The short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker brings forth the influence of modern living on the perception of culture among the people. It reveals the shallow thoughts of the persons who have distanced themselves from their culture and have adapted their living according to the needs of modern lifestyle through the element of symbolism. The quilt is depicted in the story as a symbol of this cultural conflict.
The story presents three different characters, a mother and her two daughters and reflects their directly opposite views about African-American culture. The mother, Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are leading their lives following their culture. It is only the elder daughter, Dee in the family who has changed her lifestyle and distanced herself from her culture. The theme of cultural conflict is revealed in the story, when the issue of quilts rises between the three characters. Dee sees the quilt woven by her grandmother and asks her mother whether she can have it. But Mrs. Johnson refuses to hand over the quilt to her. She had kept the quilt as a wedding gift for Maggie, so she can carry on the heritage. Moreover, Mrs. Johnson does not favor Dee’s idea of hanging the quilt on the wall as a decorative item. “Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing that you could do with quilts.” (Walker). The impassiveness of Dee towards her culture is evident from her attitude regarding the quilt. She wants to use it neither to remember her heritage nor to carry on her tradition, but as a decorative object in her home in Augusta. “She turns useful everyday things into works of art and objects of display, wrenching them out of their immediate, lived context. (Felski 85). As Dee has underwent a major transformation by changing her name and in the process ‘dumping’ her lineage, she views the quilt only as an object that can be placed on the wall to enhance its visual appeal. Dee also claims that if the quilt is given to Maggie, she will ruin the quilt by utilizing it for everyday use.
Dee has been so consumed with her modern living that she interprets culture in a different manner. She wishes to display the quilt, a part of her culture, on her wall but at the same time she wants to shed all her identities that are connected with her culture. “Dee, who has taken an African name, has come to claim two of the family quilts, which she had scorned but now considers fashionable.” (Shuman, 1579). For her, quilt is not meant for everyday use. She thinks that it is a priceless possession which would be ruined if utilized for utilitarian purposes. “But they’re priceless!” she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. “Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!” (Walker). But on the other hand her sister, Maggie wishes to use the quilt, in memory of her grandmother and importantly as a continuation of their family heritage and culture. Maggie and her mother think that using the quilt for everyday use will strengthen their ties with their ancestors. The quilt is same but the artifact has different meanings for Mrs. Johnson, Maggie and Dee. The quilt symbolizes the conflict between culture and modern living.
Felski, Rita. Literature after feminism. University of Chicago Press. 2003.
Shuman, Robert. Great American Writers: Twentieth Century. Marshall Cavendish. 2002.
Walker, Alice., Kirszner, Laurie G. & Mandell, Stephen R. Everyday Use. Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Thomson Wadsworth. 2006.