Summary, Themes & Analysis of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker: Symbols & Setting

Everyday Use short story

Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” from 1973 is one of her best known. It’s frequently anthologized and often read by students.

Summary of “Everyday Use”

Mama Johnson tells us she’s expecting a visit from her daughter Dee. Her other daughter, Maggie, still lives at home with her. Mama plans to wait in the freshly cleaned front yard.

Maggie will be nervous and self-conscious during the visit because of her burn scars and Dee’s advantages.

Mama sometimes dreams of being on one of those TV show where someone who’s succeeded is surprised on air by their parents. She would be brought out and a man like Johnny Carson would compliment her daughter. Dee would hug her and they’d have a loving and tearful reunion.

On the show, Mama would be the way Dee would want her to be—slimmer, lighter skinned, with glistening hair and a quick wit. Mama knows this is wrong even in a dream. She’s a large, heavy woman who wears practical clothes and works hard and can kill her own food. Dee is bold and confident. She’s lighter skinned than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure.

Maggie gets dressed for the visit and comes into the yard. She’s been extremely shy and diffident ever since the fire that burned their other house. She was burned but Dee wasn’t. Dee hated the old house and Mama thought she hated Maggie too, before she went off to school.

With the church’s help, Mama raised the money to send Dee to Augusta to school. She overwhelmed her Mama and Maggie with what she learned, and lorded her education over them. Dee wanted nice things and had her own style.

Mama only has a second grade education. Maggie reads to her sometimes, but she can’t see that well. Maggie is engaged to John Thomas and will soon be out of the house. Mama will be free to sing to herself, although she’s not good at it. She’s always been better at man’s work.

The new house is a lot like the old one—three rooms, holes for windows and built in a pasture. Maggie will probably want to tear it down. She said she wouldn’t bring friends there, but she’s never had many friends. She found so much fault with her old beau that he ran off to marry a girl from the city.

Dee pulls up to the house with a guest, a short, stocky man with long hair and a long beard. Dee wears a long, loud dress with long earrings and other accessories. Her hair stands up like wool and has stylized pigtails. Maggie tries to go inside but Mama stays her.

Dee uses an African greeting and her guest uses a religious Muslim one. Dee tells Mama not to get up. She goes back to her car for a camera. She takes several pictures of Mama and Maggie, making sure to get the house in as well.

Maggie recoils from a hug offered by the guest. He tries to give her an unusual handshake but gives up.

Dee has changed her name to Wangero Lee-wanika Kemanjo. Her old name was given by her oppressors. Dee is named after her aunt, and Mama traces it back to the Civil War. The discussion peters out. The man’s name is longer and harder to pronounce, so they settle on Hakim-a-barber.

Mama associates him with the beef-cattle farmer nearby who use the same greeting. He agrees with some of their teachings. Mama doesn’t know if Wangero and Hakim are married, and she doesn’t ask.

They sit down to eat. Hakim doesn’t eat pork and doesn’t want the collards. Wangero loves everything. She also admires the benches made by her father, and Grandma’s butter dish and dasher, which were whittled from a tree. She wants to take the dish and dasher for display.

After dinner, Wangero goes to Mama’s trunk in her bedroom and takes out two old family quilts that she wants to take. Mama suggests taking other ones that have better stitching, done by machine. Wangero wants the hand-sewn ones and acts like they’re already hers. Mama has promised them to Maggie when she gets married.

Wangero can’t believe this because Maggie would just use them daily until they’re worn out. Wangero wants to hang them up. They argue over who should get them.

Maggie timidly says her sister can take the quilts. Mama is struck by Maggie’s appearance and demeanor in the moment. She hugs Maggie and brings her into the room onto the bed. She takes the quilts from Wangero and gives them to Maggie, telling Wangero to take some of the others.

Wangero leaves without a word and goes to the car with Hakim. Mama and Maggie see her off. Wangero talks about their heritage and tells Maggie to make something of herself.

Maggie smiles and the car pulls away. Mama and Maggie sit contentedly in the yard until bedtime.

Theme: Heritage and Identity

The crux of the story is a consideration of heritage and the broader issue of identity.

