How does Alice Walker use characterization to relate to the theme in "Everyday Use"?

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Perhaps the key element of the short story, characterization is employed by authors in order to move the action of the plot forward with conflicts and actions that develop the story's theme.

Characterization can be direct or indirect:

Direct or explicit characterization...uses another character, narrator or the protagonist  to tell...

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the readers or audience about the subject. []

With indirect or implicit characterization, a character is revealed through one of the following methods:

  1. By the thoughts, words, or actions of the character
  2. By what other characters say about the character
  3. By the ways in which other characters react to the character

In Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," one character of the story, the mother, acts as a narrator who directly addresses the reader. With direct characterization, she describes herself as "a large big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands" whose "fat keeps me hot" in the frigid weather of winter. She tells how strong she is. The mother then describes her daughter Dee as lighter-skinned than her other daughter, Maggie, who has a way of sidling up to people. With more description, the mother tells the reader,

[When Maggie reads] she stumbles along good-naturedly but can't see well. She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by.

When Dee, now calling herself Wangero, arrives with her boyfriend, Mama describes how Dee appears in a "dress so loud it hurts my eyes," and she wears gold earrings that hang to her shoulders. The mother also describes how Dee's "short and stocky" boyfriend looks with "hair...all over his head a foot long."

The mother states that Dee has hated her home and has had no interest in her ancestors. As a young girl,

[S]he washed us in a river of make believe [as a child], burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know.... Dee wanted nice things.... She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts.... At sixteen she had a style of her own, and knew what style was. 

The mother/narrator reports much of what the other characters say and do. For example, when the boyfriend of Dee, Hakim-a-barber, sits down to eat, he informs the mother that 

...he didn't eat collards and pork was unclean....

Dee, now calling herself Wangero, 

...talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn't afford to buy chairs.

The mother also reports the actual words of the other characters, such as Dee's reactions to the old belongings:

"I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table...and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher."

"Mama.... Can I have these old quilts?"

When Mama tells Wangero that she has promised the two quilts to Maggie, she reacts with anger: "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! ... Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"Now, surprisingly, it seems that Dee is interested in her family's history and her heritage, but from a different perspective.

The mother describes at length how the sisters react to each other as well as how she herself feels. For example, when Dee asks for the quilts that were made by hand by the women of the family, Mama looks at Maggie and "something hit me in the top of my head" as Maggie "looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad at her." Then, the mother feels overcome, much as she does in church when "the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout." She hugs Maggie and pulls her into the bedroom, grabs the quilts, and "dumped them into Maggie's lap." She tells Dee, "Take one or two of the others." An angered Dee departs after saying, "You just don't understand." (Dee's idea of "heritage" is displaying old family items.) 

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In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker uses direct and indirect characterization to develop the theme of honoring one's heritage by participating in family traditions.  Throughout the story, Walker characterizes Mama and Dee as contrasting characters to develop tension.  For example, Dee is directly characterized as always wanting "nice things, while Mama is indirectly characterized as settling for the simple things in life (i.e. a small house).  Further, through direct characterization the reader learns that Dee has gone away to college and that Mama never made it past grade school.  Indirect characterization leads the reader to infer that Dee believes in cultural preservation:  she arrives at the home with a new name that relates to her African heritage, and she wants to take family artifacts to put on display in her home.  Mama, on the other hand, is characterized as one who believes in cultural participation:  there is butter in the churn when Dee arrives, and Mama--like her own mother--has learned the art of quilting.  So direct and indirect characterization in the story sets up the contrast between Mama and Dee, which speaks to Walker's theme regarding honoring one's heritage.

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How does characterization play an important role in the story "Everyday Use", by Alice Walker?

Characterization is an especially important feature of Alice Walker’s short story titled “Everyday Use.” After all, the story does not have an especially dramatic plot, nor is its setting particularly remarkable. By the same token, the language of the story does not call any great attention to itself (through, for example, vivid metaphors, striking similes, or unforgettable imagery). The dialogue, for the most part, is not particularly memorable. Instead, the story is, largely, a story about three distinct characters, and our interest in the work derives mainly from our interest in these characters and their interactions.

Particular examples of Walker’s emphasis on characterization include the following:

  • The very first words of the very opening sentence already introduce the story’s focus on the three main characters: “Iwill wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean” (emphasis added). Relations among these characters will be crucial to the story, and so Walker mentions all three of them immediately.
  • The opening words of the opening sentence of the second paragraph also emphasize relations between characters; “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes.” Now we know the exact relationship between Maggie and the unnamed “her” mentioned in the very first sentence (they are sisters), and we also know something about the nature of their relations: Maggie is nervous around her sibling. Once again, then, Walker highlights the importance of characters, and now she begins to characterize, in particular ways, the main figures of the text. This focus of characters and characterization continues when the narrator comments that Maggie

will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.

These comments by the narrator help remind us that the narrator is a character, too.  Everything that the narrator says about the other characters will necessarily and inevitably characterize her as well.  Thus, when we read the sentences just quoted, we immediately wonder about the narrator’s attitudes toward her two daughters. Does she sympathize with one more than the other? Does she accept Maggie’s assessment of the unnamed “her,” or does she just report it?  Similarly, the quoted sentences raise additional questions about Maggie and her sister. Is Maggie correct in her assessment of her sister, or is Maggie overly sensitive and insecure? With which of the two sisters (if either) will we, as readers, finally sympathize more?

  • A particularly interesting moment in the story occurs when the mother/narrator turns directly to the readers of the story and addresses us as “You”: “You've no doubt seen those TV shows . . . .” This habit of directly addressing readers – as if readers themselves were also characters in the story – continues intermittently throughout the work. This technique draws us closer to the mother and helps prepare us, ultimately, to share the mother’s perspective on her two daughters. The mother/narrator speaks to us as if she knows us, thus enhancing our sense that we know her.

In all these ways, then, Walker implies and/or demonstrates the importance of characterization as a crucial feature of “Everyday Use.”

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How is character significant in the short story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?  

Character is significant in "Everyday Use" because Alice Walker embodies two different attitudes toward family, heritage, and culture through the distinction between Dee/Wangero and Maggie (spoken for through her mother, the narrator).

The conflict between these characters is foregrounded early on, as we learn that the sisters' lives have gone in two vastly different directions. Dee has returned home from college, and her advanced education and relationship with Asalamalakim have led her to change her philosophy on Black identity. She wants to go by the name Wangero and criticizes her family members for "being named after the people who oppress [them]." While Dee/Wangero wants to disown the part of her heritage associated with slavery, she has come to a greater appreciation of the cultural work of her forebears. This leads her to praise her grandmother's quilts and demand that she be given them so she can display them in her home. Wangero sees her potential use for the quilts as an act of respect and admiration for the craft.

Her sister, Maggie, on the other hand, has learned to quilt, and their mother has promised the quilts to Maggie as a wedding present. Maggie has stayed home with her mother after being maimed in a house fire when she was younger. She is exceedingly reserved and meek, and the women's mother speaks on Maggie's behalf and feels the need to defend and protect her. When Dee hears that Maggie will inherit the quilts, she is mortified, exclaiming,

Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! ... She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.

The irony of this remark is that the quilts are intended for "everyday use," and Maggie appreciates them in her own, authentic way. Maggie is also the true keeper of the family history because she is the one who has learned the craft of quilting and who continues the tradition.

The characters, due to their disparate personalities and experiences, will never see the quilts the same way, so the characterization of each sister drives the conflict of the story and ultimately suggests that Walker, too, approves of the "everyday use" of the grandmother's beautiful handmade quilts.

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