The American Heritage Dictionary defines symbolism as, “the practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events or relationships.” In Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use”, Walker uses various objects, concrete and intangible, to represent larger ideas and themes. By instilling abstract qualities into inanimate objects, Walker is able to weave a complex interplay which itself is symbolic on many levels.
A frequent debate between scholars on what symbols Walker uses in her “Everyday Use” has lead to emergence of several interesting theories. These theories are centered on the themes of quilts as symbols of heritage, art, writing, and transition of the African American society into a new life. In order to fully understand the plot of the short story, as well as its symbols, it will be useful to analyze the works of other literary professionals, who tried to distinguish the proper symbolic threads in Walker’s story.
“Everyday Use” is frequently referred to as “a poignant narrative that describes the relationship between family members through creative symbolism and fine characterization” (Winchell 58). The moral lesson which Walker wanted to teach the reader through the use of perfectly shaped symbols of identity vs. heritage was formed into a simple plot with profound implications. Literary critics traditionally tend to assume that quilts are the central symbols of the story (Winchell; Baker & Baker), and they lead us to the ultimate and anticipated conclusion: our daily lives are inconsistent without our heritage. However, I would better assume that in the symbolic structure of Walker’s “Everyday Use” not the inanimate objects, but the very human characters determine its shape and direction. Moreover, in trying to delineate the symbols in Walker’s story, Dee’s character is the most suitable for this purpose. She appears to be the single carrier of multiple symbols: heritage, redemption, connection between herself and her family (her house), and “the dawning sense of self” (Tuten 125). I have come to this conclusion through multiple reading of “Everyday Use” and the works of literary critics. This is why I will try to construct my discussion logically.
It is difficult to deny that quilts represent one of the strongest symbols in Walker’s work of fiction. In his research, Whitsitt referred to the fact that
“paralleling the success of Walker’s story has been that of another cultural artifact, the quilt, which since the Sixties has undergone a rather spectacular revaluation, moving from the marginalized position it held as a symbol of gossipy women’s sewing circles, to becoming by the Seventies the “central metaphor of American cultural identity” (443).
It is hardly possible to believe that quilts which seem to be the brightest symbol of “Everyday Use”, in reality appear to be popularized by Walker. Their popularity has expanded so rapidly, that the symbol of Dee’s presence is frequently neglected or even forgotten in the light of the quilts. However, it is essential for the literary professionals to understand that quilts in this work have become symbolic due to Dee’s presence and actions otherwise Walker could build the plot of her story in a different manner. In his sound criticism, Whitsitt was rather objective to emphasize that “Walker’s ‘patch’ of the story does not really fit very well in most of the critics’ quilts” (444), but he remained loyal to the subject so vigorously debated by scholars, though trying to be reasonable and objective. Whitsitt did not make quilts serve the main thread in the “Everyday Use” symbolism, but he could not reject the thought, that Walker was trying to identify quilts with art and authenticity. As consequence, the acknowledgement of quilts being the central symbol of the story becomes deceptively vivid. I totally agree with the position of Elaine Showalter: “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” (187). It will be more correct to suggest that quilts are the signs of transition from one generation to another (Showalter 188), but again without Dee’s character and its symbolism, this transition would risk being irrelevant. The symbol of quilts becomes meaningful as soon as they appear in her hands; Dee’s evaluation of quilts as something “old” and “priceless” is what makes them symbolic. Simultaneously, the source of this symbolism is Dee herself; this is why I would argue that Dee is the central symbol and the conjunction of the variety of symbols in the story.
“The visitor rightly recognizes the quilts as a part of a fragile heritage, but she fails to see the extent to which she herself has traduced this heritage” (Cowart 112). Cowart acknowledges the fact of Dee’s changing her name as a symbol of betrayals chief of all she has performed towards her original identity (112). The reader returns to initial point of discussion and is supported in the assumption that quilts play the mere role of being a transitional symbol between identity and heritage, but they should not be given the primary importance in the text. The two different scholars, Tuten and Farrel have concentrated on the symbolism of Walker’s “Everyday Use” and some of their ideas have helped me in analyzing the story. Let’s closely consider the symbolism of Dee’s character.
