Narrated through the eyes of Mama, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” tells the story of Mama and her two grown up daughters through the passage of time. The characters Dee and Maggie are developed in completely opposing ways, not only as a symbol of their personalities but also as a symbol for their motives behind keeping their heritage alive. Mama’s view of each daughter remains consistent throughout the story until the point at which a family treasure is being claimed by each daughter. In “Everyday Use”, Walker contrasts between a superficial and a genuine way of expressing and celebrating one’s heritage by juxtaposing the motivations and personalities of Maggie and Dee Johnson as their mother realizes her daughters’ growing independence and differing views on preserving their traditions.
Throughout the story, Dee is portrayed by her mother as the golden child but beneath that perfect facade Walker reveals Dee’s superficial motives for expressing her heritage as she develops Dee’s character. As Dee comes back home to visit her mother, Mama flashes back to when her daughters were young and recalls that Dee had a few friends, “Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school. Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well-tuned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye.” The passage indicates that the boys liked her and the girls were intimidated by Dee’s looks and personality. A deeper look into Dee’s personality is showed to the reader as the narrator remembers that, “Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts.” This passage clearly alludes to how materialistic and superficial Dee can be, especially once she comes back home to visit and asks Mama for the family quilt. Dee’s style has changed, she greats the family in Swahili, and she even asks to be called Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee’s explanation for her new name is that she, “couldn’t bear it any longer being named after the people who oppress me.” The truth, however, is that the name Dee has been in the family for many generations. The situation becomes interesting when Dee asks for the quilt which was made by Big Dee (her grandmother) because she wants to hang them to preserve their heritage. How can Dee be legitimately interested in preserving the family heritage when she is not even proud of carrying on the family name?
In contrast to her thoughts about Dee, Mama describes Maggie in a pitiful way but ultimately learns that her daughter is a genuine person. Right away the reader is let know how Mama feels about Maggie as she comments on how, “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes; she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and aw. She 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.” It is clear that Maggie has always lived in the shadow of her sister and that Mama pities Maggie especially when Mama says, “Have you seems a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks.” Maggie is portrayed as quiet, slow, shy, and does not say much other than “uhnnnh” throughout the story. Only until the end does Maggie speak up and say, “‘She can have them Mama,’ like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her. ‘I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts.’” At this point it is made clear that Maggie is brighter than she is described to be. Not only that, but she is giving towards Dee and can keep the memory of her grandmother and other traditions without greedily taking the quilts for herself. Maggie’s purpose for keeping the quilts would be completely selfish and sincere, unlike her sister’s artistic and superficial purpose.
Walker’s purpose to contrast superficial and genuine reasons for expressing heritage would not have been clear had it not been for the realization that Mama goes through towards the end of the story. Dee takes the quilts as if “they already belonged to her” and explains that “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.” At that moment, Mama realizes that Dee does not really care about the family heirloom but instead just wants to hang the quilts for the superficial reason of looking like she is genuinely concerned with preserving her roots. It all becomes more clear to Mama when she recalls how she “had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told [her] they were old-fashioned, out of style.” Evidently Dee only becomes interested in her heritage once she changes to this new Wangero person. The most ironic part is when “Miss Wangero” criticizes Mama for not understanding her heritage. At this point, Mama’s realization about each of her daughter’s natures and what it means to truly celebrate one’s heritage plays an important role in expressing the author’s purpose.
Walker’s purpose could not have been effectively conveyed had it not been for the way she developed Dee’s and Maggie’s character. Each daughter is vastly different and is seen in that way through their mother’s eyes only until the point when Mama understands that each daughter goes beyond the perfect or pitiful way she has always seen them. It is neither about which daughter is more beautiful or outgoing, nor is it about the quilt itself, but instead it is about who’s motives for keeping the family memory alive is more genuine.