Art is used, expressed and described in many different ways. With her story Everyday Use Alice Walker uses quilts to symbolize art and discovers that art should be a living, breathing part of culture it arose from, rather than a frozen timepiece to be observed from a distance. Although the story focuses on a symbolic piece of art it also involves the way in which an individual understands his present life in relation to the traditions of his people and culture. From the beginning of the story we see that Mrs. Johnson, who describes herself as a large, big boned woman with rough, man-working hands (678).
She enjoys a rugged farming life in the country and after her first house burned down moved to a small, tin-roofed house surrounded by a clay yard in the middle of a cow pasture. She has two daughter Maggie who is much like herself living at home and uneducated, and Dee who was destined to go out into the world to see change and to be changed. Although Mrs. Johnson had two daughters, she places Dee her oldest daughter on a pedestal. She dreams about being reunited with Dee on a television talk show.
During this time she would be ushered by a limousine and brought into a room where Johnny Carson shakes her hand and tells her what a fine girl she has (678). Dee has always been scornful of her family s way of life. She hated the first house they lived in and was happy to see it burn down. Dee s contentment was so focused on the burning of her house that she was completely oblivious to the fact that her sister had been burned and scarred for life. The selfish way Dee has behaved her whole life makes her visit home very ironic. She arrives home with a male companion, which leads the reader to believe they may be married.
You advance to this conclusion because Dee has wrote her mother in the past telling her No matter where we choose to live, she, meaning Dee, will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends (679). When Dee and Hakim-a-barber get out of the car she is strangely delighted by her old way of life. After complaining for years about her families way of living she ironically jumps out of the car and takes photographs as if she missed the farm and appreciated every bit of it. To her mother s surprise, Dee claims she had changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.
Mrs. Johnson is very disappointed because she had named her daughter after her sister. When asked why making such a big decision Dee states I couldn t bear it any longer, being named after people who oppress me (680). During Dee s visit she started to show the true meaning of her visit home. While examining different artifacts in the house Dee asks her mother if she could have the old butter churn so she could use it as a centerpiece for her table. This is completely ridiculous on Dee s part. She only wants the item to impress her peers. They have no sentimental value and she would probably not even know how to use it.
After confiscating an item that Mrs. Johnson and Maggie still use, Dee had the audacity to take two quilts out of a trunk and expect to take them with no questions asked. When Mrs. Johnson told Dee that she had promised them to Maggie Dee being the self centered person she is says, Maggie can t appreciate these quilts (682)! She d probably be backward enough to put then to everyday use (682)! This really bothers me because Dee was offered the quilts before she had left for college but they were not fashionable to her so she refused them. Now she has changed her mind and expects she can get whatever her heart desires.
She is very immature in the fact that she has to put down her sister to make what she perceives is a good point. Maggie on the other hand, is a generous character she tells her mother she can have them, Mamma (682) offering to go ahead and give the quilts to Dee. In the Houston A Baker article they quote Maggie is the arisen goddess of the Walker s story; she is the sacred figure who bears the scarifications of experience and knows how to convert patched into robustly patterned and beautiful quilted wholes (Baker 416). Maggie is the one true character in this story.
Even though she has lived a sheltered and boring life she is smart. She is in a better off position than Dee and her materialistic images of life. The quilts are the most important part of this story. The quilt as interpretive sign opens up a world of difference, a nonscripted territory whose creativity with fragments is less a matter of artistic choice than of economic and functional necessity (Baker 415). The history of these quilts is a history of the family. These quilts are a family heirloom, they not only represent the family, but they are an integral part of that culture.
Dee s confusion about the meaning of her heritage also emerges in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. While she rejects the names of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly values their old handmade goods. To Dee, artifacts such as the churn or the quilt are strictly aesthetic objects. It never occurs to her that they, too, are symbols of oppression. Her family made these things because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration for them now seems to reflect a cultural trend toward valuing handmade objects, rather than any sincere interests in her heritage.
Dee is a fashionable denizen of American s art/fantasy world. She is removed from the everyday uses of a black community that she scorns, misunderstands, burns. Certainly she is unconventionally black (Baker 417). The two sister s values concerning the quilt represent the two main approaches to art appreciation in our society. Art can be valued for financial and aesthetic reasons, or it can be valued for personal and emotional reasons. Neither of these ways are right or wrong, but in the case of this story Alice Walker chooses to value the meaning of this story on a personal basis and expresses this form of art to be used as everyday use.