Everyday Use Teaching Approaches
by Alice Walker

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Teaching Approaches

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?...

(The entire section is 1,092 words.)