Symbolism in Walker’s “Everyday Use”
The story line in “Everyday Use” centers around a family of three women and their conflicting philosophies on life and heritage. On the one hand, Mama, the matriarch, and Maggie, her youngest daughter, cling to the traditional way of life of their forbearers. Mama’s lack of education and reliance on the land as a means of subsistence symbolizes conventional modes of thinking. In the case of black Americans, this can also be seen to represent blacks’ former subservience to demands imposed on them as a result of slavery and their acquiescence to the injustices of racism. Maggie is largely reticent, presumably due to the injuries she sustained in a house fire as a child. Maggie’s scars and inability to effectively cope can be seen as a representation of the lasting emotional and psychological injuries that many black Americans who lived through the Jim Crow era were left with.
The household items in Mama’s house all symbolize heritage. The churn top, butter dasher, benches and quilts all have sentimental qualities to the entire family. They were made from the hands of their ancestors and used to sustain life, thus they are deemed important to all. Dee believes that the items hold a sort of talismanic quality and should be cherished as artifacts. She plans to put them away as memoirs to a bygone era. Mama and Maggie regard these items with reverence as well. However, they expect the items to be used as they were intended. This conflict symbolizes the difference in the way the old African-American guard and the new school of African-American thought view their shared history. From Walker’s inference one can surmise that she believes that the contemporary thinkers perhaps romanticize uncomfortable parts of their history or shun them altogether. Although difficult, the author expresses that it is important to remember all aspects of one’s history in truth and practice, as Mama and Maggie demonstrate.
Dee as the major symbol in Walker’s “Everyday Use”
Dee (Wangero) holds starkly different views about life than her mother and sister. Even as a child, she expressed an aversion to her perceived subservient existence. While her childhood home burned, she stood with “a look of concentration on her face as she watched” (Walker 105). Walker implies that the house is representative of tradition, which to Dee includes limited opportunity and regressive thought. Dee is happy to see it go. It must also be noted that the house, symbolic of tradition and acquiescence, maims Maggie and essentially stunts her development. The house that Mama builds after the fire is very similar to the one that burns which symbolizes the endurance of tradition and its lasting effect on Dee and Maggie.
Prior to Dee leaving for college, she had always been concerned with lofty ideas unimportant to her family. However, upon her return she had undergone changes that were surprising even given her penchant for the unconventional. Dee returns, with gentleman companion in tow, in an automobile, which symbolizes wealth that Mama and Maggie don’t have access to. Dee and her companion advise Mama and Maggie of their new names. Dee has cast off her given name in favor of Wangero, a name supposedly more akin to her African heritage. Dee (Wangero)’s companion calls himself Hakim-a-barber. The two are dressed very ornately, perhaps ostentatiously. When Mama assumes by Hakim’s name that he must be affiliated with the Muslims, he states that he “accept(s) some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not (his) style” (107). Dee (Wangero) and Hakim’s non-traditional mannerisms, style of dress, etc. can be said to symbolize the Black Power movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Walker implies that this movement is slick and brassy, but lacks substance. Hakim’s adoption of the Muslim’s speaking points but rejection of their work ethic reveals him as a shallow individual and symbolizes the superficial nature of some of the Black Power movements adherents and ideas. Dee (Wangero)’s rejection of her given name, indicated in the story as passed down through many generations, also reflects this inclination towards that which is stylish over that which is relevant.
Dee is the sophisticated source of symbols, the primary of which is the denial of her heritage and the confused understanding of the hideous nature of such attitudes. Yet, the purpose of this work is to view that young lady as the person, who preferred style to her heritage. It is not difficult to emphasize the “stylish” implication of Dee’s claims: her desire to “hang” quilts is the hidden striving for supporting her own “stylish image”. The complicatedness of these actions in the story is in the following explication: on the one hand, Dee (Wangero) is the symbol of heritage antithesis. Her appearance, her talk, her new name, and her man, with whom she came in tow, are the visible signs of her striving towards being different. On the other hand, it is the best support to the assumption that she cannot further cherish the picture of her family as being diminutive and fraudulent. Inherently Dee (Wangero) clearly understands that she would never be capable of escaping her roots. She might have viewed her leaving the house as having escaped the ghetto. This is why her life apart from her family is the symbol of redemption from her old reality, which she could not (or did not want to) recognize. The liberating culture into which Dee immersed herself after having entered the college in Augusta has become the turning point into her attitudes to life, and she herself has become the symbol of African American culture losing its ties with the African American community. Dee, thus, appears to be the symbol of progressive realization of her race, and the failing attempts to tear herself from her traditional environment. The symbolic appearance is opposed to that of Maggie, who is better described as the representative of the black female majority, and who traditionally suffers when someone else performs redemption similar to Dee’s. Dee is the symbol of redemption from African American values, but this redemption is only surface and reminds the permanent denial of her nature and origin. It is a selfish quest, but Dee does not see any other pathway in pursuing her new ideals.
