What is the significance of the quilts in "Everyday Use"?

Quick answer:

The quilts in "Everyday Use" symbolize the generations of love and labor that sustain Maggie and her mother.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The differing ways in which Dee and Mama view the quilts is representative of their difference of opinion overall in this story about what constitutes African American, and family, heritage. To Mama and Maggie, the quilts are living history. Although Maggie says, "I can remember Grandma Dee without the quilts," the quilts are composed of her grandmother's dresses, and pieces of her mother's dresses, and uniforms from the Civil War, and were sewn by hand. They were made to be used, and for Maggie, to receive these quilts upon her marriage and put them to "everyday use" would represent a rite of passage as she becomes the next in a line of Johnson women, part of a family heritage that is not something of the past.

Dee, we are told, has rejected this family heritage more than once. When she went away to college, she rejected an offer of a quilt, declaring it "old fashioned," and she has rejected her own name, "Dee," because although she was named after her aunt Dee and her grandmother before that, she does not feel that this is her "real" heritage. Instead, she wants to take the quilts to be hung on the wall as a symbol of a type of living common to African Americans before times began to "change," and she is critical of Mama and Maggie for refusing to "make something" of themselves and embrace that change. To Dee, the quilts represent a blip in history that occurred in the lives of African Americans between their journey from Africa and their modern reinvention under Civil Rights. To Mama and Maggie, they represent family history for as long as living memory can reach and which has continued unbroken to the present day—and may continue beyond.

The difference in the way the family members view these quilts, then, represents the core conflict in the story and the point of contention between two ways of understanding black history.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The significance of the quilts in the story is that they become items of contention between Dee and her mother. Dee has left home, become college-educated, and has now returned with a sophisticated friend. Dee does not seem cognizant of the fact that the way she is treating her mother, sister, and their home is condescending. It is as if Dee, who has renounced her birth name, sees her family home through an anthropological lens in a way that is both obvious and distasteful to her mother. To Dee, the quilts made by her ancestors are pieces of material culture that should be displayed. To Dee's mother, the quilts are a part of the family's history that have been promised to her younger daughter Maggie for use when she marries a local boy. Dee's sense of entitlement has long been so pervasive that Maggie readily offers up the quilts to her, but their mother will not allow Dee to swoop in and take them; to her, the quilts were meant for everyday use, and she sets Dee straight about how they will be handled.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A homemade, handmade quilt is like a scrapbook. As she looks at her quilts, Mama remembers that a certain patch came from her grandfather's paisley shirts, that some pieces came from dresses that Grandma Dee wore 50 years earlier, and even that there was a very small piece of her great-grandfather's Civil War uniform. To Dee, the quilts are a quaint "primitive" artform. To Mama and Maggie, they represent more than that. They are family memories, very personal and very special mementos of loved ones who are gone.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The quilts in "Everyday Use" are important because they were made by members of the Johnson family and have been pieced together with work shirts, Civil War uniforms and scraps of cloth.  They are representative of the Johnson family history and mean a great deal to "Mama" and Maggie.  They still use them and "Mama" is passing her love of quilt-making on to Maggie. 

They are at the heart of the story because Dee, the oldest daughter, wants to take the quilts to hang on a wall, like a museum piece.  Because "Mama" has promised that Maggie, her younger daughter, will get the quilts, "Mama" snatches the quilts out of Dee's hands to prevent Dee from taking the quilts when she leaves the house.  eNotes states that:

Maggie and her mother value the same objects not for their artistic value, but because they remind them of their loved ones.

 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the quilt symbolize in "Everyday Use"?

The quilt symbolizes a number of things in "Everyday Use." For Dee, it symbolizes the heritage of her family as rural Black farmers, something that Dee has struggled to leave behind and now wishes to exhibit in her house as if it were a museum exhibit. She wants to use its authenticity to demonstrate her "roots"—roots that she has, ironically, worked hard to leave behind.

