The Story That Will Never Go Out of Fashion
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A really good story should strike both emotional and intellectual chords, providing food for thought and stirring up mixed feelings. Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is great in terms of appealing to mind and heart. It cannot leave the reader indifferent, for it is full of symbolism and ideas that transcend cultural, ethnical, age and other distinctions. The plot of the story is very simple and familiar. It centers around three main characters that have different views on life. The prodigal daughter Dee comes home to meet her mother and younger sister. Dee wants to take two quilts that belong to Maggie, but mother refuses her and the older sister leaves angry and disappointed.
It is not the plot that propels the story, but the characters. I think many people would agree that a family is the stronghold of the community and the members of one family are supposed to support each other and share similar beliefs. However, Walker demonstrates the deviation from this traditional pattern. The mother, who is at the same time the narrator of the story, is a strong woman who has experienced many hardships in life. She has nobody to depend on and that is why she cannot be delicate and touchy like many women. She is one of those tough women that feminists find extremely appealing, for everything about her has nothing to do with weakness that is often attributed to females. Despite her visible toughness, she sympathizes with the weak and less fortunate people. She is not ashamed of poverty and her cultural heritage. In fact, the latter is the basis of her identity, as the mother is proud of her African descent. I think she is the most inspiring character in the story, as she can tell right from wrong and do what is fair.
Unlike her mother, the older daughter Dee seems to be the most controversial character that can be equally liked and despised. She wants to have more opportunities for self-fulfillment and she takes every chance that comes her way. Dee is eager to break ties with her ancestors that remind her of her lower social position and poverty. Her new name is an indication of her unwillingness to be associated with her oppressed African folk. In my opinion, Dee is not a bad character, who is ready to give up on her cultural heritage just because it stands in a way to realizing her selfish ambitions. She definitely wants a better life and she is not comfortable with her position predetermined by her skin color. She would try very hard to prove her smartness and worthiness in society that underestimates colored women. I admire Dee for her desire to become a self-made woman who voices her opinions: “she would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature” (Walker, 2). In the twenty first century, Dee is a likable and realistic character. Dee is different from her mother in the way that she is not afraid to risk. Besides, their views on cultural heritage also differ. For Dee, cultural heritage is something that has gone and she clings more to the present, looking for identity in the things that surround her. The mother feels more linked to her ancestors through the everyday use of things that belonged to them.
Of all three characters, the reader’s sympathies are with Maggie. She is very shy or rather diffident girl, who seems to be as fragile as a glass. Her timid behavior is underscored by the mother: “She [Maggie] has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground” (Walker, 2). Maggie is not only physically scarred, but emotionally as well. She is protected from the outside world by her loving mother. At the same time, Maggie is the victim of seclusion, as she shies away from people who are more likely to notice her scarred appearance than her kind and generous heart. She envies her sister, but that envy does not consume her from the inside. “She [Maggie] thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Walker, 1). Maggie is ready to sacrifice or give away things that have a great meaning for her. She is a paragon of virtue who has learned to accept hardships with meekness and lives at the mercy of fate. With more determination and will-power she would be a more compelling character.
Walker’s heroines are the embodiments of different philosophies about the importance of cultural heritage and identity. As it always happens with the immigrants, the older generation tends to stick to traditions and customs of their ancestors and they make decisions based on the values inherent to their culture. The younger generation, on the contrary, tries to relate more to the mainstream culture, assimilate into it, and, as a result, discards some values and beliefs that are part and parcel of their cultural heritage. In “Everyday Use” we can find the representatives of both generations. I believe it is impossible to live in a foreign country without giving up a part of your former lifestyle and traditions. That does not mean that national minorities who come to live in the USA should refuse from everything that defines their identity. What I want to say is that the immigrants should be open to influences from other cultures besides their own. The mother and Maggie seem to remain closed to the outside influences and they do not want to be impacted by the alien culture that threatens to subvert their beliefs and values. Dee, on the contrary, is too receptive to the influences of the mainstream culture. She makes a mistake refusing from her cultural heritage that is an intrinsic part of her being. Those individuals who are of multi-racial and multi-cultural backgrounds underscore the difficulty to combine various cultures into a harmonious whole. Some people are more successful in piecing together various heritages and benefiting from diversity, while other are divided between different nations and cultures. The quilt that is in the center of the so-called quarrel between the mother and her older daughter stands for the diverse American nation. Moreover, it represents culture in general. Dee embodies a materialistic and modern way of life, where culture and heritage are appreciated, if they are trendy. The mother values heritage for its practical significance for everyday life. The older daughter and her mother represent two extremes and therefore cannot find the middle ground. Maggie’s views seem to be in between, as she barely raises her voice and expresses her opinions. What we know for sure is that Maggie wants to preserve her cultural heritage and probably pass it on to the following generations.
The relationships in the family are brought up for public discussion. Familial ties have different significance for all members of the family. It is never mentioned in the story, where the father figure has disappeared, so the readers are lost in guesses. Although the mother characterizes herself as a strong woman, I suppose she could appreciate men’s help with everyday chores. Maybe she was betrayed in the past and does not want men to intrude in her well-paced, yet difficult life. Or maybe the untimely demise has separated her from her beloved and she thinks that no one is good enough to substitute him. It is surprising that she never voices her attitude towards men. Dee is more inclined to pursue superficial relationships that do not require commitment. She does not want to be alone and looks for the like-minded people. She hangs out with boys and girls who find Dee interesting and amusing. “Impressed with her they worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (Walker, 3-4). I think Dee is caught is the middle, for she has estranged herself from her family and she does not seem to be devoted to her friends. When she comes home accompanied by the man named Hakim-a-barber, she does not introduce him as her husband or simply boyfriend. He is a person who holds the same views as Dee does and his role in Dee’s life is indistinct. Maggie seems to have romantic views on marriage and she dreams to marry John Thomas, who is also a mystery. However, it is clear that for Maggie family plays a very important role.
Alice Walker allows the readers to have insights into the family that consists of three different women who represent the dynamics of the African-American color. The way they carry themselves and what they say about each other speaks volumes about their attitudes towards culture and heritage. Dee, Maggie and Mama’s thoughts and feelings remind us to appreciate the priceless heritages and accept them in everyday use.