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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In "Everyday Use" why does Mama raise the money to send Dee, instead of Maggie, to school?

From a young age Dee has set out to create a life for herself that is different from that of her family: "Dee wanted nice things," as Mama notes, and for Dee education was the means of lifting herself out of the poverty she hated and that shamed her. Dee is also very intelligent and well suited to schoolwork. Maggie, on the other hand, is not terribly bright and may not have been successful or happy at school. No evidence suggests Maggie wished for education or for a different life from the one she has. It is also possible shy Maggie may not have wanted to go to school because of the burn scars that cover her body and that Mama believes have caused her shyness.

In "Everyday Use" what is the significance of the family's house burning down?

The house fire has serious consequences for Maggie, who was severely burned in the incident. Her scarred hands, arms, and legs embarrass her and have caused her to withdraw from the world in shyness. Mama describes her lack of confidence as that of a "lame animal," who walks "chin on chest, eyes on the ground, feet in shuffle." She tries to hide herself from others and is uncomfortable with social interaction. The house fire also reveals part of Dee's nature. As the house burned, Dee watched it "with a look of concentration" until it burned completely to the ground. Mama senses Dee feels a certain amount of glee at the fire because "She had hated the house that much." Mama even mentions she wanted to ask why Dee didn't dance around the burning house. It is also noteworthy during the fire Dee stands apart from Mama and Maggie, dissociating herself from them, and shows no concern for Maggie's burns. For Dee the house is a symbol of the family's poverty, and it is not the kind of place in which she wants to live. This sentiment is reinforced when Mama speculates how Dee will feel when she sees the home they live in now: "No doubt when dee see it she will want to tear it down." This observation casts a shadow over the story and anticipates some of the tensions that will develop.

How does the incident with the butter churn shed light on Dee's personality in "Everyday Use"?

Dee shows her selfishness in claiming the top and the dasher from the butter churn. She pays lip service to asking permission by saying, "I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have," but she does not actually ask for the pieces nor does she wait for permission to take them. Instead, she jumps up and grabs the top, adding, "I want the dasher, too." Dee thinks only about what she wants, and the thought of how Mama or Maggie might feel never enters her mind. Dee completely disregards the reality that Mama and Maggie actually use the churn, which is still full of milk. She is taking something they use to feed themselves and turning it into a type of art, not really knowing what she wants to do with the items. "I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher," she says. The butter churn is rendered useless without the top and dasher, but selfish Dee probably doesn't know and would not care if she did.

In "Everyday Use" what new habits show Dee's pride in her African heritage, rather than in her American heritage?

Dee has changed her entire outward persona to reflect her newfound affinity for her African heritage. Her clothing is African in style, with long, flowing folds of brightly colored fabric that hangs down to the ground. She has chosen a new African name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, which shows she rejects "being named after the people who oppress me," meaning—to herwhites in American history. Dee also greets her family in an African language, even though it is very unlikely they will understand the phrase she uses, "Wa-su-zo-Tean-o." She doesn't care about making her family comfortable; it is more important to her to establish her new African identity instead.

What is the role of education in Walker's "Everyday Use"?

Education is the means Dee uses to raise herself out of poverty and into the kind of life she desires. She has also used her education as a sort of weapon over her mother and sister, intimidating them with her intellect and showing off her achievements. Mama tells how Dee used to read to them when she was in school, "forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant." Yet Mama is proud of Dee's achievements and regrets her own lack of education. It is also important to note that Dee did not obtain this education on her own. Mama raised money, along with the church, to pay for her schooling, a fact Dee does not seem to acknowledge or appreciate.

At the end of "Everyday Use" what does Maggie's smile most likely signify?

Before Dee leaves, she puts on large sunglasses that hide the upper half of her face. Mama says, "Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses." It is probable the "stylish" sunglasses looked silly and exaggerated, making Maggie smile in amusement. However, it is more probable Maggie smiles a bit because she has finally prevailed over Dee. She will keep the quilts Dee tried to take, thanks to Mama's standing up for her. Maggie no doubt feels gratified at her mother's support. Maggie also may be happy simply because Dee and Hakim-a-barber are leaving. Dee and her companion are an unsettling presence in the home, and without them there, Maggie and Mama are free to enjoy their evening free from scorn and judgment.

What role does traditional religion play for Mama in "Everyday Use"?

Mama is a devout, church-going woman for whom God is an active part of daily life. She tells of how the church helped pay for Dee's education and of how she will "sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself" once Maggie marries and moves away. She also evaluates Maggie's religious beliefs and describes personal religious revelations. When long-suffering Maggie offers to give the quilts to Dee, Mama realizes "This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work." For Maggie God brings good things to others, rather than to herself, and she accepts this condition as God's will. This realization is a breakthrough in Mama's understanding of Maggie, which hits her "just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me." She sees the humility and generosity in Maggie's heart, qualities she has, it seems, overlooked until now and which are brought out only by the contrast with Dee's selfishness, which is unchristian.

In "Everyday Use" how does Maggie demonstrate her knowledge and appreciation of her heritage?

Maggie's connection to her heritage is demonstrated through her knowledge about the family heirlooms. When Dee asks who whittled the dasher from the butter churn, Maggie knows the answer in detail: "Aunt Dee's first husband ... His name was Henry, but they called him Stash." Furthermore, she and Mama actually use the items. Maggie certainly values the quilts she has been promised for her wedding. When Dee asks for them, Maggie cannot hide her distress. She drops something in the kitchen, "and a minute later the kitchen door slammed," Mama says. Maggie also knows how to quilt herself, a skill she learned from her Grandma Dee and Aunt Dee (Dicie), and she will be able to continue the tradition.

What evidence in "Everyday Use" shows Mama and Maggie enjoy their simple, rural life?

In the first paragraph of the story, Mama praises their barren dirt yard, saying, "A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know." She tells of resting under the elm tree and enjoying the breezes that pass by. The story ends in just such a way: Maggie and Mama sit outside in the yard after Dee departs. Maggie smiles a genuine smile, and the two women share some snuff. "And then the two of us sat there just enjoying," says Mama. Mama also speculates about what will happen after Maggie marries John Thomas. "I'll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself," she says. She obviously has no plans to move or to try to make a different life for herself. She is content just where she is, as things have seemingly always been.

In "Everyday Use" what is the significance of Dee's encouraging Maggie to "make something" of herself and criticizing "the way you and Mama still live"?

Dee's family simply is not good enough for her. She thinks it is a shame Maggie does not take advantage of new opportunities available to African Americans at the time. Dee looks down on her mother and sister because they are content to live the modest, rural life Dee has always hated. It is the same life their ancestors lived, and Mama and Dee honor them by carrying on their traditions, from home cooking to quilting. Dee is a different kind of person than they are—modern-thinking, ostentatious, and ambitious—and cannot understand the contentment they find in their humble pursuits and surroundings. Her urging of Maggie to improve her life likely springs from two sources: genuine concern and affection for her sister and embarrassment at "the way you and Mama still live." Dee's attitude may reveal her good intentions, but it also reveals her lack of understanding of tradition and heritage.

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