"Every Day Use", Theme in Triplicate
by Janin Wise
Like a fable or fairytale, Alice Walker makes her theme clear to the reader, through the use of her title, “Every Day Use”. One can infer that she means this theme in three possible ways: Empathetically with the reader, through the use of down to earth and every day language in the text; literally, as shown in the unfolding of the narrative; and symbolically, as represented through the relationship and character of the three family members, the narrator and her two daughters, Dee and Maggie.
To begin, the reader is invited to empathize and emotionally engage in this short story, with the dedication, “for your grandmamma” (369). These three words are a direct message to the reader, creating the opportunity to participate on a personal level with the ensuing narrative. The story is told from a first person perspective in short sentences and fairly simple language, denoting the educational level of the speaker. It also gives the story the feel of having a conversation: This is a mother sharing her story with a confidant, and that confidant is the reader.
In turn, the title of the short story is revealed when Dee lays claim to the handmade quilts in her mother’s room and her mother informs her that they are for her sister’s wedding. Dee responds, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said, “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to every day use” (375). Dee is shocked and dismayed by this notion, though her mother is fully supportive of the idea. Dee considers them priceless heirlooms of their past, and is certain that regular use in their intended purpose will result in them being destroyed. Her mother points out that it will be alright—Maggie knows how to make more. When questioned what she would do with them instead, Dee responds that she would repurpose them as decorations to be hung and admired on the wall (375-376). ‘Every day use’ is literally presented in the text as a discernable difference in the practices of Dee, who would use the quilts as decorations, and Maggie, who would use them for their original function as bedding.
Conversely, Dee is a symbolic representation that intellectual arrogance and the search for false traditions should not trample the real traditions and origins that they spring from. She is sent off to a school of higher learning while her mother and sister remain largely uneducated (371). She is willing to accept the education of ‘her oppressors’ but casts off her birth name in favor of an assumed and presumptuous ‘return to her roots.’
“You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie,” I said. Dice is my
sister. She named Dee. We called her “Big Dee” after Dee was born.
“But who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
“I guess after Grandma Dee,” I said.
“And who was she named after?” asked Wangero.
“Her mother,” I said, and saw Wangero was getting tired. “That’s about as far
back as I can trace it,” I said. Though, in fact, I probably could have carried it
back beyond the Civil War through the branches. (373)
She claims the handmade quilts as her own, and disregards that they have been promised to her sister as a wedding present. Dee shunned them when one was offered to her originally (375). In pursuing her elitist education, she fails to learn the tradition of making them herself: She was too good to learn how to make them, and now believes them to be too good to pass on to her sister, who would actually use them. When her mother takes them away and tells her to choose another, Dee is over the pretense of a nice family visit (376). The real purpose of her visit is exposed—to take these quilts.
“You just don’t understand,” she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
“What don’t I understand?” I wanted to know.
“Your heritage,” she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said,
“You out to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.” ( 376)
She fails to recognize that they are living their heritage, while she chooses to walk away from hers and instead create her own from bits and pieces of her choosing, much like the making of quilts from the tatters of older fabrics.
In conclusion, Alice Walker is explicit in her theme when she entitles her short story, “Every Day Use”. A closer look at the writing style reveals the conversational, ‘every day’ wording used to invite the reader into the story on a more personal level. The casual observer cannot miss the literal presentation of the title words in the narrative. And understanding the interplay of the relationship between these three women reveals the symbolic every day use of their heritage… or the utter disregard of those traditions while embracing intellectual arrogance and pretensions of grandeur.
Hacker, Diana and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s.
Walker, Alice. “Every Day Use.” Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry,
Drama, and Writing. Ed. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 3rd ed. New York: Longman,
2010. 369-376. Print.