- Books, Literature, and Writing
A Review on Alice Walker's Everyday Use
Quilting and Relationships
Everyday Use by Alice Walker is a story of a mother and her two daughters, Maggie and Dee. Despite being sisters, Maggie and Dee’s personalities are as opposite as night and day. Dee is the popular one who aspires for higher goals. Maggie, on the other hand, contents herself with staying at the shadow of sister and to learn how to quilt.
Towards the end of the story, the mother must make a choice as to whom to give the quilt which they hold for generations. When Maggie spoke and suggested that the quilt be given to her older sister Dee, she began to see Maggie in a different light. She also learned to appreciate Maggie’s simplicity and goodness as compared to Dee’s sophistication and ambitions.
Barbara Christian noted that in Walker's work one can gleaned "contrariness," a "willingness at all turns to challenge the fashionable belief of the day." The much-covered quilt pertains to a trope. In this instance, the trope is a metaphor to reality as experienced by the author during her times. Sam Whitsitt said that “the tightness of the stitching depends on the tightness of the identity of any group which claims the quilt as its sign”. Kelley believes that "the most resonant quality of [real] quiltmaking is the promise of creating unity amongst disparate elements". Recently, Showalter observes that the quilt has "transcended the stigma of its sources in women's culhire" and become the "central metaphor of American cultural identity".
During Alice Walker’s time "the writing of fiction," as Mary Helen Washington observes, may refer to having "done under the shadow of men". Therefore, the quilt could mean it takes the women from the domination of men and give them a voice, a place of their own.
As Sam Whitsitt points out “Moving out of the shadow of men, however, can lead to entanglements in the threads of women”. In a related article "The Needle or the Pen: The Literary Rediscovery of Women's Textile Work," Elaine Hedges narrates how women writers before the mid-1900s protect themselves and calm their nerves on the largely male-dominated literary establishment by used metaphor by saying writing was actually mere sewing-the pen refers to only a needle.
Both Elaine Hedges and Elaine Showalter recognize the importance of quilting, but have hesitations as to how it is used. Hedges notes "whether the needle doesn't at times move too magically to dispel conflict, to solve complex issues of gender and male power", and Elaine Showalter points out that, "while quilting does have crucial meaning for American women's texts, it can't be taken as a transhistorical and essential form of female expression, but rather as a gendered practice that change[s] from one generation to the next...".
Bakers said that "the sorority of quiltmakers, fragment weavers, holy patchers, possesses a sacred wisdom that it hands down from generation to generation of those who refuse the center for the ludic and unconfined spaces of the margins." This analysis pertains to Dee, the prodigal daughter in the story. She is the character who plays on the margins. Dee, in the story, is being excluded according to Nancy Tuten calls "the establishment of a sisterhood between mother and daughter," which pertains to the sisterhood between Mama and her daughter Maggie, not to the other daughter/sister, Dee.
In the story, Patricia Kane believes Dee is the prodigal daughter who does not receive the welcome she anticipates as opposed to the biblical story ‘prodigal son’. The explanation for this is simple, Nancy Tuten believes that Mama has a "distaste for Dee's egotism," that Maggie feels "disgust with her sister," and that, "in the end, Dee's oppressive voice is mute, for Mama has narrated her out of the story altogether."
The Bakers are more upfront. To them, Dee is evil, a "serpent" in Mama's "calm pasture"; inauthentic ("Dee is not an example of the indigenous rapping and styling out of Afro-America"; and a traitor ("Individualism and a flouting of convention in order to achieve 'aesthetic' success constitute acts of treachery in 'Everyday Use)".
Mary Helen Washington believes that "Walker is most closely aligned in the story with the 'bad daughter,' Dee... the one who goes out in the world and returns with African clothes and an African name”. Which means, Walker most likely identifies herself with Dee more than any other character in the story ‘Everyday Use’. Walker refers to Dee as an "autonomous person," and she points out the similarities like Dee, has an "African name ... and I love it and use it when I want to, and I love my Kenyan gowns and my Ugandan gowns--the whole bit--it's part of me" (Washington 102). Moreover, the name Dee is given, "Wangero," is the same name Walker herself was given when she went to Africa (Christian 13).
Susan Willis in noting that, "when the black writer takes the materials of folk culture and subjects them to fiction[,]... she is engaged in 'an enterprise fraught with contradiction.' Dee being the one fraught with contradiction is in danger of being branded as a traitor or excluded and shunned. But in a story as Diana Fuss pointed out in her book Essentially Speaking, it is definitely for the good to put some conflict rather than attempt to completely eliminate it. That is why in the end; Dee is relegated to the background and branded as a traitor.
Barbara Christian said that "Toomer's women are silent, their sense of themselves and their condition interpreted by a male narrator."
The iron though as what Washington points out, is that the story of "Everyday Use," which is supposed to give voice to people in and outside of the story, make their stories heard, is distributed in a market that does not include them. Whitsitt said, “They never hear their voices being heard”.
Mama's "epiphanic moment of recognition" (Baker and Pierce-Baker 161) is a re-cognition that she ought to live in the moment. That she does not see reality as it presents. Bakers believe that it should be taken in the context of logic or politics of discovering identity. Barbara Christian believes in Walker's "contrariness". This is because she creates characters who act in spite of themselves or who act out of character. This creates "differences within identities" (Fuss 103).
Walker changes her sentence to past tense when she writes about Mama’s epiphanic moment. "Something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet," which leads to "I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me..." In this instance, as Whitsitt said “But the past tense is not opposed to the present.”
The story ends with this newly-discovered intimacy between a mother and daughter, found presently as they never have done before. The fact is it is written in the past tense and the story ends that way. This, in turn, leads one to wonder about how present the present tense is at the beginning of the story. This somehow creates a contradiction which is unique to Walker’s writings.
As Elaine Showalter says in her article "Common Threads," the quilt itself is no longer specifically tied to woman's culture as years go by: "The patchwork quilt came to replace the melting-pot as the central metaphor of American cultural identity. In a very unusual pattern, it transcended the stigma of its sources in women's culture and has been remade as a universal sign of American identity."