Symbolism and Characters throughout “Everyday Use”
In the story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker uses a detailed description to help describe the symbolism of the unique and highly valued quilts, as well as, contrasting the characters throughout the story. The quilts stand as a specific symbol and as more than just a creative piece of artwork throughout the story. According to an article written by Sam Whitsitt, “the quilt, itself, represents the history and tradition that binds the African culture to the past and the past to the present” (Whitsitt, 445). The quilts helps portray the theme of African American heritage throughout the story and binds Mama's ancestors and her heritage altogether. The quilts signify the bond between each generation and the impact they have on each main character in the story, which include Mama, Dee and Maggie. Walker's usage of the quilts throughout the story also helps demonstrate the differences between each of the characters. The quilts are the main focus in the story that brings out the characters true personalities and shows the differences in those personalities. Throughout the story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the quilts help portray the unique cultural symbolism of the African culture and the way they view quilting, as well as, illustrating the differences of the main characters in the story.
In the story, quilting is used as a symbol to signify the African American past. The quilts are a primary symbol that stands for the ties of heritage and the distinctive culture of Mama's family. According to an article written by Claudia Tate, Barbara T. Christian, the person who showcases the corpus of Walker's works and the traditions of African-American literature, explains that “Walker articulates the metaphor of quilting to represent the creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestors” (Tate, 308). Quilting is part of the African American past and travels from generation to generation. According to an article written by David Cowart, “the quilt that Dee, or Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, fights over links her generation to previous generations and, therefore, the quilt is shown to represent the African American past” (Cowart, 171). There are many types of unique patterns in the quilts that Mama and Dee are disputing over. According to Whitsitt's article, “many African American quilters employ large, often abstract designs”, the use of these different designs shows the uniqueness of the quilt (Whitsitt, 454). The patterns in the quilts represent the African American past and Mama's heritage. “In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell's Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (Walker, 113). The use of these different types of patterns in the quilts symbolizes the history of Mama's family and the creativeness they had. The precious materials used in making the quilts represent the culture and the high value they each contain. The fabric that is used in the making of the quilts shows Mama's unique culture and the love her family has for their culture. The work Mama, Grandma Dee, and Big Dee put into the quilts show their strong African American heritage and background.
In the African American culture many quilts travel from generation to generation to show one's family's culture and where they came from (Cowart, 171). The quilts Dee and Mama are fighting over are to be traveled from generation to generation, also, to help keep the culture alive. The quilts play a major role in the family because of the prestigious heritage they each contain. They help show the distinctive African heritage and special cultural symbolism. The quilt ties everything, heritage included, together. As the quilts are passed down the family's history and culture is past down, also, which makes the quilts play a special role in the African American culture.
The quilts made by Mama, Grandma Dee and Big Dee are not only used as a symbol throughout the story but are shown as objects that the African American culture keeps in reserve because of the value the they contain (Whitsitt, 455). The quilts contain a historic value because of the creativeness that was put into making them. As Patricia Mainardi notes in Whitsitt's article, “many inhabitants of the African culture who make the quilts sign them and date them to show the high value they contain and also put a list in their will of who should inherit the quilts they make once they pass away” (Whitsitt, 455). The quilts have a specific value and are treated with much care because of the strong culture they uphold. Throughout the story Mama and Maggie distinguish the quilts as more than just a piece of artwork, instead they see them as something to treasure in remembrance of loved ones. According to Whitsitt's article, “the quilt represents those values of things which do not circulate, do not wander, do not gel traded or sold but, rather, stay at home” (Whitsitt, 454). They value them because the quilts remind them of their beloved relatives, such as Grandma Dee and Big Dee.
The quilts portray a high value throughout the story and because of this high value Mama promises the quilt to Maggie for “when she marries” (Whitsitt, 455). Mama wants to give Maggie the quilts because of the history they each contain and because Mama wants the quilts to be utilized in everyday use. If the quilts were to be hung on the wall, like Dee wanted to do to preserve the African American heritage, then the true culture wouldn't be shown. On the other hand, if the quilt was put to everyday use, like Maggie would do with the quilt, then the African heritage would be shown and kept alive because it was being put to use. Mama wants to give Maggie the quilts for that reason. Mama knows Maggie will preserve the quilts and put them to everyday use to remember her ancestors and their families' history and culture.
