An interpretation of the symbolism used in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker.

Compose an essay of at least 1,200 words in which you offer an interpretation of the symbolism used in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker.

 

Develop a thesis that offers a specific interpretation of this element.

 

Open your introduction with an engaging opener, such as a question, quote from the story, or interesting idea. Then, connect to the short story and mention the title and the author. End your introduction with a thesis statement that interprets a literary element of the story.

 

The body paragraphs should support your thesis. Present specific aspects of the short story that help to illustrate your points. Make sure to quote from the story and analyze specific lines that support your argument. Body paragraphs typically have at least two short quotations each as supporting evidence.

 

Include a strong concluding paragraph that summarizes your main points and explains the significance of the thesis. Finish this paragraph with a strong and satisfying ending.

 

Be sure to use quotations from the short story to support the thesis (make sure to include in-text citations)

 

Key symbols

 

Characters

 

Walker’s use of symbolism is evident at first with her characters. Dee is a symbol of success, accompanied by her lack of remembrance and care for her ancestral history. Maggie, her sister, is a symbol of respect and passion for the past. Mama tells the story of her daughter Dee’s arrival. Told from first person narrative, Mama’s point of view offers an insight into the mother figure who appreciates her heritage while also representing a symbol of living history.

 

Quilts

 

“Everyday Use” focuses on the bonds between women of different generations and their enduring legacy, as symbolized in the quilts they fashion together. This connection between generations is strong, yet Dee’s arrival and lack of understanding of her history shows that those bonds are vulnerable as well. The relationship between Aunt Dicie and Mama, the experienced seamstresses who made the quilts, is very different from the relationship between Maggie and Dee, sisters who share barely a word and have almost nothing in common. Just as Dee cannot understand the legacy of her name, passed along through four generations, she does not understand the significance of the quilts, which contain swatches of clothes once worn or owned by at least a century’s worth of ancestors.

 

The quilts are pieces of living history, documents in fabric that chronicle the lives of the various generations and the trials, such as war and poverty, that they faced. The quilts serve as a testament to a family’s history of pride and struggle. With the limitations that poverty and lack of education placed on her life, Mama considers her personal history one of her few treasures. Her house contains the handicrafts of her extended family. Instead of receiving a financial inheritance from her ancestors, Mama has been given the quilts. For her, these objects have a value that Dee, despite professing her desire to care for and preserve the quilts, is unable to fathom.

 

The Yard

 

Mama’s yard represents a private space free of the regrets and shortcomings that have infiltrated Mama’s life. The yard appears in the first and last sentences of the story, connecting the events and bookending the action. The yard has been meticulously prepared for Dee’s arrival. Mama is sensitive to every detail of the yard’s appearance, referring to the wavy designs she and Maggie have made in the dirt as they tidied it. Mama extols the comforts of the yard, comparing it to an extended living room. In many ways, Mama prefers the yard to the confining house, where the muggy air fails to circulate freely. The outdoors is a place of freedom, whereas the interior of the house offers restraint and discomfort. The tense discussion about who gets the quilts takes place inside, where the various objects provoke Dee’s desire to reconnect with her past. In contrast, the yard is a blissful escape, a place where Mama’s regrets can be sidestepped. For her and Maggie, the yard evokes safety, a place where they can exert what little control they have over their environment.

 

Eye contact / Vision / Gaze

 

The idea of eye contact, vision, or gaze recurs throughout “Everyday Use,” representing the various ways that characters, particularly Dee, interact with or create hierarchies of power. For example, when Mama contrasts her inability to look white men in the eye with Dee’s tenacious ability to always return a gaze, eye contact represents Dee’s ability to combat and resist oppressive racial norms. Dee uses her gaze also to elevate herself above her family, creating a power dynamic between them. When Dee and Hakim-a-Barber visit, they signal to each other with their eye movements over the family’s heads, a conversation that excludes, and therefore disempowers, Dee’s mother and sister. While sight represents Dee’s resistance to some hierarchies of power, like in her ferocious returning gaze to white men, it also reinforces other ones, like between Dee and her poorer, less educated family.

 

Hands

Hands represent the hard work women do to survive and improve their lives. The women of the Johnson family have a history of making something out of nothing, bringing comfort and beauty to daily life through their skill and determination. Mama has “rough, man-working hands,” a testament to the difficult physical labor she has done all her life, from butchering animals to raking the hard clay of her barren, sandy yard. Maggie’s hands, scarred from the fire, may not be beautiful, but they are nonetheless useful and productive; Maggie quilts and helps with work around the house, from doing dishes to raking the yard. Grandma Dee stitched quilts by hand, a fact that amazes citified Dee, who never learned to quilt or use her hands for traditional work.

When Mama observes Hakim-a-barber trying to shake a reluctant Maggie’s hand, she notes he “wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy.” This observation contrasts the two characters. Hard-working Maggie is uncomfortable with Hakim-a-barber, an educated, somewhat pretentious man who lives a life removed from physical labor; the characters exist in two different worlds.

Clothing

Alice Walker uses clothing to represent Dee’s chosen identity as Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, a proud, modern, black woman who embraces her African, rather than her American, heritage. Unlike Maggie, who wears typical—and unfashionable, ill-matched—American clothes, a pink skirt and red blouse, Dee arrives for her visit in full African garb. The flowing dress, which drapes down to the ground, is not suited to the hot weather and is “so loud it hurts my eyes,” according to Mama. The bright yellows and oranges “throw back the light of the sun,” an allusion both to the hot sun of Africa and to Dee’s own attitude: she shines proudly in her identity and wants the world to see her splendor. Gold is the precious metal of royalty, and Dee’s gold earrings reflect her self-image as a powerful woman to be admired, much like royalty. The earrings, along with Dee’s jangling bracelets, are flashy and impossible to ignore. Through her choice of clothing, Dee demands respect and attention.

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