The Quilting Metaphor in "Everyday Use"
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...
(The entire section is 4,950 words.)