Discussion Topic

Exploring the central conflict and its representation through symbols and literary devices in "Everyday Use."

Summary:

The central conflict in "Everyday Use" is between tradition and modernity, represented through symbols like the family quilts. Literary devices such as irony and characterization highlight the differing values of the characters, with Dee embracing a superficial view of heritage while Mama and Maggie value practical and emotional connections to their ancestry.

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What are the inner and outer conflicts in "Everyday Use"?

In "Everyday Use" the inner and outer conflicts are interrelated.  They both involve the female culture of the Johnson family, as symbolized by the heirlooms of the quilts and the butter churn.

The external conflict is mainly between Mrs. Johnson and Dee over who should receive the heirlooms.  Also of importance is Dee's dress and language, both of which reveal her trendy new Pan-African culture--a refusal of her native domestic, feminine, agrarian American culture.  Her new afro, African garb, and Islamic greetings are signs that she has turned her back of her mother's family traditions.

All three Johnson women face internal conflicts.  Mrs. Johnson battles her desire to be honored publicly as a matriarch of the family (on the Johnny Carson show).  She also must protect the family traditions by rewarding Maggie, the younger daughter, and not Dee, the older.  Obviously, it is tough for a mother to forsake a birthright.

Maggie feels shame for not being as pretty and educated as her older sister.  Her inferiority complex comes from having been literally burned by her old house.  As such, she will forever be a domestic in one.  But, at the end, she feels great joy at having been given the quilts, and she is honored as the future matriarch of the family.

Dee does not exhibit much internal conflict.  If she had, she might have seen how arrogant and selfish she is in her demands for the heirlooms.  She wants to display them as relics of her African bloodline, not her immediate domestic culture.  As such, she becomes an impostor to her mother, one who doesn't deserve the status of matriarch.

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How do key objects in "Everyday Use" highlight the story's basic conflict?

The objects in "Everyday Use" are cultural heirlooms, symbols of suffering, slavery, and female domesticity.  As such, they are worthless to outsiders, but valuable to the women inside the family as emblems of status and matriarchy.  So, Wangero (explicitly) and Maggie (implicitly) compete over them, much like two daughters competing over their mother's love.  Whoever possesses them by the end will be the next matriarch and family historian.

Usually, heirlooms are passed down to males by order of birthright: the eldest son gets the goods.  But, in the maternal world of "Everyday Use," there isn't a worthy male in a country mile.  So, Mrs. Johnson must decide, de facto style, who to bequeath the quilts, churn, and--ultimately--the house.

Originally, Mama expects it to be her older, more beautiful, more accomplished daughter Dee.  After all, she has taken the name of two former matriarchs--Grandma Dee and Big Dee.  She has been groomed for matriarchal status her whole life, but she turns her back on her culture by adopting another: the fad culture of a Black Muslim nationalist.  She changes her name, appearance, and attitude.  No longer is she a humble domestic; rather, she is a spoiled, arrogant, albeit educated, woman.

As such, Mrs. Johnson feels compelled to give the items, title, and legacy to Maggie, even though she feels unworthy.  Mrs. Johnson knows these possessions are worthless, but--as a whole--they are meaningful to these women, for they are living documents of their domestic past.

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What is one symbol in "Everyday Use" and how does it convey the story's theme?

The family home acts as a symbol in "Everyday Use," demonstrating the comforts Maggie and Mama find in their heritage. Mama takes great pride in her simple home, taking care to sweep the dirt yard into patterns which are "clean and wavy." She comments that the yard itself is like an "extended living room" and notes the care she takes to line the edges with tiny grooves. Mama and Maggie enjoy spending time in the home, which is filled with items passed down through members of their family, made by their own hands: quilts, a butter churn, and wooden benches.

In contrast, Dee hates the old house and escapes as soon as possible into a life of education, which she deems superior. When she returns home, she searches the house for these handmade items, wanting to claim them as relics to be preserved—not as tools to be used. The house is not a home for Dee, because it represents a simplicity that she equates to ignorance. She has felt this connection since her younger days, when she forced Mama and Maggie to listen to her read to them inside their home, attempting to impress upon them "a lot of knowledge [they] didn't necessarily need to know."

When Dee was young, she had watched their former home burn to the ground, her eyes full of such joy that Mama wondered whether Dee would dance on the ashes when the fire finished consuming their home. This same fire had left Maggie with a horrific scar, the reminder of their simple life burned into her body.

The house therefore demonstrates a family heritage that is both beautiful and painful, and Mama and her daughters must find their own way in navigating this complex relationship.

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What is the major conflict in "Everyday Use" and why does it occur?