Dee’s attitude toward her heritage undergoes the most obvious change, but it’s only a superficial one. As a young person, she’s not happy with where she’s from.

Dee hated the old house that burned down. Her distance from it was mirrored by her standing away from it and her family after it burned. She doesn’t like the new house, either, which is very similar to the old one. She’s said she won’t bring friends there.

Mama believes Dee hated Maggie when they were kids. Maggie personified the traditional family background, being darker skinned and without any desire to leave or pursue education.

When Dee visits, her attitude toward her family background seems to have changed. She takes several pictures, being sure to get the house (which she had previously disparaged) in them. She delights in the traditional Southern food. She sees the benches her dad made with fresh eyes. She also wants the butter dish and dasher that were hand whittled.

These things all build up to the most significant scene of the story. Dee wants the hand-stitched quilts made from some old patches of clothing from Grandma and Grandpa.

Despite the newfound appreciation Dee has for her heritage, it proves to be superficial. As she leaves, she says to Maggie, “It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live, you’d never know it.” Dee’s attitude toward her family heritage seems to be the same. So why is she so interested in it?

Dee wants to display the items she takes, including hanging up the quilts. We get the sense that Dee wants them as conversation pieces, so she can talk about her background as something she rose above, that she’s “made it”. She wants symbols of her heritage, but doesn’t want to live it.

Her view is made clear when she says Maggie couldn’t appreciate the quilts, that she’d be “backward enough to put them to everyday use.” Mama and Maggie are living their heritage. Dee thinks they’re backward, and only wants her heritage represented by objects. It’s not going to be a part of her daily life.

Dee also rejects her family heritage by adopting an African name. She views her family name as coming from oppressors, which is a valid view, however, it’s not the only valid view. Mama traces the family history of Dee’s name, viewing it as coming, not from oppressors, but from people who loved, taught and paved the way for her.

As Wangero, she says that Dee is dead. Symbolically, she has killed Dee, and her connection to her family heritage. Literally, we see that the old Dee is still very much alive; her attitude is the same as always. The new name hasn’t changed her identity.

In contrast, Maggie is steeped in her family heritage. She’s marrying a local man and will continue to live in the area. She knew the dasher’s provenance—who carved it and what people called him. This is probably something Dee heard many times, but she didn’t care to remember it. Maggie has learned from her family how to quilt, and can continue to make them, even if they wear out from daily use.

Other Themes

Change could be considered as a theme:

  • Dee has changed her educational level, where she lives, and her name and hair style to emphasize her African heritage.
  • Mama is facing a significant change as Maggie is soon to married, so she’ll be living by herself.
  • Maggie’s life will change when she marries. She also experienced a change during the story, as she genuinely smiles at the end. (see question below)

Assertiveness could also be considered as a theme:

  • Dee is highly individual and makes her preferences clear, even among white people.
  • Maggie is the opposite—nervous, ashamed and painfully shy.
  • Mama is the most balanced but not as assertive as she would like. She wouldn’t look a white man in the eye. When she goes to see the Muslim farmers who are taking a stand against white oppression, we see that Mama approves of this and would like to have more of this quality.

Irony in “Everyday Use”

Some examples of irony include:

  • It was Dee’s mother and church (part of the heritage she rejects) that allowed her to go to school in Augusta, setting her up to leave it behind completely.
  • When Dee connects with her African roots, she ignores her family roots.
  • Dee wants to display objects from her grandparents but disdains their legacy.

Why does Maggie smile at the end?

As Dee prepares to drive away, “Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses. But a real smile, not scared.”

First, we’ll consider the possible explanation given, that she smiled at Dee’s sunglasses.

It seems more likely her smile is related to the scene that just played out. Maggie feels Dee has had all the advantages in life, that “‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her.” Mama has just given her a definitive “no” over the quilts, to Maggie’s advantage. She could be smiling at this role reversal, at this affirmation of her worth.

Where is the story set?

It’s set in small town rural Georgia, as Dee was sent to school in Augusta.

What do the quilts symbolize?

The quilts symbolize the Johnson family heritage.