Friday, August 5, 2011

Everyday Use

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By Alice Walker

“Everyday Use,” written by Alice Walker, is a short story in which the use of imagery combined with characterization allows the readers to dive deep into the story, perhaps detecting hints in to what the characters are feeling or thinking. These methods prove successful in portraying how two characters, Maggie and Mama, psychologically confined themselves, thus resulting in submissive attitudes towards their intimidating and educated sister/daughter, Dee.

The story takes place in the past, probably around the mid-late 100’s. In a old run down house live a mother, Mama, and daughter, Maggie, of African American descent. A poor family, they live a simple life and are people of faith. Mama has another daughter, Dee, who was sent away to be educated at an early age. Dee being pretty, superficial, and snobbish likes to belittle her mother and sister who are neither educated nor pleasing to the eye. Maggie is homely and badly scarred from being burned in a fire, which leaves her envious of her beautiful sister. Dee comes back one day to “visit” and asks her mother for an heirloom quilt that has already been promised to her sister. Maggie, who is used to seeing Dee get her way, is stunned when her mother denies Dee the quilt.

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Through Mama, the narrator, Walker uses characterization to share Mama’s observations of her daughter Maggie. From this it is easy to see what kind of person Maggie is and how she might perceive herself. Details shared throughout the story tell that Maggie’s self-image is one of negativity, which explains why she is always cowering and hiding herself in shame. Mama observes her poise while in her sister’s presence; “She will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs.” (Walker p.6). One can only imagine the effect of having burn scars and what it can do to one’s self esteem. It is also stated, “she stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds of her skirt.” (p. 70). Maggie’s posture and poise is one of doubt. “She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground.” (p.64).

The imagery used by the author the create Maggie starts with her red skirt. After reading about the fire she had been involved with earlier in the story, it is obvious that the red represents the flames that brushed upon Maggie’s body leaving behind a painting of scars. Then comes the pink blouse, pink may represent sweet, calm, and innocence, all of which as we get to know Maggie fit together with her personality.

As with Maggie’s character, the author uses characterization to create Mama as well. What is told about Mama is only her description of herself. Her self-image, like Maggie’s, is one of negativity. She describes herself as being uneducated, manly, and fat. She realizes that Dee would like her to be just the opposite of what she is but, “in real life [she is a] large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (p.64). The use of imagery comes back into play here with Mama’s rough man-working hands. Although Mama states straight out that she is not educated, it is also apparent through her vocabulary and the questions she contemplates to herself. Sentences such as, “That’s make them last better,” and “If that’s what you want us to call you, we’ll call you,” are indications of where she stands educationally. Through imagery and characterization it is apparent that Mama has a poor self �image.

Though both Mama and Maggie show signs of resentment toward Dee, they remain intimidated by Dee’s sophisticated and educated persona. They allow Dee to manipulate and belittle them, all the while beating them with her intelligence. The main paragraph that Mama shows resentment towards Dee is seen here

“She would 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 knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.” (p.64)

Mama’s submissive attitude is shown through her actions. While Dee is seizing particular items around the house Mama just watches, “When [Dee] finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment in my hands You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood.”(p.68). These words reveal that Mama cares about this particular item and maybe she doesn’t want to part with it, but her submissive side can’t say, “no!” to her daughter Dee.

Maggie’s resentment toward Dee is portrayed through Mama’s observation as stated here, “[Maggie] thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her.”’(p.6). Or it may also be depicted by the way she looks at Dee “…eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe.” (p.6). She is also heard making gasping sounds at the sight of Dee. Not likely gasps of happiness since the narrator describes them as the sound one might make when seeing “…the wriggling end of a snake.”

The way she cowers and hides in the background may represent Maggie’s submissive attitude. Her presence in the room may be hardly noticed. She is described as “cowering behind,” “hidden behind the door,” and lurking “back in the kitchen over the dishpan.” Even when she speaks in the presence of others her tone of voice is such that “you almost couldn’t hear her” (p.68). Towards the end of the story when Dee asks for the quilt Maggie says, “She can have them, Mama” even though Maggie knows they are rightfully hers.

At the end of the story Mama releases herself from her psychological confinement by doing “…something [she] had never done before,” she was able to say, “no,” and take a stand to her antagonistic daughter Dee. At this point her daughter does not intimidate her, and her intuition is screaming that the quilt belongs with Maggie. After Dee storms off it seems Mama and Maggie are left with a sort of gratification in themselves as the narrator ends the story describing what they did after Dee left, “And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”(p.70).

In conclusion, Walker’s brilliant use of imagery and characterization is very abundant, leaving many aspects of the story, which may be explored. The use of color and great description allows one to discover the different personalities of the characters.

The main theme of the story is that a person’s heritage is to be valued and cherished, not exhibited.

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