Alice Walker uses several literary devices to examine the themes in the story and to give a voice to the poor and the uneducated.
Point of View
“Everyday Use” is told in first-person point of view. Mrs. Johnson, an uneducated woman, tells the story herself. The reader learns what she thinks about her two daughters, and her observations reveal her astute observations about life. This technique seeks to validate the experiences of an often oppressed group of people: lower-class, black women. By putting Mrs. Johnson at center stage, Walker confirms her value and importance in society. Mrs. Johnson has mixed emotions about her daughters. She likens Maggie’s demeanor to “a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car,” and says that Dee’s reading “burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know.” These conflicting feelings show the reader the complex nature of her thoughts and her ability to size up people when necessary. Her thoughts are compounded further by her fantasy of reuniting with Dee on a television talk show where “Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue.”
The story is not only rich in symbolism, it is also about symbolism. The quilts are the central symbol of the story, representing the connectedness of history and the intergenerational ties of the family. Other symbols include Maggie’s burned skin, which can be interpreted as depicting how she has been “burned” by the circumstances of her life. Mrs. Johnson’s “man-working” hands symbolize the rough life she has hand to forge from the land on which they live. Names become symbolic in the story as well. Dee thinks her name represents “the people who oppress me,” and substitutes an African name that has no relation to her family roots. When Hakim-a-barber says that he does not eat collard greens and pork—traditional African-American foods—he symbolically denies his heritage despite his complicated African name. Clothing also represents the characters. Mrs. Johnson wears utilitarian clothing: overalls and flannel nightgowns, representing her no-frills approach to life. Dee wears a “yellow organdy dress” to her graduation and other wild, colorful clothing. These outfits represent her colorful, vibrant nature as well as her unwillingness to fit in to her surroundings, a harsh land more suited to farm clothing. Maggie’s character is symbolized by the dress that “[falls] off her in little black papery flakes” during the house fire: fragile and burned.
The central contradiction in this story emerges when readers understand Walker’s point about Dee’s efforts to appreciate her heritage. While Dee has acquired an education and understands her African past, she mistakenly looks to this history in order to affirm her heritage, forgetting her real origins and the people who raised her. She admires the quilts, particularly because her grandmother has sewed them by hand. She is more entranced by the thought of someone sewing by hand than by the person who did the sewing.
Diction and Dialect
In relating the story in first-person, Walker gives Mrs. Johnson a pattern of speech that helps define her character. An uneducated woman, Mrs. Johnson nonetheless is able to express herself well. She waits in a yard that has been made “clean and wavy,” meaning that she has taken pride in her house and fixed it up in anticipation of her daughter’s arrival. Walker’s subtle rendering of Mrs. Johnson’s voice reveals that this older rural woman can also speak with efficient, lyrical clarity, as in her account of having “knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and [having] had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall,” or in her description of Hakim-a-barber’s real name, which is “twice as long and three times as hard” to pronounce. Walker artfully suggests, then, that a “good” education does not necessarily result in a “better” form of speech.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Alice Walker, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.