Throughout the story the quilt not only shows symbolism and value but also helps in contrasting each character. According to the article by Susan Farrell, Dee is seen throughout the story as "shallow, condescending, and manipulative, as well as, overly concerned with style, fashion, and aesthetics, and thus as lacking a true understanding of her heritage” (Farrell, 179). Mama remembers Dee as a fearless girl who, unlike herself, “would always look anyone in the eyes. Hesitation was not part of her nature” (Farrell, 181). Dee is seen throughout the story as very different then Mama and Maggie because she is very selfish and demanding (Farrell, 181). Maggie, on the other hand, was the complete opposite of her sister. Maggie, throughout the story, was seen as the quiet and timid child with no characteristics that related to her sister. In Farrell's article, she states that “most readers see Mama and Maggie as having a "true" sense of heritage as opposed to Dee's false or shallow understanding of the past” (Farrell, 183). Mama and Maggie are seen throughout the story as wanting to cherish their heritage by keeping the quilts to use, as well as, to remember loved ones. Dee, on the other hand, sees the quilts as something that should be kept in reserve and to hang on the wall as a unique piece of artwork. Maggie's moderation in the story contrasts with Dee's courage (Farrell, 183). When Dee says that Maggie would ruin the quilts by putting them to everyday use, and that hanging the quilts would be the only way to preserve them, Maggie, "like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her," meekly replies: "She can have them, Mama, I can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts"(Farrell, 183-184). Once this occurs, Mama acts in a different manner than she has before. She sees Maggie standing with her hands hidden in her skirt and says: "When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout" (Farrell, 184). This powerful feeling causes Mama to do something she "never had done before"; she "snatched the quilts out of Dee's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap"(Farrell, 184). This scene in the story is the only part where Mama acts differently than before. Instead of acting like the patient Maggie, Mama begins to act more like Dee, with her refusal to back down and her motivation to stand up for herself (Farrell, 184). The quilt in the story acts as a way to contrast the characters and show their different personalities.
Throughout the story, the quilts symbolize and show the value of the African American culture, as well as, acting in a way to show the differences between the main characters in “Everyday Use”. The quilts play a major role in “Everyday Use” and are mentioned throughout the entire story. The quilts have an impact on each character throughout the story, and they help in contrasting each character and showing symbolism of the African American culture. The mentioning of the quilts display the importance of the African American heritage and the true value it has on Mama, Maggie, and Dee. Dee is shown wanting the quilts to just hang on the wall and show their unique culture from afar. In actuality, the quilt is shown as a symbol of the African American heritage and importance of remembering loved ones. The remembrance of Mama's ancestors will also be preserved forever with the use of the quilt in everyday life. The values of the quilts are shown as a way to remember the loved ones who helped in the making of them and also of Mama's ancestors. The quilts portray the unique cultural bond between Mama's ancestors and her heritage. The quilt binds Mama's ancestors and the value of her heritage together and shows the impact the quilt has on her, Maggie and Dee. The quilt brings out the diverse personalities of Mama, Maggie and Dee throughout the story and the different views they have on their heritage, as well as, the actions they each take. With the usage of the quilts, the distinction between each character is shown, as well as, the unique cultural symbolism throughout the entire story.
Cowart, David. "Heritage and Deracination in Walker's 'Everyday Use'." Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (1996): 171-84. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.
Farrell, Susan. "Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'." Studies in Short Fiction 35.2 (1998): 179-86. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Apr. 2010
Tate, Claudia C. "'Everyday Use' by Alice Walker." African American Review 30.2 (1996): 308+. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 9th ed. Edgar V. Roberts. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. 108-114. Print.Whitsitt, Sam. "In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'." African American Review 34.3 (2000): 443. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.