Dee’s symbolism is found in each passage and in the mere structure of the story. The fact that the Mother changes her narration from the present to the past tense is the symbol of Dee’s transition into the farthest corner of the Mother’s heart. Her discussed redemption and her behavior at home are the symbols of her anger, aggression and to some extent, the suppressed fear. Despite all negative emotions she has brought to her family upon her arrival she had secretly hoped the family would accept her new image. On the contrary, she had caused the inner tension her Mother was experiencing – the tension between her annoyance at Dee’s new appearance and image, and the sincere desire to be the way Dee wanted her to be. As a result, Dee has also become the real symbol of the Mother’s inner dissociation. This dissociation is caused by Dee’s materialism, which she also symbolizes and Dee’s image the Mother used to keep in her heart before she saw her. “Dee wanted nice things…” (Walker 105). This is the thread which again proves that Dee has become the complex conjunction of symbols in the short story: her redemption and her skepticism about her heritage, which she symbolized, were caused by materialism, the symbol of which Dee has also become. This materialism Dee was purposely pursuing, and her appearance is the real revelation of these materialistic symbols. While we tend to speak about quilts as the symbols of heritage in “Everyday Use”, they are better to be evaluated as the relics which lead us to the symbolism of Dee’s materialistic desires. What do they mean? Are they the traditional attributes of the contemporary society, to which the Mother and Maggie did not belong? There is no single answer to that but it is clear that Dee represents the symbolic set of values, to which we try to keep in our contemporary society.
The complexity of symbols Dee represents in the story is also noticed in the complexity of visions Walker tried to incorporate into Dee’s image: the combination of Islam, ghetto, assimilation, and the Africanist attitudes – all these are found in Dee and each contributes into the sophistication of Dee’s image, and consequentially, Dee’s symbolism. Each of these visions is needed for the reader to see Dee’s attempts to restore her identity, which she had inevitably lost after having entered a new world. Dee is the symbol of the person, who failed to properly evaluate the transformation of the black community; she has absorbed all wrongs without appreciating the moral capital she could gain in the new open society.
It could potentially be possible for Dee to be praised for valuing her heritage. Really, why do we criticize her for asking to take the quilts? However, these fragile reminiscences of the African past are recognized by Dee so clumsily, that we have nothing but to sympathize with her. It is not the value of heritage – Dee is the bright symbol of preservationism. “Priceless” quilts are the negative references to her inner sophistication, and are the proofs of Dee’s recognition that she was no longer connected with that family, and with that house. Thus, Dee is also the symbol of the distance between her impoverished past and her privileged present. She is the symbol of perils this distance risks causing, and she is the symbol of deracination, which was depicted by Walker as a completely negative attribute of the new “educated” society. She is the symbol of how far a person can go in pursuing one’s sophistication and the negative boundaries of this sophistication, which are better not to be crossed.
In using objects symbolically, Walker is able to impart a larger meaning into a simple tale of a family conflict. The reader is drawn to ponder the benefits and drawbacks of both traditionalism and progressive thinking. Dee has become the major set of symbols in Walker’s “Everyday Use”. Walker tried to identify her with the distorted African identity, and Dee’s desire to react to this distortion. For some reason, Dee had to abandon her original African identity, which she viewed as denying her voice and limiting her autonomy. Walker wanted Dee to serve the representation of the traditional attitudes during the time, when the story was being written. However, Dee has forgotten that no matter how hard she tried to reject her cultural authenticity, she could not escape her heritage. Her actions had better led to the distorted understanding of the reality, which is very symbolic, too: the person cannot perform a successful redemption from one’s authenticity without forever breaking oneself to fit to the changing societal conditions.