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Essay/Term paper: Lost heritage in alice walker's "everyday use"

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Book Reports

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Lost Heritage in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"


By contrasting the family characters in "Everyday Use," Walker illustrates
the mistake by some of placing the significance of heritage solely in material
objects. Walker presents Mama and Maggie, the younger daughter, as an example
that heritage in both knowledge and form passes from one generation to another
through a learning and experience connection. However, by a broken connection,
Dee, the older daughter, represents a misconception of heritage as material.
During Dee's visit to Mama and Maggie, the contrast of the characters becomes a
conflict because Dee misplaces the significance of heritage in her desire for
racial heritage.

Mama and Maggie symbolize the connection between generations and the
heritage that passed between them. Mama and Maggie continue to live together in
their humble home. Mama is a robust woman who does the needed upkeep of the land,


I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working
hands. In the winter, I wear overalls during the day.
I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. I
can work outside all day, One winter I knocked a bull
calf straight in the brain with a sledge hammer and
had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (Walker
289)

And Maggie is the daughter, "homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms
and legs," (Walker 288) who helps Mama by making "the yard so clean and wavy"
(Walker 288) and washes dishes "in the kitchen over the dishpan" (Walker 293).
Neither Mama nor Maggie are 'modernly' educated persons; "I [Mama] never had an
education myself. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good-
naturedly She knows she is not bright" (Walker 290). However, by helping Mama,
Maggie uses the hand-made items in her life, experiences the life of her
ancestors, and learns the history of both, exemplified by Maggie's knowledge of
the hand-made items and the people who made them--a knowledge which Dee does
not possess.

Contrasting with Mama and Maggie, Dee seeks her heritage without
understanding the heritage itself. Unlike Mama who is rough and man-like, and
Maggie who is shy and scared, Dee is confident, where "Hesitation is no part of
her nature," (Walker 289) and beautiful:

" first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is
Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God had
shaped them Dee next. A dress down to the ground
Earrings gold, too (Walker 291)

Also, Dee has a 'modern' education, having been sent "to a school in Augusta"
(Walker 290). Dee attempts to connect with her racial heritage by taking

"picture after picture of me sitting there in front of
the house with Maggie She never takes a shot without
making sure the house is included" (Walker 291).

Dee takes an another name without understanding her original name; neither does
Dee try to learn. Also, Dee takes some of the hand-made items of her mother's
such as the churn top which she will use "as a centerpiece for the alcove table"
(Walker 293). Dee associates the items with her heritage now, but thought
nothing of them in her youth as when the first house burnt down. Dee's quest of
her heritage is external, wishing to have these various items in order to
display them in her home. Dee wants the items because she perceives each to have
value, as shown in the dialog between Dee and Mama about the quilts after dinner.


Dee's valuing of the quilt conflicts with Mama's perception of the quilts.
Dee considers the quilt priceless because the quilt is hand-stitched, not
machined, by saying, "There are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She
did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!" (Walker 294). Dee plans to display the
quilts or "Hang them," (Walker 294) unlike Maggie who may "put them to everyday
use" (Walker 294). However, Mama "promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for
when she marries " (Walker 294). Mama knows there exists a connection of
heritage in Maggie; Mama knows that "It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught
[Maggie] how to quilt" (Walker 294). Because of Maggie's connection, Mama takes
the quilts from Dee who "held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them
clutching them closely to her bosom" (Walker 294) like sacred idols, and then
gives them to Maggie.

After Mama gives Maggie the quilts, Dee says, "You just don't understand
Your heritage" (Walker 295). Dee believes heritage to be the quilt on the wall
or the churn in the alcove. Dee knows the items are hand-made but not the
knowledge and history behind the items. Yet, Mama does know the knowledge and
history and knows that Maggie does too. Ironically, Dee criticizes Mama for not
understanding heritage when, in fact, Dee fails to really understand heritage.
Dee mistakenly places heritage wholly in what she owns, not what she knows.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed.
Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1994. 288-295.

 

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