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Everyday Use | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Waiting for Dee

The story opens in the yard of Mama's house, a small wooden structure in the middle of a pasture in the rural South. Mama describes herself and people she knows. She describes her shy daughter Maggie, who stands in "envy and awe" of her sister Dee, who seemingly "has held life always in the palm of one hand."

She tells of a recurring dream in which Dee greets her with an embrace on a TV talk show. In the dream Mama appears as what she says would be Dee's ideal image of her: "I am the way my daughter would want me to be," she says: thinner, with "skin like an uncooked barley pancake" and glistening hair. This doesn't connect with the reality of who she is, though, which is "a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands." Mama talks about her physical strength and the practical way she lives her life, from wearing overalls to butchering meat.

Maggie emerges from the house, timid, her eyes downcast. Mama describes how a house fire some 10 years ago scarred Maggie and how she has been reclusive since then, embarrassed by her disfigurement. She also tells how Dee, who hated the house, was not saddened when it burned down: "Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? I wanted to ask her," says Mama.

Mama mentions how she and the church paid for Dee's education in Augusta, a medium-sized city in Georgia, and how Dee "used to read to us without pity," forcing them to listen to "a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know." Mama's own education was cut short in second grade when her school closed, and she laments that Maggie, too, is not particularly smart—nor good looking, nor rich. She reveals Maggie is set to marry John Thomas, "who has mossy teeth in an earnest face."

As Mama waits for Dee to arrive, she describes the run-down condition of the house, with its tin roof and rawhide coverings over the rough-cut holes that serve as windows: "No doubt when Dee see it she will want to tear it down," Mama muses. She also reflects on Dee's life as a teenager, during which she had few friends, who were mostly "impressed with her" rather than fond of her, as well as one would-be boyfriend, Jimmy T. After Dee "turned all her faultfinding power on him," he jilted her and married a city girl, an event that threw Dee for a loop.

The Arrival

As Dee arrives, shy Maggie tries to escape into the house, but Mama calls her back. Dee emerges from the car in gold jewelry and a floor-length orange and yellow dress "so loud it hurts my eyes." Dee's boyfriend, a man with "hair to his navel" and a long beard, also gets out of the car. Both greet Mama and Maggie with foreign phrases, "Wa-su-zo-Tean-o" from Dee and "Asalamalakim" from the man. He attempts to hug Maggie, who backs away; when he tries to shake her hand, again she pulls away.

Mama is seated in front of the house, and Dee fetches a Polaroid camera from the car. She starts snapping pictures, "making sure the house is included," as well as Mama, Maggie, and a cow that wanders into the yard. After she has taken pictures, she greets her mother with a kiss.

Mama calls her by name, but Dee corrects her and says her name is now Wangero. Dee is dead, she says: "I couldn't bear it any longer being named after the people who oppress me." Her mother objects, reminding her daughter she was named after family members: her aunt Dicie, her grandmother Dee, and her great-grandmother. Mama thinks she could trace the name back past the Civil War but doesn't bother to do so for the benefit of the visitors. Mama agrees to call Dee by the name Wangero, and she practices the pronunciation. She also learns the boyfriend's name, which she takes to be Hakim-a-barber. (Until now she has been calling him "Asalamalakim" to herself.) She wonders aloud if he is related to "those beef-cattle peoples down the road," which he denies, saying, "I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style."

Dinner

The group sits down to dinner, where Dee plows through the home-cooked food and makes a fuss over the benches her father made "when we couldn't afford to buy chairs." Then she remembers she wanted to ask Mama for some items from the house. She jumps up and removes the top and the dasher (churning stick) from the butter churn, which she wants because both were whittled by family members. Even though the churn is still full of milk, Dee wraps the pieces to take home. She announces her plans to display them as "artistic" decorations around her house.

After dinner Dee rummages through Mama's storage trunk without asking and pulls out two heirloom quilts, which Grandma Dee, Aunt Dee, and Mama pieced together and sewed from pieces of clothing worn by family ancestors. When Dee asks if she can take the quilts, Mama tries to persuade her to take others instead: "I don't want those," Dee answers, "They are stitched around the borders by machine." Mama moves to touch the quilts, but Dee backs away "just enough so that I couldn't reach the quilts. They already belonged to her."

Mama then tells her the quilts have been promised to Maggie for her wedding to John Thomas. Shocked, Dee protests Maggie would ruin the quilts by putting them to "everyday use." Mama retorts, "I hope she will!" and informs Dee that Maggie can make herself new quilts if these wear out. Dee persists, stating she would hang the quilts for display.

Meanwhile Maggie has crept into the conversation. She meekly offers to give the quilts to Dee, "like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her." A realization dawns on Mama: "This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work." Mama has a burst of religious euphoria and hugs Maggie, then does "something I never had done before." She snatches the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie, telling Dee to take other quilts instead. Dee does not reply but instead leaves the house with Hakim-a-barber.