For Maggie and her mother, however, the quilt symbolizes something quite different. The quilt is the direct product of the labor of their family members. They made it because of their conditions: they needed a quilt, and the only way for them to get a quilt was to make one. In this sense, the quilt is evidence of generations of love, caring, and labor. While Maggie and her mother are poor and lack the sophistication of Dee and her city ways, they are rich in the closeness that comes with working with and caring for each other every day for years.

The quilts in this way represent the very heart of their family. Dee's horror at the idea that Maggie would put the quilts to "everyday use" only outlines how different she has become and how little she truly understands her heritage. Using the quilts is, of course, the only proper way to honor the labor that made them, since the point of that labor was to keep loved ones warm.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the quilts to Maggie and her mother in "Everyday Use"?

The quilts hold different meanings for the members of Maggie's family, even though they are derived from the same idea. These quilts are familial heirlooms, and Maggie's mother likes to use them as often as possible. They represent the family's history and heritage to each character. However, Maggie, being young, is irreverent of this history, and she sees the quilts as things to get rid of—they are old and outdated, more at place in a museum than in their house.

Her mother and grandmother see the quilts as symbols of history and heritage, and they cherish this history very dearly. This act of clinging to the quilts and the history they represent brings about the majority of the conflict in the story because the older women don't think Maggie respects the family as much as they do, and Maggie wants to stop living in the past and get rid of the outdated quilts.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the quilts to Maggie and her mother in "Everyday Use"?

The chief source of the tension in this short story is the fact that the quilts mean something completely different to Mama and Maggie than what they mean to Dee. Interestingly, they all think of the quilts as being a symbol of their heritage, but they understand this very differently.

Dee is viewing her own heritage through a critical lens; to her, the quilts are museum pieces, something to symbolize how black people used to live and a way that they should not live any longer. She wants to hang them on the walls as if they were art pieces. While this is certainly one way of appreciating and preserving heritage, it does not enable a continuation of that heritage—nor does it acknowledge heritage as a living thing.

The title of the story, "Everyday Use," is a reference to Dee's comment that Maggie, if given the quilts, will put them to everyday use. She feels that this would be crazy, but Mama disagrees. For her and Maggie, the quilts symbolize their family history—a line of strong women all sewing quilts to celebrate love and marriage, the birth of children, and the survival of a family line. The quilts were not meant to be decorative but were meant to be used. For Mama and Maggie, the quilts represent family and togetherness and the things about life that have not changed over the past several hundred years. They are a symbol that love and creativity can thrive no matter what the circumstances.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the significance of the quilts to Maggie and her mother in "Everyday Use"?

In the short story "EVeryday Use," the quilts symbolize Mama's heritage. The quilts have been passed down from generation to generation. The quilts have been sewn by loving hands of Mama's ancestors.

When Dee decides she wants the quilts, Mama says they have been promised to Maggie. Dee is upset by this. Indignantly, Dee states that Maggie will use them for everyday use. Mama replies that that is exactly why she is giving them to Maggie.

Mama cherishes the fact that the quilts are precious heirlooms, but she wants Maggie to use them for the purpose that they were made. Dee desires to hang them up as a item of decor. Mama has already promised them to Maggie.

The quilts symbolize the hard work and effort that loving hands have wrought. Maggie appreciates the quilts the way Mama does. Dee is not connected emotionally with the quilts. She is superior now to her humble upbringing:

Dee, on the other hand, has been ambitious and determined since girlhood to rise above her humble beginnings

She has detached herself from her Southern heritage. She has separated herself from those who stitched every single stitch in the quilts. Mama does not approve of Dee's attitude. Plus, she had already promised the quilts to Maggie. Maggie appreciates Mama's sentiments on the quilts.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Everyday Use," what do the quilts represent and how are they important to the story? 

