Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” – Short Summary & Literary Analysis

Alice Walker, Everyday Use, short and brief summary, literary analysis, themes, symbols, characters, setting, short story
A 19th-century slave cabin. Set in the post-slavery Deep South, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” presents themes and issues linked to slavery, such as poverty and racism. (Image: Public Domain)

Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” explores the interconnections among race, culture, community, family, and personal development. The story focuses on the narrator’s (Mrs. Johnson, also known as Mama) thoughts and experiences with her daughters. The author includes notions about cultural heritage and race and their influence on the characters’ development. Even though she is widely known as a feminist, Alice Walker does not emphasize feminist ideals in “Everyday Use.” Instead, the story highlights the concepts of culture and race with regard to society, family, and personal development. The Deep South setting influences the meanings of the symbols in the story, as well as the various associated themes. “Everyday Use” is told through the first-person point of view of Mama, whose character functions as the narrator. Thus, the story is under the influence of Mrs. Johnson’s biases. By considering the other characters’ points of view, the reader gains a better understanding of Walker’s short story.

The themes in “Everyday Use” bring to mind other pieces of literature with similar concepts and patterns. For example, Walker’s short story relates to the race and racism theme in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” In addition, the minimal involvement of male characters throughout its plot lightly relates “Everyday Use” to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is also presented from the first-person point of view of a female narrator. Moreover, Walker’s “Everyday Use” invites the reader to analyze the connection and contrast between the practical everyday use and the symbolic decorative use of objects of cultural heritage.

Brief Summary of Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Waiting for her daughter, Dee, in the front yard, Mama (Mrs. Johnson) thinks about herself, Dee, and her younger daughter, Maggie. Maggie has scars from when the family’s previous house burned down, and remains awkward and self-conscious around Dee, who was apathetic about the incident. Dee is beautiful and confident, and educated through Mama and the community’s fund-raising support. Maggie can barely read. Mama notes her own manly features, Maggie’s helplessness, and Dee’s beauty and style.

In colorful clothes, Dee arrives with a man, gives an African greeting, and takes photos of Mama and Maggie in front of the house. Dee says that her name is now Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, which is an African name, to oppose racism and white influence. She lets Mama call her using the old name after Mama objects and traces the name, “Dee,” to earlier generations of the family. The man, Hakim-a-barber, says he accepts Muslim beliefs but is not interested in livestock or farming. He does not eat while Dee eats what Mama cooked. Looking for possible heritage ornaments, Dee asks for the churn top and dasher, and two quilts that Mama promised to give to Maggie. Mama refuses. Dee argues that these objects have cultural significance, should be displayed as ornaments, and should not be for “everyday use.” Dee says that Mama does not understand her heritage, and kisses and tells Maggie that “it’s really a new day for us.” Mama and Maggie stay in the yard after Dee leaves.

Brief Literary Analysis of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Themes. Focused on the affairs of an African American family, “Everyday Use” presents the theme of race and racism. Race is a factor in the Johnsons’ situation in the Deep South. Dee also changed her name as a way of protesting racism. Moreover, the theme of materialism is evident in “Everyday Use.” For example, Dee’s character exhibits materialistic perspectives about the house that burned down and about the heritage items she asks from Mama. In relation, culture and heritage are another theme that defines the short story’s plot. This theme is illustrated through the items that Dee asks from Mama, the use of the name, “Dee,” in various generations of the family, and the reference to Hakim-a-barber and the Muslim family’s livestock and farming. In summary, the following are the major themes in Walker’s “Everyday Use”:

  • Race and racism – The Johnson family’s race as African American living in the Deep South.
  • Materialism – Embodied through Dee’s character, who values nice things and style, in contrast to Mama and Maggie’s simple lifestyle that values the practical everyday use of items
  • Culture and heritage – Culture and heritage of the Johnson family, as well as those of the Muslims down the road

Characters. Alice Walker limits the characters of “Everyday Use” to the Johnson family members and their relatives, with the exception of Hakim-a-barber and some other unseen characters. Mama, Dee, and Maggie are the main characters, although much of the short story’s events happen through interactions with Mama. Also, Mama’s character’s perspective determines the events that are included in the plot. The following list summarizes the characters in Walker’s “Everyday Use”:

  • Mama (Mrs. Johnson) – the narrator who describes herself as manly
  • Dee – Mama’s older daughter, who is described as beautiful, stylish, and educated
  • Maggie – Dee’s younger sister, who is described as awkward, self-conscious, and helpless
  • Hakim-a-barber – Dee’s Muslim lover (implied)
  • Cattle people – A family of Muslims that Mama associates with Hakim-a-barber
  • Unseen characters – Grandma Dee, Big Dee (Dicie), Uncle Buddy

Symbols. Symbolism in “Everyday Use” is based on things that represent culture and heritage, race and racism, and the Johnson family’s situation and mindsets. Such symbolism sheds light on the issues that the family faces, and the characters’ different approaches in addressing such issues. In summary, Walker’s “Everyday Use” has the following symbols:

  • The house – symbolizes Mama and Maggie’s practicality and simplicity, and their sociocultural and economic situation
  • The quilts – items symbolic of the culture and heritage of the Johnson family
  • Dee – a major character that symbolizes the fight against racial discrimination, as well as materialism, which is a theme in the short story

Setting. Alice Walker presents the plot of “Everyday Use” in the Deep South. This location traditionally involved slave labor prior to the American Civil War. The story’s setting defines how the characters and themes are shaped throughout the plot. For example, the Deep South helps explain the Johnson family’s economic challenges, which are historically linked to slavery, oppression, and racial discrimination, which is a theme in this piece of literature. This setting influences the meanings and interpretations of the symbols that Walker integrates in “Everyday Use.”

Works Cited and References

  • Alice Walker.” Library of Congress, 2 Dec. 2018.
  • Baker, Houston A., and Charlotte Pierce-Baker. “Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” The Southern Review 21.3 (1985): 706.
  • Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and quilting: An examination of an African-American tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80.1 (1995): 30-41.
  • Farrell, Susan. “Fight vs. flight: A re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” Studies in Short Fiction 35.2 (1998): 179.
  • Hoel, Helga. “Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” American Studies in Scandinavia 31.1 (1999): 34-42.
  • Martin, Jennifer. “The Quilt Threads Together Sisterhood, Empowerment and Nature in Alice Walker’s the Color Purple and ‘Everyday Use’.” Journal of Intercultural Disciplines 14 (2014): 27.
  • Sarnowski, Joe. “Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” Papers on Language and Literature 48.3 (2012): 269.
  • Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Harper’s Magazine, April 1973.