Alice Walker’s early story “Everyday Use” is clustered around a central image: quilting and quilts. Her use of this metaphor is important to critics because she went on to develop the theme more fully in her later work, especially the novel The Color Purple. Simply put, the quilt is a metaphor for the ways in which discarded scraps and fragments may be made into a unified, even beautiful, whole. Quilting symbolizes the process out of which the unimportant and meaningless may be transformed into the valued and useful. Walker finds this metaphor especially useful for describing African-American women’s lives, which traditional history and literature have often ignored and misrepresented.
Alice Walker is not the first to turn her attention to the importance of cloth making in women’s culture. Women have been associated with textiles since the days of recorded history. Although weaving and sewing has often been mandatory labor, women have historically endowed their work with special meanings and significance. In classical mythology the fates were portrayed as women, but nearly all mythologies bear traces of the Triple Goddess as the three fates, rulers of past, present, and future. One type of goddesses spin time, another group measure it and weave events together, and yet another group cut off lengths of cloth. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Odysseus’s wife Penelope uses her skill at the loom to keep suitors at bay until her husband returns.
Walker herself explained the significance of quilting (and gardening) to the collective lives of women, especially those of African-American women, in an essay written the year after “Everyday Use” was first published. In the essay titled “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Walker asks us to consider what would have become of black women artists who lived in slavery and oppression. Would they have been “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release”? Walker explains how she discovered her mothers’ gardens, by which she means her creative female ancestors. Having looked “high when she should have been looking low,” Walker discovers that “the answer is so simple that many of us have spent years discovering it.” When she sees a stunning quilt of the crucifixion hanging in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and sees that it is credited only to “anonymous Black woman in Alabama,” she knows she is in the presence of “an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use.”
Critic Barbara Christian reads Walker’s “Everyday Use” as a sort of fictional conclusion to the essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Christian notes that Walker’s major insight in the essay is her ‘ ‘illumination of the creative legacy of ‘ordinary’ black women of the South.” Walker, according to Christian, does more than acknowledge that the quilts these women produced can be regarded as art; she is impressed ‘ ‘with their functional beauty and by the process that produced them.” In other words, Walker is asking us to reconsider whether quilts can be counted as art. But more than that, Christian claims, she is also suggesting that they truly artistic objects may be those that have and everyday use. In “Everyday Use,” Walker dramatizes the ‘ ‘use and misuse of the concept of heritage’ ‘ using the quilt as unifying object and metaphor, and at the same time challenges our definitions of what counts as art in our culture.
The conflict between Maggie and Dee (or, Wangero, as she prefers to be called) is about whether heritage exists in things or in spirit, or process. Dee, who ‘ ‘at sixteen had a style of her own: and knew what style was,” has recently returned to her black roots because they are fashionable. As Maggie and her mother watch warily, she goes around the house collecting objects from her heritage that she now sees as valuable. When she gets to the quilts a conflict arises. Her mother recalls that Dee had been offered a quilt when she went away to college, but had then declared it “old fashioned, out of style.” Now however, her experience with the larger culture, with ‘ ‘words, lies, other folks’ habits,” gives her a frame within which to take possession of her own heritage. Walker dramatizes this when Dee declares that she plans to hang, or frame, the quilts, ‘ ‘as though, the mother comments to herself, ‘that was the only thing you could do with quilts.'” Dee seems to think that art is always something that comes in a frame.
Dee views her heritage as an artifact which she can possess and appreciate from a distance instead of as a process in which she is always intimately involved. Dee’s notion of framing a quilt is in stark contrast to the frame on which the quilts had been made, according to the mother:’ ‘First they had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them.” For Dee’s mother and her mother and sister, the value of the quilt has to do at least in part with the communal nature of its making. For the women who are, in Houston Baker’s and Charlotte Fierce-Baker’s words, “accustomed to living and working with fragments,” the scraps and patches handed down through the generations and stitched into a meaningful and beautiful whole have a value all their own that Dee cannot even approximate when she declares them “priceless.”
According to Dee, Maggie’s problem is that she does not understand her’ ‘heritage,” and as a consequence she will never make anything of herself. Maggie may not understand what Dee means by “heritage,” but she “knows how to quilt,” and furthermore she ‘ ‘can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts.” Unlike her sister who is dressed in an outfit made out of whole cloth that is so loud it hurts her mother’s eyes, Maggie’s own scarred body resembles the faded patches of the quilt, where stitching resembles healing. She is literally making something of herself every day, just as she and her mother make things every day. Baker and FierceBaker call Maggie “the arisen goddess of Walker’s story… the sacred figure who bears the scarifications of experience and knows how to convert patches into robustly patterned and beautifully quilted wholes.” Dee’s final dismissal of her sister—”She’ll probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use”—is meant to sway the mother to her side. Instead, her mother suddenly sees through Dee’s artistic frames, and contemptuously calling her’ ‘Miss Wangero,” snatches the quilts from her hands. She recognizes that like Maggie and herself,’ ‘quilts are designed for everyday use, pieced wholes defying symmetry and pattern,. .. signs of the sacred generations of women who have always been alien to a world of literate words and stylish fancy” (Baker and Fierce-Baker). Dee’s final gesture is to put on a pair of sunglasses ‘ ‘that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin,” which suggests that despite this lesson in what heritage really means, she will continue to see the world through the frames she chooses.
For Barbara Christian as well as Houston Baker and Charlotte Fierce-Baker, the mother’s recognition of Maggie’s connection to quilts and to quilting is crucial to the story. The mother’s choice of Maggie over “Miss Wangero” signifies Walker’s discovery of her own literary ancestor, thus writing in fiction a conclusion to the essay ‘ ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Baker and Fierce-Baker argue that when Maggie finally smiles “a real smile” at the end of the story as she and her mother watch Dee’s car disappear in a cloud of dust, it is because she knows her “mother’s holy recognition of the scarred daughter’s sacred status as quilter is the best gift of a hard-pressed womankind to the fragmented goddess of the present.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Alice Walker, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marlon, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.