Editor's Choice

What do the focal objects in "Two Kinds" and "Everyday Use" symbolize for the main characters?

Quick answer:

In "Two Kinds," Jing-mei's childhood piano comes to symbolize her feelings of failure while, to her mother, it becomes a symbol of Jing-mei's potential, if she would only try harder. In "Everyday Use," the handmade quilts desired by Dee become the focal point of her conflict with her mother. To Dee, the quilts are evidence of her humble origins. They will show others her authenticity and how far she has risen. To Mama, they represent family, memories, and heritage.

Expert Answers

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

The family quilts become the focal point of the conflict between Dee and her mother and sister in "Everyday Use." Dee returns home after a lengthy estrangement from her family that occurred because she was, evidently, embarrassed about their way of life. Now, however, she seems desirous of embracing her heritage. The problem is that she seems to think that heritage is bound up in material objects, and she fails to understand how traditions and stories make up, perhaps, a more vital element of one's heritage. Maggie knows all the stories that go with the family heirlooms, but Dee plans to "use the chute top as a centerpiece" and will do "something artistic" with the dasher. She doesn't want to use the quilts; she wants to "Hang them," and she believes that using them would be "backward." However, Mama is "stumped" because she actually wants Maggie to use the quilts, and Maggie can simply make more when they fall apart. Dee, however, hasn't bothered to learn this skill, learn the family stories, or even care about the history of her own family name. The quilts symbolize both her family's view of heritage (that it is something living, usable, and present) and Dee's own (that heritage is something past, something to preserve and show off).

In "Two Kinds," Jing-mei's piano becomes the focal point of her conflict with her mother, Suyuan. Jing-mei came to resent her mother's insistence that she be a prodigy, but Suyuan seemed only to want her daughter to try her best and realize whatever abilities she has. Jing-mei felt that her mother could not love her for herself and only wanted to change her. Her parents paid for lessons and eventually saved up for a piano, a second-hand "black Wurlitzer spinet with a scarred bench. It was the showpiece of [their] living room." Really, Jing-mei is their most prized possession, and the piano seems to symbolize all her parents' hopes and expectations for her. When Jing-mei bombs at her recital, she assumes that she won't have to play the piano again, but her mother tries to force her to continue to practice. They argue, and when Jing-mei says that she wishes she were dead, like her mother's other daughters that she had to leave behind in China, her mother relents. Years later, her mother encourages her to take the piano for herself, saying,

"You pick up fast . . . You have natural talent. You could be a genius if you want to . . . You just not trying." . . . And she was neither angry or sad. She said it as if announcing a fact that could never be disproved.

Again, the piano symbolizes Suyuan's confidence in her daughter and her hopes that her daughter will develop confidence in herself. Suyuan wants her daughter to be obedient, certainly, but she also wants to instill confidence in her that Jing-mei seems to lack. Suyuan's confidence in Jing-mei has never waned, and she offers her daughter the piano and her encouragement so that Jing-mei might understand Suyuan's love and faith in her. Suyuan believes that if Jing-mei will only try, she can be whatever she wants to be.

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

In “Two Kinds” by Amy Tan and “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the authors use physical objects as focal points of the conflicts between the mothers and their daughters. In “Two Kinds” the object is a piano, and in “Everyday Use” it is a pair of heirloom quilts.

In Alice Walker’s short story, the older daughter, Dee, leaves her country home. She reinvents herself through education and life in the city. She changes her name from Dee to Wangero, and wears clothing she associates with her African background. When she visits her childhood home, the quilts become an object of conflict. Dee asks if she can have them to use as wall hangings that depict her heritage. Her mother protests and lets Dee know the quilts are promised to the younger daughter, Maggie. Maggie learned to quilt from their relatives, Grandma Dee and Big Dee, who painstakingly pieced the quilts from bits and pieces of fabric worn by family members. These are the women Dee was named after; they are her true ancestors. Dee is afraid that Maggie will actually use the quilts, thus symbolically destroying their heritage. The mother understands that Dee is the one who actually destroyed her personal history by changing her name and looks. It is ironic that in her search for her past, Dee erases it, while Maggie, through her simple life, is maintaining it. The quilts symbolize the family history that Maggie will carry on.

In Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds,” the piano is symbolic of the mother’s dreams for her daughter in America. According to the mother, “you could be anything you wanted to be in America.” Unfortunately, the daughter is not interested in being a child prodigy, and refuses to practice diligently on the piano. She embarrasses her family in a failed performance, after which the piano sits unused in the mother’s home. A rift develops between mother and daughter, which is not resolved until after the older woman’s death. On the daughter’s thirtieth birthday, the mother tells her to take the piano. The mother is offering a truce but it feels like a victory to the daughter. The piano remains in the parents’ home for months after the mother dies. Once the piano is moved to her own home, the daughter sits down to play a piece of music from her childhood, which she realizes is symbolic of her life.

"Pleading Child" was shorter but slower; "Perfectly Contented" was longer but faster. And after I had played them both a few times, I realized they were two halves of the same song.

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

In "Two Kinds," the piano on which Jing-mei learns to play is the physical object that becomes the focal point of her conflict with her mother. Her mother believes that Jing-mei can be a genius; they just need to figure out what her special skill is. As her mother tries to test her in many different ways, Jing-mei begins to feel like a failure and a disappointment, and she grows to resent her mother for trying to change her. Learning the piano is the last straw, and her mother eventually gives up after Jing-mei insults her. When Jing-mei grows up, her mother offers her the piano, suggesting that she could be great at it if she would just try her hardest. We realize at this point that the piano is not a symbol of Jing-mei's failure, as she believes, but a symbol of her mother's belief in Jing-mei's potential.

In "Everyday Use," the handmade quilts belonging to Mama Johnson and desired by her daughter Dee become the focal point of their conflict. Mama sees these quilts as relatively unimportant compared to the people who made them and the stories they represent for her and her daughter Maggie. Mama is only saving them so that Maggie can use them when she gets married. Both Mama and Maggie know how to make more quilts when these inevitably fall apart. Dee's ideas about heritage, however, are very materialistic, and she wants to hang the quilts as artifacts on her walls. She doesn't know how to quilt, and she doesn't know who made what or when or why. She doesn't know her family history as Maggie and Mama do. To Dee, the quilts are symbolic of her humble origins and how far she feels that she has risen; to her mother and sister, the quilts are symbolic of their everyday lives and their memories of loved ones.

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
Approved by eNotes Editorial