Everyday Use by Alice Walker presents a study of culture through characterization and symbolism, contrasting the characters and attitudes of Dee and Maggie Johnson to reveal the theme of the story and show that culture is lived, not learned. Dee is beautiful, smart, and outgoing, and Maggie is her opposite in every way. Dee commands attention with every word and gesture, but Maggie walks “chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle” (Walker) as though she is afraid of being seen. Dee covets items such as the butter churn not because they are part of her life, but because they are part of her culture.
Her inadequate understanding of her culture is revealed by her intent to put such items on display like museum exhibits, to prove to herself and others that she has a cultural heritage. Dee grows up ashamed of her family, leaves home, changes her name, and does not return until she wants something from them – she does not understand that her family is the true link to her culture. In contrast, Maggie stays in the family home, living with her culture and her family memories every day.
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Maggie learns about her culture from her family, but Dee learns only when she leaves home – she learns about her family’s culture from people who have had no exposure to it. For Dee, culture is something she has lost and must fight to attain, but Maggie is still living it and has never lost it. Maggie has been taught how to quilt, and she knows how and when the quilts and the churn dasher were made – Dee does not have this knowledge. When Dee tries to take the quilts, she is angry that they are intended for Maggie, who will “be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker).
She believes that Maggie is incapable of understanding their importance. Dee sees the quilts merely as decorative items – souvenirs to be put on display to provide proof of her cultural heritage. Maggie does not need proof; the quilts are to use and to remember her family by. The Johnson sisters are epitomized by their attitudes towards the quilts. Dee has an incomplete understanding of her culture, because, having rejected the possibility of learning from her family, she has turned to outside sources.
She has learned that culture has nothing to do with her family, and that culture is something to be put on display; therefore she does not understand that the value of the quilts lies in the memories they evoke as well as their utility. For Maggie, culture and family are inseparable, and while she cannot articulate what culture is, she knows what the quilts mean to her, and she also knows that culture is more than material items – as she says, she “can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (Walker).
Maggie realizes than the quilts are less important than the memories and traditions that they represent. For Dee, the quilts are a symbol of the ‘lost’ African heritage she is so desperate to recapture, whereas for Maggie, the quilts symbolize the family and culture that she already has. Works Cited Walker, Alice. (1973). Everyday Use. Thomas R. Arp & Greg Johnson, eds. In Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense (9th ed. ). Heinle, 2006.
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