The major conflict of "Everyday Use" is between Mama and her daughter, Dee (Wangero).  There seems always to have been an antagonism between Dee and Mama and her other daughter, Maggie.  Mama describes the young Dee as having "burned [them] with a lot of knowledge [they] didn't necessarily need to know."  She made them feel like "dimwits."  Mama says that, when Dee was a teenager, "[she often] fought off the temptation to shake her."  Mama has always felt and still feels somewhat at odds with Dee, and it seems that they've been somewhat estranged for a while because of Dee's embarrassment about her roots.  She wrote her mother a letter once saying that, "no matter where [they] 'choose' to live," she would visit but she'd never bring friends.  Mama has dreamed of being reunited on a talk show, a scenario where Dee confesses that she owes her success to her mother. 

Now, Dee has returned to her home, an adult, and she seems to have acquired a new appreciation for their things, but it is a shallow appreciation.  She wants the butter churn top and dasher -- items that her mother and sister still use -- because they were handmade, but she doesn't care that she's taking things they still use in order to do something "artistic" with them.  In the end, she becomes interested in some old quilts that she'd formerly rejected because they, too, are handmade.  But she doesn't want to use them; she wants to display them.  It's as though she's only interested in her roots now because she wants to show them off.  Mama offers her some newer quilts because these older ones have been promised to Maggie, but Dee becomes belligerent and possessive.  When Mama sees the way Maggie gives in to Dee, something happens to her.  She says,

When I looked at [Maggie] like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap.

It's as though she suddenly recognizes Dee's selfishness and shallow motives compared to Maggie's quiet devotion to family, and Mama refuses to allow Dee to continue to "burn" them any more.  The conflict comes to a head from the juxtaposition of the characters' motives for wanting various items: Mama and Maggie need these objects because they put them to "Everyday Use" and Dee in only interested in them so that she can show them off and put them on display.  Mama and Maggie honor their family and heritage in the way that feels most genuine and sincere; Dee is only interested in show. 

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What is the significance of the title "Everyday Use" in relation to the story's central conflict?

The title of Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" refers directly to the central conflict: which of Mama's daughters should have the family quilts.

Mama, the narrator of the story, has two daughters: Dee and Maggie. The story's conflict occurs as the result of Dee's return to her family home. Dee has gone off to college and has become interested in social issues and African history. She has even changed her name to Wangero, because she believes the name Dee is a remnant of the oppressive naming system imposed by slaveholders. Dee believes she is more sophisticated than her family, and when she comes to the house, she tells Mama that she wants to take the family quilts with her. Dee plans to display the quilts on her wall as art works.

Mama, however, does not want Dee to have the quilts. She believes Maggie is their rightful owner. Maggie has stayed with her mother; she is very shy and was badly burned in a house fire years in the past. Maggie has actually learned the art of quilting herself and can produce more of these prized possessions. Mama feels that Maggie has a greater connection to the family and its history than Dee, who left the family to further herself. Dee insults Maggie by saying that "she would probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use." This statement is the crux of the conflict of the story because it establishes the two differing opinions on what is the best way to honor a family's tradition. Mama sides with Maggie, so it is clear that she, as well, sees objects' value as a result of their literal use.

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What are some literary devices in "Everyday Use" and what is the social conflict?

The social conflict in Walker's classic story is between different African American identities. Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Maggie represents a kind of social and historical continuity, while her daughter Dee represents the attempt to take conscious control of racial identity common in the period the story was written. (This story was published in 1973, and the sixties and seventies saw tremendous upheaval in African American identity.)

As you would want to see in a good story, many of the literary devices used in this story support and illustrate this story. The biggest of these devices is symbolism. The quilts become symbolic of the clash between identities. Dee wants the quilts to display, as a kind of folk art. Maggie, by contrast, would use the quilts. What is a kind of art for Dee is something her mother and sister use every day (which gives the story its title).

Another literary device used is irony, when Mrs. Johnson mistakes the greeting "Asalamalakim" for the name of the man with Dee. This generates some quiet humor through that section, which is based around the conflict between identities.

Finally, the story starts with an extended internal monologue on the mother's part, which introduces some of the conflict between Dee and her mother.

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What are some literary devices in "Everyday Use" and what is the social conflict?

The irony in the short story "Everyday Use" is that Dee tries to escape her true heritage for one she knows little about. Dee has changed her name that had been in the family for years. Dee is now Wangero, an African name. She has left behind her precious heritage and embraced a new identity. She wears African clothes and African jewelry. She wants to rid herself of her oppressors. She feels that any attachment to her true heritage is to be reminded of her oppressors. Ironically, Dee longs for the quilts to keep as an heirloom. She is not as detached as she may think or pretend to be.

The quilts symbolize the bond that has been passed on through the generations. Mama respects this bond and embraces her heritage as a proud Southern black woman. The quilts were made by family members and passed down through the generations. The quilts are symbolic of family ties and the deep cultural traditions of strong black women like Mama. This story captures the legacy that Dee is trying to forget:

“Everyday Use” focuses on the bonds between women of different generations and their enduring legacy, as symbolized in the quilts they fashion together. This connection between generations is strong, yet Dee’s arrival and lack of understanding of her history shows that those bonds are vulnerable as well.

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