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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What are some examples of dramatic, verbal, and situational irony in "Everyday Use"?

Some examples of dramatic, verbal, and situational irony in "Everyday Use" include the following: Dramatic irony: Dee claims Maggie can't appreciate the quilts, but the reality is Dee herself does not understand or appreciate their true meaning. She laments that Maggie will put the quilts to "everyday use," but that is exactly what they were made for. This is the same kind of dramatic irony in play when Dee says Mama does not understand her heritage and when Dee chooses an African name for herself. It is Dee who does not understand the importance of their family lineage, disregarding it in favor of distant African lineage. Verbal irony: Hakim-a-barber's greeting of "Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!" is ironic for two reasons. First, by using a language Mama and Maggie do not understand, he pushes them further away rather than drawing them closer as "mother and sister." Second, the phrase means "peace be upon you," but his and Dee's visit brings anything but peace to the household. Situational irony: It is ironic that Dee asks for the quilts at all, since she has so thoroughly rejected every other part of her heritage, from her style of dress to her name. No one would expect her to want the quilts.

What does "Everyday Use" have in common with Walker's novel The Color Purple?

Both stories focus on the lives of poor African American women, and both are set in the 20th century in rural Georgia. Like Mama and Maggie, the character of Celie is uneducated and has had little exposure to the world outside her own sphere. However, unlike Mama and Maggie, Celie, like Dee, chooses to leave home and make a better life for herself. She uses her skills in sewing (similar to Mama and Maggie's skill of quilting) to establish her own business. But also, like Dee, Celie develops an interest in life in Africa and learns to be proud of this part of her heritage. Both stories address the topics of oppression, racism, and the difficult role of women in society seeking identity.

How does "Everyday Use" reflect increased opportunities available to African Americans since the time of Mama's youth?

Mama offers a telling detail in describing her own education, which ended in second grade when her school shut down. "Don't ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now," she says. Mama grew up during a time of strictly enforced segregation, restricted civil rights, and poor living conditions for many African Americans. She was conditioned in her youth not to ask questions and use the terms then prevalent: to "go along to get along." Dee has had greater opportunities than Mama did, thanks in part to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Dee sets an example as a strong, educated, African American woman who changes her life through will and determination. She is seemingly prosperous and lives a cosmopolitan lifestyle that values art and education. This way of life and these values contrast greatly with the way Mama and Maggie live; they represent an impoverished, rural lifestyle that is passing out of existence. Dee points out the changes to Maggie in no uncertain terms: "It's really a new day for us." However, her mother and sister, to whom such ideas are unknown, cling to their way of life.

How is Dee both superficial and authentic in "Everyday Use"?

Dee is certainly superficial when it comes to appearances and possessions. "Dee wanted nice things," Mama says: better clothing, her own car and home, and even the family heirlooms she wants to display as art to impress others. Also, she has a superficial understanding of heritage, not realizing the depth and importance of her American heritage, as she embraces her African heritage. It is a continent she has never visited and probably does not know much about, beyond her adoption of clothing and a few words. However, many parts of Dee's personality are indeed authentic. There is no denying she is an achiever of some sort as compared to her family. She has always wanted to create a better life for herself, and she has likely done so through determination and effort. Dee does not apologize for her personality, either. She is strong, confident, and proud. Dee may also be considered authentic in her opposition to the oppression African Americans faced in the United States, as attested to in the memories and words of her mother.

What is the significance of the scene in "Everyday Use" in which Dee takes photographs of her mother and the house?

Before Dee even embraces her mother in greeting, she pulls out a Polaroid camera from the car and starts snapping pictures. The house is unattractive, with its rough-cut windows, tin roof, and surrounding cow pasture, and Mama speculates "No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down." However, Dee "never takes a shot without making sure the house is included." She presumably hates this house as much as she hated the previous one, so her only possible reason for photographing it is to document the poverty and primitive conditions in which her mother and sister live. The implication is she will take these photos home to show others just how far she has come in life as a self-made woman and how resistant to change her unenlightened mother and sister still are.

What handmade items are featured in "Everyday Use," and why are they important?

