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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How does Maggie react when Dee asks for the quilts in "Everyday Use," and why?

Initially Maggie is upset at Dee's request for the quilts. This feeling is evident because Maggie drops something in the kitchen from surprise or anger and then slams the kitchen door. Just minutes later, though, Maggie appears from the kitchen. It is unclear how much she has heard of Dee's harangue against her ("Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!") or of Dee's plan to hang the quilts as decorations. It doesn't seem to matter even if she did; her generous nature takes over, and she offers to let Maggie have the quilts. "I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts," she says, affirming her knowledge of and connection to her family heritage. The only emotion she shows occurs when she "looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn't mad." It seems that she is more intent on placating Dee and keeping the peace than gratifying herself by keeping the quilts.

What examples of racial tension exist in "Everyday Use," and how are they significant?

Some examples of obvious racial tension in the story include the following: Mama questions, "Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?" Then she says, "I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight." It seems she is either afraid to speak with them, preparing herself to make a fast escape, or simply doesn't want any interaction. Mama mentions the "beef-cattle peoples" who live nearby and tells of an incident in which some of the cattle were poisoned by local whites. The cattle owners, likely Muslims of color, "stayed up all night with rifles in their hands" to guard against further harm. The incident shows African Americans ready to fight to protect themselves and their property rather than meekly suffering oppression. Dee rejects her birth name because she believes she has been "named after the people who oppress me." In her view "Dee" is a Europeanized, or white, name, and she blames American whites for oppression of American blacks.

Based on the characterization of Dee in "Everyday Use," how might Walker likely think about the 1960s movement of African Americans reclaiming their African heritage while rejecting their American heritage?

The portrayal of Dee shows some of her exaggerated values as questionable to the author. The story supports the values of Mama and Maggie, who honor their American heritage. For them the story ends happily. Dee, however, dissociates herself from her American heritage, choosing instead to honor her African heritage. For her the story ends with some disappointment in that she does not get what she came for, the quilts. Walker may be voicing disapproval, believing it is wrong for Dee to reject such an important part of her personal history. This sentiment may be behind the exaggeration that characterizes Dee's behavior, which seems like caricature at times as it borders on the ridiculous (her inappropriate attire, name change, foreign language greetings). She seems to have lost a sense of balance, which easily would include pride in both American and African heritage. To ignore and reject her American ancestors dishonors their memory, their suffering, and the traditions they have passed down through the family. Walker herself has never rejected her roots, which often inspire her work.

In "Everyday Use" how are the characters of Mama and Maggie alike?

Mama and Maggie share many traits in common in their appearance and personality. Neither Mama nor Maggie is considered attractive or stylish, with Maggie being "homely" and Mama being "big-boned," fat, and having "rough, man-working hands." Neither woman is particularly intellectually intelligent. Mama, whose schooling ended in second grade, calls them both "dimwits," and says Maggie "knows she is not bright." Both women shy away from some social situations. Mama is unable to imagine herself looking a white man in the eye in conversation, and Maggie secludes herself at home for the most part, not wanting to show her scarred body to the world. The women share positive qualities, too. They are survivors and hard workers who enjoy their modest life at home. They are without ambition and happy about it. Neither questions her status or religious faith. Both know how to quilt, and they appreciate the heritage passed down to them from the women of their family.

How did Walker's childhood influence the writing of "Everyday Use"?

Walker grew up in rural Georgia, which is the probable setting of the story. As a child Walker suffered a disfiguring injury to her eye which caused her to withdraw from social situations. This event is echoed in the story in the character of Maggie, who is burned in a house fire and becomes shy because she is embarrassed by her appearance. Like the Johnsons, Walker's family was poor and lived in the country. Her parents were sharecroppers who made their living off the land. Similarly, Mama and Maggie live in a pasture, churn their own butter, and own a cow. Education was important in the Walker family, however, and is reflected in "Everyday Use'" through the character of Dee, who escapes rural poverty by graduating from high school and going to college.

How are the characters of Dee and Maggie different in "Everyday Use"?

