From this introduction, it is a smooth transition into the short story by Alice Walker, “Everyday Use,” where the making of quilts and their value are an important topic. The story opens with the narrator who tells of raking her yard yesterday, taking great pains to make it smooth and neat. Immediately, with the description of raking the yard, the narrator places the story in the rural South, and immediately we learn that the narrator and Maggie are waiting for a woman--Maggie’s sister; and we learn of the disparity between the two sisters, Maggie, “standing hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars, eyeing her sister with a mixture of awe and envy(1).”
The narrator, Mama, leads us into her own character by staging, in her imagination, a reunion on a TV show, where a successful young woman is surprised by a reunion with her parents; and everyone is hugging and shows how much they have all loved one another all these years. Mama goes on to say that of course the young woman is proud of her parents. Mama then shares a “real life” description of herself as something of a Sojourner Truth in physical strength and fortitude.
In real life I am a large, big boned woman with rough, man-working hands.
In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day.
I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in
In the imaginary TV show Mama says, “I am the way my daughter wants me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin is like uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights(3).” It is very clear that there is a wide disparity not only between sisters Maggie and Dee but also between Mama and her daughter Dee.
In fact, this story is about disparity; it is about the pain we inflict upon one another, often unwittingly, about a mother who has no misconceptions as to who she is, and who her daughters are. Although Mama has raised Dee, Dee is really a stranger to both her mother and her sister, Maggie. It is about denying and rejecting one’s roots. It is about taking a stand, sometimes against one’s own children. Obviously there is a wealth of possibilities here for lessons and learning.
The vehicle in which these issues are couched is a visit Dee makes with her boyfriend back to Mama and Maggie in their humble, rural dwelling that has no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides.
One interesting exercise for students working independently or in groups of two or three is to cull through the story in search of incidents in which Mama, and Maggie as well, suffer psychological pain inflicted by Dee, sometimes mindlessly, and sometimes intentionally, sometimes indirectly as is the case when Mama describes how she thinks Dee would like her to look for the TV appearance, and sometimes directly, as in this account Mama gives of being read to by Dee. (Gathering these incidents also can be a natural first step in what would become a five- paragraph essay assignment.)
She used to read to us without pity, forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits,
whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.
She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of know-
ledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious
way she read, to shove us away just at the moment, like dimwits, we seemed
about to understand.(4)
An instance of Dee mindlessly inflicting pain, and there are many instances, manifests itself in the scene where Dee is determined to take the quilts handmade by Grandma Dee and Big Dee that are promised to Maggie when she marries. Dee bursts out with, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! … She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use (5).”
Once students have compiled a list of these incidents, a discussion should ensue from making on the board, two lists from the students’ findings: one titled “Mama and/or Maggie suffer pain consciously inflicted by Dee.” And the other titled “Mama and/ or Maggie suffer pain unconsciously inflicted by Dee.” The students’ lists will vary and they will very likely not agree on some incidents as to which list to put their findings on. Of course the obvious question is, “Why does Dee do either of these?” Mama makes one telling reference to “all her [Dee’s] faultfinding power.” Apparently Mama and her life style including the house they live in and Maggie have all been subjected to this power by Dee.
And when Dee shows up with her boyfriend for her afternoon visit, her character is every bit as offensive as the reader has anticipated. Items and implements of everyday use in Mama’s and Maggie’s life such as the butter churn top and the dasher and hand sewn quilts are seen by Dee now as collector’s items to be displayed in her apartment. Speaking of suffering psychological pain at the hands of Dee, it is as if she has come to pilfer her own family’s belongings right before their eyes.
However, as Dee stands stubbornly clutching the quilts she has come to claim, quilts she refused to take to college because they were, in her estimation, old fashioned, Mama says,
I did something I had never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged
her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and
dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her
mouth open. (6)
Sometimes mothers must take a stand against their own children, or on behalf of their own children, and sometimes both, as in the case of Mama, Dee and Maggie. Arriving at this insight about the characters in the story, an obvious discussion topic and perhaps a writing assignment might be to think about times when mothers do have to take a stand against a child or on behalf of a child, to step in when she witnesses an injustice or in defense of her child.
Mama does something she has never done before: she validates Maggie with her resounding “No!” to Dee: She “hugged” Maggie to her and furthermore brought her into the room as a witness as she “snatched” the quilts out of “Miss Wangero’s hands” and “dumped them into Maggie’s lap.” And Mama admits that this coup d’etat was almost divinely inspired. Mama simply knew she was the instrument to right the injustice Maggie had suffered, silently, all her life, at the hands of her sister. It is an epiphany for Mama when she moves on Wangero; it is a stand long overdue, not only affirming Maggie but herself as well. Dee has “cowed” them both for years. One has only to go back and reread Mama’s description of what Dee would like Mama to look like and what Mama says she looks like in reality.