"Everyday Use" features several handmade items, including the following: The benches Dee and Maggie's father made for the family to sit on at the table when they could not afford to buy chairs. The butter churn top whittled by Uncle Buddy from a tree that once grew on the property. The butter churn dash whittled by Henry from a tree that grew in his yard. The Lone Star and Walk Around the Mountain quilts Dee requests, which Grandma Dee, Mama, and Dicie made from scraps of clothing from several family members. These objects show the Johnson family has a tradition of making the things they need by hand. Often, the family used whatever material was available to them, without having to purchase it, creating something beautiful out of almost nothing. The handmade items in the story also immortalize their creators. Family members live on in memory as Mama and Maggie use the objects in their everyday life. The actual financial value the objects do have is contrasted with the other deeper values those who use them recognize.

Who is John Thomas, and what does his role in "Everyday Use" reveal about Maggie?

John Thomas, described by Mama as a person "who has mossy teeth in an earnest face," is the man Maggie will marry someday. Although he does not appear in person in the story, his presence hints at the parts of Maggie's life the reader does not see. If Maggie is engaged, she must have some social life outside of the home. She no doubt has hopes and dreams like other girls, and she is making plans for her future, including the use of the quilts Mama has been saving for her. John Thomas sounds like a homely but genuine man, making him an appropriate match for Maggie, who has similar qualities. John Thomas also seems to be a "sure thing" in Maggie's life; Mama says "when she marries John Thomas," not "if." This situation contrasts with Dee's, who may or may not be married to Hakim-a-Barber. It is possible Maggie may even be better matched in love than Dee, although it is usually Dee who gets the best of everything.

In "Everyday Use" what details show Dee and Hakim-a-barber as pretentious or condescending?

Dee and Hakim-a-barber are condescending toward Mama and Maggie from the start. Dee snaps pictures of their poverty to show her friends their primitive living conditions. Meanwhile Hakim-a-barber "just stood there grinning, looking down on me, like somebody inspecting a Model A car." They treat Mama and her surroundings more like the subject of an anthropological study than a family visit. He and Dee also exchange glances with each other; the reader can assume they believe they are better than Mama and Maggie, or perhaps they pity the two women for living such a life. The glances also imply Dee and Hakim-a-barber have already discussed what to expect at Mama's home, while the people they are visiting have no real idea what to expect as they have no experience with such foreign and exaggerated ways. Hakim-a-barber seems especially pretentious, particularly because he is a stranger and his attitude borders on offensive. He tries to shake hands "fancy" with Maggie and has a name that is long and hard to pronounce. His behavior at dinner is equally condescending, even rude. He states definitively he does not eat collard greens and the pork served to him is "unclean"; as a Muslim he refuses to eat it, yet he sees himself as above the local Muslims whose rural lifestyle he finds distasteful: "farming and raising cattle is not my style." It perhaps does not occur to him that he is subtly condescending to Mama and Maggie in this statement, as their lives are rural as well, and most likely less prosperous than their neighbors' down the road.

How does Maggie behave when Dee and Hakim-a-barber arrive, and what does her reaction say about the characters in "Everyday Use"?

Dee and Hakim-a-barber view themselves as two sophisticated city people coming to pay their backward country relatives a visit. As the two arrive, Maggie "attempts to make a dash for the house," which Mama prevents her from doing. She seems nervous or shy about the meeting, which is usual for her where strangers are concerned. Once they get out of the car, Maggie cannot help but react, sucking in her breath in surprise. She makes an "Uhnnnh" sound of surprise, which Mama compares to the sound made by a person about to step on a snake. Maggie is especially taken aback by their long and wild hair, which must be quite outrageous to elicit such a reaction. Dee and Hakim-a-barber seem not to notice her reaction, as they are completely self-absorbed, making their grand entrance, dressed up in style and proud to show the world who they are.

In "Everyday Use" why does Mama not give the complete history of Dee's name back to the time of the Civil War?

After Dee announces she has changed her name to Wangero, she says the name Dee came from "the people who oppress me." Mama objects, saying, "You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie." Dee and Mama go back and forth on the origin of her name, with Dee trying to pick holes in Mama's history. Her questions of "But who was she named after?" are met by factual answers from Mama that support Mama's viewpoint rather than Dee's. Then Mama observes "Wangero was getting tired" of the conversation; this observation probably means Dee was getting frustrated because she was not winning the argument. Mama decides to back down, saying, "That's about as far back as I can trace it," even though she knows she could trace the name to the Civil War. Mama realizes Dee has her mind made up on the matter and is unlikely to change it, so she does not see the point in upsetting her daughter further and lets the subject drop. But, in the story, she clearly wins the point.

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