Symbolism and Theme in Everyday Use

Published: 2021-07-17 09:55:06
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Category: Symbolism

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The short story Everyday Use by Alice Walker differentiates between a fake and a real heritage. To illustrate her point she uses one family consisting of a mother and her two daughters and the way each of them views their ancestry and heritage. Through the behavior of these three people Walker is able to clearly show the little things that separate a real heritage from the assumed fake mask. During the time of many positive changes to the lives of black people across the America, the author illustrates what the true African American heritage should look like, compared to empty claims by those who have no understanding it.
The first and perhaps the least complex of the symbols in the story is Mama’s yard. In the very beginning of the story Mama says: “I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon” (Walker 491). It is significant that the story starts out right in the yard, which shows how important it probably is to Mama. The further sentences continue on this idea as Mama keeps talking about the yard as the extension of her living room and a place where anyone can sit and enjoy a nice day in peace and quiet.
In a way this yard represents freedom for Mama, as it is the only place where she can get away and maybe forget for a second about her difficult hard-working life and many negative events of the past. So it’s no wonder that of all the places, she chooses to have her yard clean, enjoyable and welcoming as it is. It also makes sense that when her older daughter Maggie decides to visit Mama does an even better job to make sure that the yard, as her favorite and best feature of the house, stays nearly perfect.
The freedom of the yard can be also compared to the vigorous action and all of the arguments that seem to happen inside of the house. Once again Mama narrates: “After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk and started rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan” (495). It’s interesting to notice that the central argument of the story, the argument about who is going to inherit the old quilts, happens inside the house while the yard remains a peaceful place of escape throughout the story.
Just as it began, the story also ends in the yard, in absolute peace and quiet. Mama closes the story by talking about her, Maggie and the yard: “And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed” (496). This shows that even after a day as long and difficult as Mama and Maggie just had, the yard still remains their safe haven and the place where they still have at least some control over surroundings and their life.
Probably the most important symbol in this story is the quilts that serve as the reason for the heated conversation between Mama and Dee close to the end. To show the rich history behind the quilts, Mama describes the process of their making: “They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago” (495).
There arguably are many various interpretations that could be assigned to this symbol, as it is the central piece of the whole story, but it seems that the main idea that Walker tries to convey through these quilts is connection between the generations the present and past and the legacies that they leave after them. One way or another these quilts contain a little part of each of the women who have ever worked on making them, and the history of Mama’s, Maggie’s and Dee’s family It is really interesting that the quilts and other similar articles have a completely different purpose for Dee compared to Maggie and Mama.
After seeing how strongly Dee is trying to get the quitls, Maggie quietly says “I can ’member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (496). From reading the whole story the readers can see that for people like Mama and Maggie things like these quilts don’t determine their connection to the heritage and the bond between generations remains strong without the influence of the material things. At the same time, judging from the way that Dee acts throughout her visit, such bonds to one’s heritage can be easily broken or even completely destroyed.
And when these bonds are finally destroyed it becomes impossible for people like Dee to understand the meaning of such little objects like the quilts in much the same way as it is impossible for her to even understand the origins and the legacy of her name. Again the history behind the quilts is really important so Mama describes more of it: “Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’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” (495).
Made out of many small pieces of Maggie’s and Dee’s ancestors’ clothes, these quilts visually display the history of their family, including all of the struggles such as war, racism and poverty experienced by its members over last century. What makes these quilts even more valuable and important is the fact that because of her poverty Mama considers her heritage, contained in the things like these quilts, as the most important material object in her possession.
Therefore she decides that the best way to honor this heritage would be to pass them to Maggie to be used like they were intended to by those who made the quilts and the legacy contained inside of them. The quilts then summarize the great and long heritage, passed on from one generation to the next, which Dee is now not able to understand. The most striking and thought provoking theme of this story is the true meaning of heritage, illustrated by comparing Dee to Mama and Maggie.
To proclaim the reason for changing her name, Dee says: “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (494). After several years of separation and losing touch with her actual roots Dee chooses to take on a new name “Wangero” to better represent her African heritage. However, such move can not be considered anything more than a joke, and an act aimed to fit in better with the newest and most popular trends. This name, as well as the way Wangero dresses and acts, is supposed to signify her connection to a culture she really knows nothing about, making all of this meaningless.
Also, Dee views her actual heritage as long dead, which she expresses often through her actions and words, like saying that it is a new day for people like them now. Dee tries desperately to gain possession of the quilts, but to her they do not bear any real meaning and are simply the artifacts of the old and lost culture. In the house Dee keeps going around and complementing on all of the objects that show-off her ethnicity, as described by Mama: “Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs” (495).
It’s quite obvious that the word “heritage” has a very different meaning for Mama compared to that of Dee’s. Dee is really interested in all of the old things lying around Mama’s house, but only because to her they are pretty artistic pieces that she can use to decorate the house. While looking at these objects Dee doesn’t know or can not remember many of the stories and legacies behind them, and looks at them all as really pretty and desirable but foreign objects. At the same time, to Mama, this legacy is much more. Every object that Dee picks up, Mama and
Maggie know by the way it was made, maker of it and reason for making it. They remember stories about the people behind the things and for this reason are able to really appreciate them. Frustrated bud decisive Mama calmly tells Dee: “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas” (496). Mama knows that these objects and specifically the quilts should end up with Maggie, because to Maggie they have a real meaning. Maggie doesn’t pretend that she will cherish the quilts forever, and in fact it’s obvious that she will probably put them to everyday use.
But Maggie plans to use the quilts like they were always intended to and by doing this she fulfills the heritage behind them in the best possible way. Dee disagrees with that, but as she gets mad and tells Mama and Maggie about how they don’t understand their heritage, it’s clear that she is the one who doesn’t understand anything. In her story Everyday Use, Alice Walker gives the readers in interesting insight into the life of African Americans, as their status, treatment and life change.
At the same time, through her main three characters – Mama, Maggie and Dee Walker also shows the difference between a true desire and connection with one’s heritage compared to a greedy want to use one’ ethnic background to fit in with the newest trends. But Walker does something else besides that, by constantly comparing and contrasting the biographies, descriptions and actions of these characters she shows what real African American heritage looks like, how one should treat it and finally how it is different to the empty claims of those who can not understand it.

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