Everyday Use

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Objects, Symbolism, and Writing Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Heritage and the Everyday Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Objects, Symbolism, and Writing Theme Icon
Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Everyday Use, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Objects, Symbolism, and Writing Theme Icon

As Mama narrates “Everyday Use,” she uses a multitude of objects and material goods to tell her story. Through Mama and her attention to objects, Walker investigates the meaning of materiality in fiction and explores the various ways they can be used for storytelling.

In the first place, material goods work in “Everyday Use” to stand in for and help describe characters’ identities. For example, Mama marks Dee’s difference from the rest of her family in part through her desire for “nice things.” Mama remarks that Dee has always had her own style, and when Dee returns to the family home, her “loud” clothes reflect her success and assertiveness. When Dee arrives at the house, Mama takes in Dee’s dress that is “so loud it [hurts] her eyes,” her earrings, and her bracelets “making noises.” Like her clothing, Dee is charismatic and expressive, sometimes to the point of being abrasive. Mama, on the other hand, represents her humbleness, simplicity, and hardworking disposition through her practical clothing: a flannel nightgown and overalls.

Not only do these material objects allow Walker to describe character, but they also enable her to track how it changes. For example, Dee’s changing relationship toward the objects of her childhood marks her changing attitude toward the past. As a child, Dee wanted new things and disdained her family’s possessions, but adult Dee admires the objects of her childhood, showing that Dee’s orientation towards her home and her heritage has changed.

Indeed, using objects to reflect character is something many authors do. But what sets “Everyday Use” apart is the way that Walker represents characters not only through their possessions, but also through their interaction with and exchange of them. In “Everyday Use,” Walker shows two distinct ways that characters orient themselves toward the material world.

The first way, exemplified by Dee, is rigidly symbolic. Dee collects objects for their symbolic meaning and visual beauty, rather than for their utility. For instance, Dee asks her mother to give her the top of a butter churn to use “as a centerpiece for the alcove table” and plans to do “something artistic” with the dasher. For Dee, these objects are valuable as visual symbols of an aestheticized past, not as part of an everyday routine.

In contrast, the other characters interact with objects in a way that is more organic and concerned with practicality and use. Mama, unlike Dee, values the objects in her home for the work they do and how they can be used, and notes how that use affects and enriches their meaning. The churn top is valuable to her not as an art object or a visual representation of the past, but because it is worn from making butter—for its important position in people’s everyday lives, and her family members’ lives in particular. To Mama, the butter churn and other objects like it have whole systems of intermingling memories and sensations attached to them through their continued use. When Mama interacts with the objects that connect her to her heritage, she is adding to that heritage, rather than simply memorializing it as Dee does.

These two differing views of how objects should best be appreciated clash in the story’s primary conflict, a disagreement about the family’s heirloom quilts. Dee wants to take them away and hang them on the walls of her house as memorabilia, while Mama wants Maggie to keep them because she will use them. When Mama “wins” this debate, Walker seems to be indicating her sympathies with Mama’s orientation to objects rather than Dee’s.

By juxtaposing the use of objects as exclusively as symbols and the use of objects in a more fluid way, ranging from practical to sensational to memorial, Walker, who has herself been using objects to tell her story, draws attention to the role of objects not only within the plot, but also in writing itself. By taking up objects in writing only as direct symbols, the story seems to ask a question: does a reader, like Dee, miss something essential about the way an object operates in the story? Walker seems to be warning her readers against reducing objects in her stories to simple, direct symbols. Instead, she implies that readers should consider the whole constellation of meanings that objects collect as they are used over and over again throughout the story.

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Objects, Symbolism, and Writing ThemeTracker

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Objects, Symbolism, and Writing Quotes in Everyday Use

Below you will find the important quotes in Everyday Use related to the theme of Objects, Symbolism, and Writing.
Everyday Use Quotes

How long ago was it the house burned? Ten, twelve years? Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them. And Dee…Why don’t you dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated that house so much.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee , Maggie
Related Symbols: The House, Eye contact / Vision / Gaze
Page Number: 49-50
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama, who is reminiscing before Dee arrives for her visit, describes the terrible house fire that burnt down their ancestral home several years ago. The memory of the fire, which Mama brings up several times throughout the story, clearly still terrorizes the family. Mama still “hears” the flames, experiencing a kind of synesthesia (a phenomenon where one’s senses become muddled).

