Teaching Approaches

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Characterizing the Women in “Everyday Use”: “Everyday Use” explores the characters and psyches of three women: Mama, Dee, and Maggie. Each of these three women have a distinct view of themselves, each other, and their shared past. Though the story is told from Mama’s point of view, giving readers her perspective before they get to judge the other characters—particularly Dee—for themselves, each character is shaped independently through dialogue and action.

  • For discussion: How are each of the three main characters developed over the course of the text? Are they flat or round? Static or dynamic? How so?
  • For discussion: Describe Mama’s, Dee’s, and Maggie’s values. Where do their values align and where do they differ? What gives each character a sense of pride and self-worth?
  • For discussion: What does Mama’s epiphany at the end of the story reveal about her character? How do her relationships with her daughters shift over the course of the text?

Exploring Layers of Conflict: The interactions between Mama, Dee, and Maggie are rife with conflict. But these conflicts aren’t limited to the interpersonal relationships between characters; they are also reflective of some of the larger social conflicts playing out in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

  • For discussion: What are Mama’s and Dee’s attitudes toward Dee’s name? Why does Dee want to change her name to Wangero? How does Mama feel about this change?
  • For discussion: How does Mama remember Dee’s attitude toward her family, particularly their socioeconomic status and lifestyle? How do Mama’s memories compare with the attitudes Dee reveals when she arrives?
  • For discussion: How does Maggie impact the course of the conflict between Mama and Dee? Does she succeed in asserting her point of view?
  • For discussion: How do Mama’s and Dee’s different levels of education shape their relationship and respective worldviews?
  • For discussion: How are interpersonal conflicts in the story reflective of social conflicts of the era?

Considering Point of View and Narrative Voice: The first half of the story consists primarily of Mama’s internal reflections: her experiences, a fantasy reunion with Dee, and her memories of raising her daughters. This structural choice develops an intimate relationship between readers and Mama before Dee even appears.

  • For discussion: Do Mama’s opinions of her daughters differ from the way they actually behave? Does Mama have an accurate opinion of her children?
  • For discussion: How does Mama view herself? Does her understanding of herself develop over the course of the text? If so, how?
  • For discussion: Is it fair to consider Dee the antagonist of the story? To what extent are her perspectives and actions justified?
  • For discussion: When and how does Mama communicate with readers directly? How do these direct addresses develop tone and irony in the text?
  • For discussion: Over the course of the story, Mama—as narrator—refers to Dee by several different names, including “Dee,” “Wangero,” “Wangero (Dee),” and “Dee (Wangero).” What do these shifting names reveal about Dee? What do they reveal about Mama?

Analyzing Symbols for Theme: Mama and Maggie take great care of their simple, rural home. They keep the yard tidy and treasure the possessions that remain after a fire destroyed their family home ten or twelve years prior to the events of the story. The objects that Dee comments on and considers taking with her—the bench made by her father, the butter churn top whittled by her uncle Buddy, the dasher whittled by Aunt Dee’s first husband, and the quilts sewn by her female ancestors—are imbued with symbolic resonance.

  • For discussion: Ask students to consider which objects in the text contain symbolic value. What abstract ideas do these concrete objects represent?
  • For discussion: Why does Dee want the quilts? Why does Mama decide to give them to Maggie? What do the quilts symbolize for Dee, Mama, and Maggie? Is their meaning different for each character? How so?
  • For discussion: What do Dee’s attitudes toward the things in her mother’s home reveal about Dee’s attitude toward her mother?
  • For discussion: What do these symbols reveal about themes in the text?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Story Features an Unreliable Narrator: From the outset, Mama, the narrator, imbues the story with her opinions and feelings about her children. These opinions shape readers’ understanding of the story.

  • What to do: Read the story together as a class, emphasizing when and where Mama interjects her opinions into the story. Invite students to consider their own opinion of the characters and events, independently from Mama’s.
  • What to do: Discuss how tone develops in the story, particularly how the narrative tone reveals Mama’s attitudes toward Dee.
  • What to do: Discuss why Walker might have chosen to tell the story through the unreliable voice of Mama. Consider how the story would be different if Dee or Maggie were narrator, or if there were an omniscient third-person narrator.

Alternative Approaches to Teaching “Everyday Use”

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the story.

  • Focus on situational irony. Mama’s fantasy sequences at the start of the story could reveal a desire to reconcile with Dee, yet her choice at the end of the story to give the quilts to Maggie contradicts this initial desire. Did Mama’s actions at the end of the story surprise you? Does situational irony develop themes in the text? If so, how?
  • Focus on male characters in the story. Though they are secondary, background characters, men have a hand in the creation of symbolic objects and reveal each woman’s level of personal autonomy. What are Mama, Dee, and Maggie’s attitudes toward the men in their lives? What do the male characters reveal about characterization and theme in the text?
  • Focus on concepts of “home.” For many, the concept of “home” conjures feelings of safety and security. This isn’t necessarily the case for the women in Mama’s family. What does home mean for each of the three women in the story? Do these attitudes develop over the course of the text?
  • Focus on race as a motif in the story. Mama explicitly describes the way white Americans make her feel at the start of the story. What attitudes do Mama, Dee, and Maggie display about the American racial dynamics of their time?

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