Often times after a person reads a piece of literature, he or she will form opinions about the motivations of the characters, the effects of the setting, the overall theme or underlying message being conveyed, and the other elements that helped to shape the whole story. After contemplating about their particular beliefs about a work, individuals will find their ideas to be different from others because each of them perceives details of the tale in a varying manner. For this reason, it was not surprising that many of my classmates and I had conflicting opinions about the main themes present in Alice Walker”s “Everyday Use (For Your Grandmama).
Numerous members of the class strongly felt that the story”s central theme lied in the differing values of each the characters. They used textual evidence to prove that Dee”s views on certain issues were so unlike those of her mother and Maggie”s that they actually created a barrier between Dee and her family. Others felt that the setting and the type/amount of education influenced the motives of each of the characters. These people referred to the fact that Dee had the opportunity to obtain a proper education and that Mama and Maggie did not.
The rural setting served as a means to enhance their views because it showed that most people had to work instead of receiving an education. In comparison with these viewpoints mentioned, I took a much different approach to interpreting the principal theme of this story. I truly believed that “Everyday Use” was about the ways in which Dee”s personality affected herself and her family. Using this generalized notion, I developed a more precise theme for this work. Each of us is raised within a culture, a set of traditions handed down by those before us.
As individuals, we view and experience common heritage in subtly differing ways. Within many smaller communities and families, deeply felt traditions serve to enrich this common heritage. Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” explores how, in her eagerness to claim an ancient heritage, Dee denies herself the substantive personal experience of familial traditions in such incidents as the justification of her name change, her comments during the meal with the family, and her requesting Mama for the quilts.
Upon arriving at her mother”s new house for the first time, Dee surprises her mother and Maggie with her appearance and her apparent name change. Dee quickly informs her mother that she has made her new name “Wangero” to reflect her African heritage. She no longer will be named after the people who oppress her. This reference can be attributed to Dee”s possible experiences as a civil rights activist. Among the black community many people adopt African names to reflect their pre-slavery heritage. While this can be a source of strength and affirmation for some, it may represent a rejection of one’s past, as it apparently does for Dee.
Even her mother”s response that she was named ‘Dee’ after her aunt, who was named for the aunt’s mother, “though I probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches,” does not have any true effect on her perception of her given name (32). Dee still feels that being called “Wangero” will give her cultural fulfillment, whereas her real name holds her back from attaining this. She fails to recognize that her mother”s words actually show how the family is proud to pass the name ‘Dee” along generations to help preserve their own traditions.
Dee does not feel the pride that is associated with her real name because she possesses a certain prejudice against her family that will not allow her to embrace her own private heritage. This prejudice is rooted in her beliefs that her mother and Maggie are incapable of relating her views due to their lack of education and their unwillingness to accept new ideas. Judging from Dee”s opinions about her name, readers can clearly see that she has misunderstandings about her living heritage that prevent her from feeling the joy of carrying on a family name.
Against Dee’s claim to her African roots is the thread of tradition in her own family. Not only has Dee achieved an education denied her mother, she has rejected her given name, and she sees self-created symbolism in the food and objects present at the meal. Dee “[goes] on through the chitlins and corn bread,” “[talks] a blue streak over the sweet potatoes,” and “[thoroughly] delights herself [with] everything” (45). Dee finds this meal to be a sort of novelty that she can only appreciate properly because she is now in the proper surroundings to do so.
Her usually more sophisticated diet leaves her room to relish such a simple meal and its reflection of her African roots, not her rural family culture. She admits to Mama to not appreciating as a child the benches on which they are sitting, made by her father. Dee can “feel the rump prints” (46). Yet, when next Dee exclaims to her mother that she wants the butter churn which was whittled out of a tree by her uncle, and that she will use it as a centerpiece for one of her tables, readers suspect her appreciation for the benches and the churn is really as mere artifacts.
Dee then turns her attention to the dasher used with the churn. She assures everyone that she will “‘think of something artistic to do with the dasher'” (53). When the shy Maggie informs them her uncle Henry made the dash, and that they used to call him Stash, Dee exclaims, “‘Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s’,” implying that Maggie’s knowledge is feral, that she can’t help but hold on to facts which are irrelevant (53). Real, human details, such as the name of the man who made the dasher, are not relevant to Dee.
She feels the workmanship in the dasher represents good quality art that should be displayed accordingly to mirror her appreciation of her roots. Dee sees the object as a thing of beauty, but not as a part of her very personal culture, a utility reflecting the effort and determination of those who once used it. In turn, she is alienating herself from her personal identification of family”s past through her superficial recognition of the dasher”s value. Dee”s family knows that “hesitation [is] no part of [Dee’s] nature,” and that she is determined to achieve what she desires (6).
In the bedroom, rifling through her mother’s keepsakes, Dee finds her grandma”s quilts, and tries to lay claim to them. The quilts are made of old dresses and cloths, some handed down from several prior generations. When Dee asks her mother if she can have them, we sense a turning point is reached. Since Dee already rejected them once before, Mama responds to Dee”s request by stating that the quilts have been promised to Maggie.
Dee argues that her mother and Maggie cannot properly appreciate the quilts, that the quilts should be displayed. ‘Maggie… [would] probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use'” (66). Dee”s claim to the quilts and her plans to use them as decorations show her outward perception of family heirlooms to be mere objects of display, not treasured items that help people remember their loved ones and make them appreciate the hard work put into them. Dee”s adopted values cloud her mind and thoughts, making her naive to the integrity and genuine nature of her culture.
Her mother”s refusal to grant this one favor does not even create any sense of misgivings on her part. Her arrogance and her adherence to her misguided beliefs make her unable to see the true worth of the quilts and their importance to her family”s traditions. Dee”s notions about the quilts thwart her from experiencing the happiness associated with displaying one”s own familial culture to the rest of the world. Our heritage threads through history past the people who contributed to it, to affect us on a personal level.
To be fully appreciated and claimed, it must reside in the heart. Dee understands the heritage of people she doesn’t know. In this way, her adopted heritage can be understood intellectually, but it is not felt, not personal, and not truly her own. Her rejection of her family”s culture in the rural society will not allow to ever have feelings of personal pride about her true roots. In turn, Dee can never really find happiness in most aspects concerning her immediate family, making it hard for her to have a loving relationship with any of them.