Notably, many of the material things from which Dee derives her sense of self (hair, clothing) were lost to Maggie in that fire, perhaps accounting for Maggie’s apathy toward these modes of self-expression. Maggie’s eyes reflect the flames as she burns, showing how her gaze, which for Dee is a form of resistance, is undermined by the memory of the fire. Mama and Maggie’s skepticism towards Dee’s attitude that objects should be preserved might also come, in part, from the fire, where their great material loss was arbitrary and unrelated to whether they used their possessions or not.

Mama’s resentment towards Dee becomes evident as she bitterly suggests that Dee, who hated the house, would have liked to “dance around the ashes.” Mama shows how the house, while beloved and the center of the family’s heritage, is also the site of trauma—both the physical trauma of the fire and the emotional trauma of Dee’s hatred for it.

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A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes… Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves to shake the folds of her dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

When Dee finally arrives at the house, she steps out of the car and Mama takes in her outfit. As Mama evaluates Dee’s clothes, she takes note of their lack of practicality (“in this weather,” Mama thinks, suggesting that the weather calls for different garb). Mama uses words to describe Dee’s clothing that evoke a sense of Dee’s style as literally and metaphorically noisy—Dee’s dress is “so loud” and her bracelets make “noises,” reflecting Dee’s own outspokenness. Taking “loud” to literally mean colorful, Dee’s dress is so bright that it “hurts” her mother’s eyes, and once again Walker ties Dee’s self-expression to her mother’s pain.

Still, Mama, after an entire paragraph describing her daughter’s appearance, decides in the last two words of the last sentence that she “like[s] it.” Mama’s admiration of her daughter’s dress seems to be an active decision, suggesting Mama’s desperation that they reconcile. In this quote, Walker shows how material objects can show personality and evoke a personal history that means different things to different people. To Dee, the dress is liberation and self-expression, and to Mama, the dress sorely evokes the difference between herself and her daughter, and affords the possibility of reconciliation.

She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee , Maggie
Related Symbols: The House
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Dee, having just arrived at Mama and Maggie’s house, gets right down to the business of picture taking. But rather than talking pictures of the family interacting, or including herself or Hakim-a-barber in the photos, Dee insists on taking pictures of Mama and Maggie with their house, with Mama sitting and Maggie standing, and with a cow. In doing so, Dee seems to be posing the family as part of the rural landscape they live in, rather than people with dynamic lives. Such a photo, in which Mama is sitting and static, seems to fundamentally misrepresent the life of a hardworking farmer who is constantly working and moving.

The purpose of Dee’s photograph, as revealed by her instance of rendering her family as part of a rural landscape, seems not to be to represent the lives of Mama and Maggie, but rather to turn her vision of them into a two-dimensional photograph for display. Dee insists on using Mama and Maggie to represent her vision of their lives, rather than to understand them as they are.

You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was a beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash lived.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama examines the dasher while Dee, who intends to use it as a decoration, packs it up to take home. Mama’s thoughts as Dee wraps up the dasher reveal the complex way that Mama understands her family’s heirlooms. She sees the marks of use from hands moving the dasher, the evidence of physical labor and human interaction. Mama, who is herself a hard worker, understands how the dasher is used, and can picture how others might have used the piece.

When Mama looks at the dasher, she sees not only a decorative object, but a whole system of meaning— the color of the wood evokes memories of her relatives’ house, the sinks allow her to picture its use by her ancestors, and the thought of Big Dee perhaps reminds of her other relatives. To Mama a deep, lived familiarity with how these objects work and where they come from is necessary to connect with the family history contained within them.

Maggie can’t appreciate those quilts! ...She’s probably backward enough to put them into everyday use.

Related Characters: Dee (speaker), Mama, Maggie
Related Symbols: Quilts
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Dee speaks this quote to Mama as she and Mama argue over whether Dee or Maggie should keep their grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts. Dee, who would like to hang them on her walls, believes she should keep them. Dee argues that Maggie is “backward enough” to put the quilts to “everyday use”—which is to say, to use them as blankets—as their grandmother presumably intended the quilts to be used.

When Dee describes Maggie as “backward,” she essentially betrays her contempt of the very culture that she supposedly wants to venerate and preserve—the rural life that her ancestors come from, and that Mama and Maggie still live. Dee fails to see Maggie’s use of the quilts as appreciation, and sets appreciation in contrast with “everyday use.” For Dee, appreciating her heritage means exiling it to the past, rather than continuing to interact with it in her everyday life. This quote is significant because it reveals many of the hypocrisies contained in Dee’s worldview.