'' "Well," says Celie, "nobody gon laugh at you now.... Here, help me stitch in these pockets."

A formerly "patched" separateness of woman is transformed through fabric craft into a new unity. Quilting, sewing, stitching are bonding activities that begin with the godlike authority and daring of women, but that are given (as a gift toward community) to men. The old disparities are transmuted into a vision best captured by the scene that Shug suggests to Celie: ''But, Celie, try to imagine a city full of these shining, blueblack people wearing brilliant blue robes with designs like fancy quilt patterns." The heavenly city of quilted design is a form of unity wrested by the sheer force of the woman quiltmaker's will from chaos. As a community, it stands as both a sign of the potential effects of black women's creativity in America, and as an emblem of the effectiveness of women's skillful confrontation of patches. Walker's achievement as a southern, black, woman novelist is her own successful application of the holy patching that was a staple of her grandmother's and great-grandmother's hours of everyday ritual. "Everyday Use" is, not surprisingly, dedicated to "your grandmama": to those who began the line of converting patches into works of southern genius.

Source: Houston A Baker, Jr. and Charlotte Pierce-Baker, "Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use,'" in The Southern Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, July, 1985, pp. 706-20.

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Critical Overview