Confident Dee and shy Maggie are different in almost every regard. Dee is a cosmopolitan go-getter, while Maggie is a rural homebody who doesn't seem to have much ambition for her life beyond marrying John Thomas. Dee is attractive, stylish, and fashionable. Maggie is thin and unattractive, with terrible burn scars marring her arms, legs, and hands. Dee is quite selfish, a quality that contrasts with Maggie, who is kind and generous. Maggie values her family heritage and cares about the women who have gone before her, unlike Dee, who has rejected her family heritage by giving up her name and adopting an African name and style of dress. Maggie, who wears unfashionable clothing, lives a rural life of physical labor using her hands, from outdoor work to quilting, while Dee lives in the city and does not seem to do any physical labor.

In "Everyday Use" what clues suggest Mama has low self-esteem?

Mama talks down and deprecates herself many times during the story. For example, she describes herself as a "large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands," yet in her dreams she looks much thinner, prettier, and witty, "the way my daughter would want me to be." She knows Dee looks down on her for her looks and lack of intelligence and education. Dee's opinion in turn lowers Mama's opinion of herself. Mama lacks confidence, as is evident when she asks, "Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?" She also calls herself "ignorant" and a "dimwit" when she tells how Dee used to read to her and Maggie. Although some of her characterizations may be humorous, her self-deprecating humor is indicative of a relative lack of confidence in herself.

What tactics does Dee use to get her way when she asks for the quilts in "Everyday Use"?

Dee waits until Maggie is out of the room and then approaches Mama "sweet as a bird," turning on false charm. She asks for the quilts casually, as if it doesn't matter much to her, and calls the pieces "old quilts" to downplay their value. When Mama encourages her to choose different quilts, she rejects the suggestion with a flat-out "No," undoubtedly meant to make Mama back down as it is understood she has done in the past. Dee then switches tactics, praising her grandmother and acting as if the personal connection matters to her. "These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear," she says, followed by amazement at her grandmother's hand stitching. When Dee realizes she is not winning the battle, she physically steps away from Mama to keep the quilts out of her reach. Mama persists in denying Dee her wishes, so she turns up the emotional heat with outrage. "She gasped like a bee had stung her," Mama says, as Dee is not used to the word no when her mother refuses her. Then Dee exclaims with feeling that Maggie can't appreciate the quilts and will ruin them. Still Mama resists and Dee unleashes outright fury. "But they're priceless," she rages, showing her temper.

How does Mama show she has changed at the end of "Everyday Use," and what might this change mean for the future?

Mama has been impressed and intimidated by Dee since Dee was in high school. Dee is more intelligent, more attractive, and more ambitious than Mama will ever be; she lives a life to which Mama could never aspire (not that she would want to). However, Mama is sparked to stand up to Dee at the end of the story when Dee asks for items that have been reserved for Maggie: her grandmother's quilts. Mama sees the unfairness in the request; the quilts have been promised to Maggie, who learned how to quilt from Grandma Dee, the grandmother who made the quilts. Mama also realizes how Maggie has been downtrodden by life, always settling for second best. In that moment Mama realizes she can make a difference for Maggie, who values the quilts personally, instead of once more letting pushy, selfish Dee have her way. For the first time in her life, Mama puts her foot down with Dee and sends her away empty handed. It is probable Mama will be less dominated by Dee in the future, and Mama and Maggie may grow even closer because of Mama's show of solidarity with her.

What is the symbolic meaning of Dee's African clothing in "Everyday Use"?

Dee arrives for the visit wearing eye-catching jewelry and an African dress in bright yellows and oranges. The dress is not practical, with flowing material "down to the ground, in this hot weather." Dee doesn't care about practicality, though. She cares more about the image she presents of herself than about being comfortable. Her outfit practically screams "Look at me!" Dee wears the dress as a symbol of her new identity as "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo," a proud, modern, black woman. She has rejected her American heritage (including her name) and now identifies with her African heritage instead. Dee is self-made and proud of her accomplishments, and she wants people to know it. She shows who she is through her choice of clothing.

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