At the car Dee remarks that Mama doesn't understand her heritage. Then she kisses Maggie and urges her to "make something of [her]self." She points out times have changed, saying, "It's really a new day for us," and criticizes Maggie and Mama for continuing to live the way they do. As Dee leaves, Maggie smiles. Mama and Maggie share some snuff and sit for the remainder of the evening outdoors, "just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed."

Analysis

Narrative Impact of Mama

As the central figure of the story and the Johnson family, Mama offers unique and honest insights into the events and characters of the story. Alice Walker's choice to use first-person point of view allows the reader to connect deeply with Mama. It is as if the reader is eavesdropping, reading Mama's most intimate thoughts, related with the same blunt honesty she might use with a close confidante.

Using language familiar to her, Mama describes herself in very modest terms several times during the story. She matter-of-factly relates her lack of education, her terrible singing voice, and her large, work-toughened body. These humbling admissions make her easy to relate to and establish credibility with the audience; Mama knows she isn't perfect, and she can admit it freely. She is not ashamed of who she is, and she accepts herself easily and honestly. Her candid self-evaluation enables the reader to accept her evaluation of her daughters as well.

Comparison of the Sisters

Walker sets up a direct comparison of characters in the sisters Maggie and Dee, who could not be more different. Maggie has a "thin body," while Dee "is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure." Worldly Dee is attractive and dynamic and has cultivated "a style of her own," while homebody Maggie is unattractive, slow, and unstylish, and shows no desire to become any of these. Maggie is shy, uneducated, and not especially smart, whereas Dee is talkative, well educated, and clever. However, the comparisons do not all favor Dee. Dee is blatantly selfish, superficial, and condescending, in contrast to Maggie, who is quietly generous, kind, and shows a certain depth of understanding that far exceeds Dee's.

On the surface Maggie is portrayed in an unflattering light through much of the story, as Mama pounces on her daughter's negative qualities. For example, in the second paragraph Mama uses words like nervous, homely, and ashamed, making the reader feel pity for Maggie, who, as Mama adds later, walks like a lame dog sidling up to someone for attention.

In describing Dee, however, Mama uses admiring terms. Maggie views Dee with "envy and awe," making Dee seem larger than life. As Mama says, "'No' is a word the world never learned to say to her." This remark foreshadows what Mama will tell her daughter later in the story. Until now Dee has always gotten what she wants, through her seeming smarts, her will, and the force of her personality: "She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts," Mama relates. And she has—Dee has succeeded in escaping the life of poverty she detested and worked to overcome. Along with her bright orange and yellow dress, a symbol of her identification with her African heritage, bold, brazen Dee outshines her retiring, dimmer sister in almost every way.

However, as the story continues, the reader begins to notice more about Maggie: her industriousness, her modesty, and her acceptance of life. She respects her heritage and genuinely loves her family members, including Dee, who is not particularly kind to her.

Dee's actions, in contrast, are those of a self-absorbed, grasping, superficial woman. She cares about appearances; at its core her character is "style over substance." Dee's new name, Wangero, is attention-getting and falls in line with the trend of the era to take an African name—it is in style, and she likes to be in style even if the name has no relation to Dee's personal history; it's just an African name that Walker encountered during her stay in Uganda. However, Dee, the name she rejects, is full of substance; it carries the history of her family back several generations.

Dee is concerned primarily with herself. She takes family heirlooms from the house without really asking. The artifacts Dee considers heirlooms, however, are household items Mama and Maggie are using. Dee presents her desires and decisions as complete, not expecting her family to defy her. For example, when Dee first picks up the two handmade quilts, Mama notices Dee backing away "so that I couldn't reach the quilts. They already belonged to her." When Mama refuses to give her the quilts, Dee, in her usual condescending way, calls Maggie "backward" and informs her mother, "You just will not understand."

Relationships with Mama

In the first part of the story Mama tells about herself, her daughters, and the life she has lived. She particularly focuses on the differences among Dee, Maggie, and herself.

The fire that burned down their house years ago is a key event that happened before "Everyday Use" begins. The fire burned Maggie badly, and Mama blames the incident for Maggie's reclusiveness. Mama draws insights about Dee from the incident, too. As the house burned, Dee simply watched, standing apart from her mother and sister; she did not try to help them and showed no concern about Maggie's injuries. Instead, she watched intently as the flames devoured every board. Mama's bitter comment about Dee dancing around the ashes shows her resentment of Dee's attitude and negativity toward her family, a resentment she suppressed at the time.

Dee seems to have no appreciation that her mother and the church paid for her education. Rather she used her newfound knowledge in a typically condescending way, by reading aloud to her mother and sister about topics far over their heads and in which they had no interest. She lords her education over them rather than showing gratitude for it. In Dee's mind she may be trying to help Mama and Maggie, but the fact remains she wishes they would "improve" themselves. She cannot accept her poor, rural surroundings and thus cannot accept those people who do. However, despite her education and intellect, Dee is quite dense when it comes to understanding human beings.

