“Children, I said to her. For the first little while, they not exactly human, you don't find?”
Nalo Hopkinson

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker

One of things I am finding I need to do as I get older is slow down, despite all the new technology, and look more closely at everything around me. With this in mind, I have decided to reread some of my favorite stories to hopefully see some of what I missed the time before.

This week I read "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. This short story is a part of the In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women collection originally published in 1973 by Harcourt Bruce Jovanovich Publishers in Orlando Florida.  There is a recent version of this softcover reprinted in 2003 with a new cover.  I own both of them because I love Alice Walker’s work and I get to keep one clean and write all over the other!  The quotes I use in this post are from the pages of the 1973 version.

Alice Walker is a brilliant American writer because she can take an extremely complex subject and make it approachable. Her stories have many layers of meaning.

I see "Everyday Use" as a story about a mother and her relationship with her two adult daughters.  One daughter is attractive and college educated and the other is physically scarred, and a slow learner who lives in rural poverty with her mother.  The story is set in the early nineteen seventies in the American state of Georgia.  During a visit back to Georgia the privileged daughter Dee wants to obtain certain handcrafted items from “home” to display in her house as decoration.  The mother decides to withhold two particularly handmade family quilts for the daughter Maggie who has stayed at home, and therein lies the conflict in what on the surface appears to be a simple story about quilts and sisters with contrary values.  Or is that the only important topic for discussion?

It is surprising to see people who have the same parents be dissimilar in looks and personality.  This is the subject that interested me on this reading of "Everday Use."  I tried to find out what effect parental interaction had on Dee the pretty sister.  You will have to read the story yourself to see if what I am writing in this post holds any water:) 

The story is narrated by the mother who describes herself as “a large boned woman with rough man-working hands.”  (48)  Although both daughters sprang from her loins, she describes Dee as "having a style of her own at 16” (50) , while Maggie is like “a lame animal, perhaps a dog ran over by some careless person rich enough to own a car.”  (49)  It is clear that the mother does see and acknowledge in her own mind the difference between her daughters.

As noted, the good-looking, stylish daughter Dee (Wangero) obviously does not physically resemble her mother. The mother tells what she saw watching her daughter get of the car at the beginning of the visit: "But even the first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee.  Her feet were always neat looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style."  (52)   She even made the effort to help Dee get into a special school in Augusta. (50)  Dee's (Wangero) natural gifts and abilities appear to cause her mother to feel a certain amount of awe and admiration for her daughter.  The mother was living a life that could not have been easy.  Possibly she did not want her daughter Dee to live the life that she had as an uneducated woman raising children without a mate in poverty.

A physical father is mentioned in the story only when the mother/narrator points out how delighted Dee (Wangero) is by budy imprints on the benches built by her daddy.  (54)  If Dee (Wangero) physically resembles her father it would mean her mother had sex with someone with style or style in his family.  So it would mean that she pursued a relationship with someone physically different from herself and that she was attracted to that difference.  If Dee reminded her of a man or husband the mother thought of as special, then it is possible that she was partial to Dee.  It is not clear if Dee and her sister Maggie have the same father, but it is evident that the mother did at one time attract men.

Not surprisingly, the narrator/mother admits to fantasizing about being seen by the world as a pretty woman herself: "Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program [. . .] I am the way my daughter would wants me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights."  (48)  It is not far fetched to conclude that the mother admires her daughter's style just as she possibly admired the same characteristic in her daughter's father.  And that this admiration of her daughter may have caused the mother to treat that daughter more favorable consciously and unconsciously.

Nevertheless, even though the mother/narrator obviously admires her daughter she does not let her have her way on the day of the visit.  She did not give Dee (Wangero) the quilts because she knew her other daughter Maggie wanted them.  For some reason,  the mother seemed to have an epiphany that day: "I did something I had never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her  on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap."  (58)  It seems that although she had sided with Dee many times in the past, on that particular day, she felt and thought that she needed to do something different.

It can be argued that parents are only human and cannot help if they feel closer to some of their children than others, but they can control and choose how they interact with their children.  Maybe the mother/narrator thought that Dee could make it out in the world and Maggie could not.  Perhaps that is why she treated them differently and not because she preferred one daughter over the other.  Now I am wondering why this change in the mother's thinking happened on that particular visit.  I will think about that on my next read.

1 comment:

What's on your mind?