Use, a short story written by Alice Walker, brings the reader into the lives of a mother and her two daughters. The daughters grew up in the same home but had two very different paths. Mama and the church raised money for Dee to attend school in Augusta and Maggie stayed home. Although Dee went on to further her education in Augusta, Maggie learned other valuable life skills from Mama, her Aunt, and her grandmother.
These differences growing up give both Maggie and Dee different views of where they came from, where they are now, and the direction of their future. The story begins with Mama and Maggie waiting for Dee to arrive. Dee has made it and Mama describes what seeing each other may be like when someone who has “made it” returns home. This dream she describes is something from a movie, reuniting on Johnny Carson and Dee acting so appreciative of everything her mother has done for her. In a dream, Mama is who Dee wants her to be.
Mama describes the mother Dee would want as slimmer and lighter skinned. In reality, she is the same person she has always been. She had only a second grade education. Mama is a big boned woman with hands like a man and who is content with her life. Although times have changed you get the sense that she still lives in the past. For example when she talks about the dream of reuniting with her daughter on Johnny Carson. Mama goes on to say that she would not be looking a white man in the eye.
Despite the new rights for African Americans, she says that she “has always talked to them with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whatever direction is farthest form them” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1088). Although Mama comes across as a strong woman, she seems to still have that slave mentality with this comment. Mama thinks Dee is better, perhaps even better than herself. She says Dee has good hair and lighter skin. By the end of the story Mama had enough of Dee being self-centered and disrespectful.
She finally embraces Maggie and stands up for her against Dee. In the end Mama is content with herself. In Maggie, there is sense her nervousness as she awaits her sister’s arrival. Maggie thinks her sister Dee has “held life always in the palm of her hand…” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1087). By this, Maggie thinks that Dee’s life was never difficult. In the beginning, Maggie seems weak with no confidence in herself. Mama compares Maggie to a lame animal that comes to the side on anyone who will show kindness it.
Mama says she walks with “chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since that fire burned the house to the ground” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1088). Perhaps Maggie acts this way because she was burned when the old house was on fire and has the scars as a reminder. Perhaps it is more than the physical scars of the fire. Maggie acts so nervous and almost fearful of Dee. She sucks in her breath with an “Uhnnnn,” sound. “Like when you see the wriggling end of a snake just in front of your foot on the road” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1089).
I am not sure if it is fear of her sister or fear of the way her sister looked. The story gives no details to show that Dee and Maggie have or had a loving sister relationship. Dee comes across as a fake, self-centered, ungrateful, disrespectful woman. Although she is educated she comes across so ignorant. She acts confident. Confident in whom she is and where she is going in life. Dee’s character is all over the place. She comes to the house with a sense that she is better than Mama and Maggie. She acts like she is a tourist, even snapping a picture of a cow.
Snapping pictures of Mama and Maggie and the house as though she has never seen people like them or a house like theirs. Dee has changed her name and shows up with a man who one assumes she is in a relationship with. By the comments Dee’s companion, whom Mama calls “Asalamalakim”, makes regarding doctrines and pork and Dee and the man’s strange names, I assume Dee and her man are following the ways of the Muslim nation. Dee has changed her name because she did not want the name given to her by “the people that oppress me” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1090).
This makes me think of Malcolm X. In one sense she is into with this new belief system, the next she is saying Mama does not have to use the new name. Dee then is eating chitlins and greens, both made with pork. I am not sure Dee wants this new life or perhaps she does not know what she wants. Dee also has a sense of entitlement. She speaks of what she wants to take from the house. Parts of a churn, that seems to still be used by Mama, she then goes through Mama’s trunk to take out the quilts she wants. Suddenly Dee is sentimental about her past? She is manipulative.
She first just says that she needs the churn piece, and then she asks nicely for the quilts. When Mama had offered her the quilts when she went off to school, she turned them down saying they were not in style. When Mama gives them to Maggie, Dee tries to say that Mama does not understand her heritage. Then she makes one insult by saying to Maggie that “she ought to make something of herself, too” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1093). When she does not get what she wants she suddenly leaves. I really question what Dee’s purpose was for coming to visit. I found myself judging Dee.
In one breath she does not want her name, she then wants to take items from the people she is named after. She hated her home and wanted nothing to do with the quilts until her visit and suddenly she is sentimental, “clutching them closely to her bosom” (Barnet, Burto, & Cain, 2011, p. 1092). She tried to tell Mama and Maggie they do not understand their heritage, yet does Dee really understand or appreciate where she came from? Dee seems unstable. She does not really know who she is or perhaps who she wants to be. Perhaps these feelings come to me because the story somewhat parallels an experience with my oldest sister.
My oldest sister suddenly left the town we lived in for California after meeting a man at a nightclub two days earlier. This was not like my sister. Later when she returned for a visit, she came across somewhat condescending. Like our lives in Canada were so backward. When she came to visit we often acted like Maggie, in that we thought she was better than us. We would always make her stay pleasant and never stir anything up. She said she would never move back because she had married a black man and everyone in our town was ignorant and racist and how could she bring her mixed children to his town.
She would come to town acting as though she was so much better than anyone else. Then the next time she would visit she acted all sentimental and even asked for my grandmother’s crocheted blankets. She forgot where she came from. She did not appreciate the past for making her the woman she became. She was the one who was ignorant. Now she has alienated herself from almost all the family and has no real relationship with any of her three sisters. I enjoyed reading this story as I have other stories from Alice Walker. Alice Walker wrote this story to remind us to appreciate where we came from and to be content with he person you are. Even in this short story you see this awareness in Mama and Maggie. They start to think that they are not good enough and in the end are smiling, content, and happy. Dee however does not change in the story. Dee enters the story as a person who thinks she knows who she is and leaves the story still thinking that way. Sadly, I do not think Dee really knows who she is, what she wants in life, or she wants to be. Maggie however, knows all these things.
Reference Barnet, S. , Burto, W. , & Cain, W. E. (2011). Literature for composition (9th ed. ). Hagerstown, MD: Longman.