Cultural Invasion

When Dee and Hakim-a-barber arrive, Mama narrates their arrival as if two creatures from another planet have descended on the house. Their greetings in foreign languages, the extreme hairstyles, and Dee's clothes underscore how different they are from Mama and Maggie. Hakim-a-barber's greeting of Asalamalakim is an instance of situational irony. The Arabic phrase is translated as "Peace be upon you," but their arrival brings anything but peace to the household, foreshadowing strife and a battle of wills. It also creates confusion, with Mama thinking the phrase is actually the man's name. This misunderstanding displays Mama's ignorance of the trends Dee and Hakim-a-barber are following: the reclaiming of cultural heritage by African Americans in the middle to late 1960s.

Even before Dee properly greets Mama, she starts snapping photos of the dilapidated home and its residents. She wants the photos as proof of her humble beginnings and the poverty she has escaped, rather than for sentimental reasons. Dee next announces that she has changed her given name to an African name. Its length and difficult pronunciation give a nod to Dee's higher education and make the statement she has rejected her American heritage in favor of distant African roots. When she informs Mama the name Dee came from "the people who oppress me," her meaning is white people, who historically oppressed blacks in the United States. However, another implication is that Dee has felt oppressed by her own family, too; she is ashamed of her family's poverty and has struggled to overcome it. By rejecting her name, she rejects the life Mama and Maggie still lead. Dee's desire to amass decorative heirlooms, therefore, shows situational irony because her actions show her turning up her nose at tradition and immediate ancestry at the same time as she wants to collect and memorialize it and as her closest family members are living it.

Hakim-a-barber's statements shed light on his values, as well. When Mama asks if he is associated with "those beef-cattle peoples down the road," she is likely referring to Muslims living nearby. He responds that he accepts some of their values—the tenets of Islam, one thinks, as he does not eat pork—but he has no interest in farming or in agricultural traditions. An indication of this rejection may be his refusal to eat the traditional collard greens (that have no religious prohibitions) as well as the pork. He thus separates himself from the rural Muslims and rural life in general.

At dinner Dee praises various handmade items in the house as she sets the stage for getting what she wants: more proof of her "humble" heritage to take home and show off as "artistic" artifacts. She wants only the one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces, nothing made by machine, a desire that shows her snobbery. Only the best—and what she judges to be the most authentic—will do for Dee. Her interest in her targeted objects completely overlooks their uses and the fact that some of them are indeed in use daily in Mama's house.

Mama's reluctance to give Dee the quilts she wants sets up the scene from which the story gets its title. Dee is horrified Maggie might submit the quilts to "everyday use," which could ruin them from wear and tear. She views the quilts as museum-quality artifacts instead of what they actually are: practical, yet beautifully designed and crafted, items created for daily use. On the other hand, Mama and Maggie believe by using the quilts as intended, they honor and remember their ancestors and keep family traditions alive. The quilts serve as a symbol of these traditions and of the hard work and creativity of many generations of African American women.

Maggie's offer to give the quilts to Dee prompts an epiphany or sudden realization for Mama. Suddenly Mama views the world through Maggie's eyes: Maggie who gets little and expects less from life, having become accustomed to the little she has. Mama realizes even though "this was the way she knew God to work," giving much to others and little to Maggie, Mama has the power to change this pattern for her long-suffering daughter. She also realizes Maggie deserves the quilts; she has worked hard all her life, and she honors her ancestors in the same way Mama does. It is then Mama does "something I had never done before." She actually says "no" to Dee, who Mama believes does not deserve the quilts. For once Maggie will win out over her demanding, overachieving, pretentious sister.

A New Era

Dee's departure highlights how little she understands her family. Although times indeed have changed as Dee explains and exemplifies, Mama and Maggie are not interested in participating in those changes. When Dee encourages Maggie to "make something" of herself, she is reaffirming her belief that her family is beneath her. Dee fails to understand that Mama and Maggie are content as they are. If a new era began for Dee with her education, even before her neo-African kinship, with her departure, a new era also begins for Mama and Maggie, one in which their bond is closer than ever and in which Maggie has not lost out to her sister. Her mother's show of support and her small triumph over Dee leave Maggie with a smile on her face, an expression Mama enjoys seeing.

Everyday Use Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Maggie and Mama nervously wait for Dee to arrive.

Rising Action

2 Mama recalls the house fire and describes her daughters.

3 Dee, dressed in African garb, arrives with Hakim-a-barber.

4 Dee takes pictures and reveals her new African name.

5 At dinner Dee admires and claims several heirlooms.

6 Dee wants the two handmade quilts promised to Maggie.

7 Mama offers two others instead, which Dee refuses angrily.

8 To make peace Maggie offers Dee the quilts.

Climax

9 Mama, with new courage, says "no" to Dee.

Falling Action

10 Dee says Mama doesn't understand her heritage.

11 Dee and Hakim-a-barber leave without the quilts.

Resolution

12 Maggie and Mama enjoy the evening together.

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