Dee (Wangero) returns to visit her mother and sister, Maggie. Dee has discovered a new appreciation for her African heritage. However, Dee's appreciation is more voyeuristic and objectifying than it is genuine. She starts singling things out from her mother's home that she wants to have; things that might help her showcase her heritage. For example, she says she wants the top of the butter churn to use as a centerpiece. She doesn't want it for its practical use; she wants to display it for its cultural significance. Dee hasn't really embraced her African or familial heritage in a functional, genuine way; rather, she wants to display such heritage in her home as art. 

When Dee asks for the quilts, her mother wants to keep them because they have sentimental (and practical) value. When Mrs. Johnson, the mother, adds that she's been saving the quilts for Maggie's marriage, Dee responds: 

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

Mrs. Johnson adds that she hopes Maggie will use them. Dee does not give up and notes that she intends to hang them up. Dee intends to display them rather than use them for their intended purpose: everyday use.

The quilts represent family (not racial) heritage. Dee wants to use them to display this heritage (for Dee, it is racial more than familial). This isn't a bad thing but the problem is that Dee is more concerned with showing this heritage, like an exotic prize, than living it. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie would rather use the quilts as quilts, thus honoring the familial value they have. (The quilts were knitted by Grandma Dee and Aunt/Big Dee and contained pieces of clothing worn by Grandma Dee and Grandpa Jarrell). Dee wants to create the impression that she is in touch with her heritage, familial and racial. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie simply want to continue to live the heritage that they have been living. Part of this continuation is to use the quilts as quilts. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What role do the quilts and other household objects play as symbols in "Everyday Use"?

The quilt and the butter churn in the story "Everyday Use," by Alice Walker, are the primary household object-symbols in Mrs. Johnson's house.  Mrs. Johnson, the narrative voice in the story, must decide which of her daughters will receive them.  There's the older Dee-Wangero, who returns from the city wearing the trappings of a neo-Black Muslim convert.  She wants the butter churn to be a centerpiece on her table and the quilt to adorn her wall as a tapestry.  Then there's the shy, scarred Maggie, her younger daughter, who--by measuring self-worth--doesn't feel entitled to either of them.

Mrs. Johnson decides to keep the heirlooms in the house by giving them to Maggie.  She is entitled to them because she will use them for their intended, domestic function: the butter churn for churning butter and the quilt for keeping warm.  They've been so for three generations and, according to Mrs. Johnson, Dee's sense of entitlement by way of cultural fad will not sway her into giving them to her.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the quilt say about the characters in the short story "Everyday Use"?

The story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker presents the dynamics of a family of three African American women. Although the women are related, their individual life journeys have made them very different one from the other.  Yet, one thing seems to bring them together: the family quilt.

The quilt represents the different perspectives of family, life, tradition, and culture that exist within each of the women. Dee, one of the daughters, has “made it” in life and now lives in the city. As part of her transformation, she undergoes a form of conversion in which she claims to be closer to her African roots. She even changes her name to Wangero, as a way to refuse to have a name like Dee, which reminds her of the “people who oppress her.” As part of this transformation, she also requests family heirlooms to take with her back to the city. She sets her eyes on the family quilt because it has a lot of history:  Her wounded ancestors were comforted in it, babies were cared for with it, and it has changed as the family itself has changed. The quilt was intended for the other sister, Maggie, who was about to get married. Dee (Wangero) truly felt that she was more deserving of the quilt because her entire circle of city friends would treat it as a museum piece. Unfortunately, her desire for these heirlooms is nothing but a wish to make a fashion statement for her own caprice. 

Although Maggie allowed Dee to keep the quilt, she did it because of the loyalty she feels for her sister, and because she did not feel worthy of the heirloom. Contrastingly, Dee cared little about loyalty or the preservation of family history and was willing to take the heirloom just for its material value.

When Mama finally made her choice, she gave it to Maggie. It was precisely because she noticed the value and love that Maggie still had for her family which made her more worthy of such a symbol of family unity as was the quilt. Therefore, love and unity triumphed, ever against the changing times.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on