ENGLISH READING CIRCLE – SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH ANALYSIS: “EVERYDAY USE” BY ALICE WALKER
This month’s story is Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” first published in 1973. While this story is predicated on an understanding of the state of the African-American community in the early 1970s, it isn’t necessary that you be completely up-to-date on this history in order for you to register its impact. The lessons of “Everyday Use” are universal and tenderly human, although the conflicts that have forged and continue to forge the characters are very specific to their time and place.
For what is a short and somewhat simplistic story, “Everyday Use” encompasses an impressively broad and volatile area of tension within the African-American community, one that could perhaps be understood as the break-point between generations, and that is here represented as the divisions within a specific family. Our narrator is standing on one side of this divide with her daughter Maggie, both of them still rooted in the South, their birthplace, and the culture that it engenders. Their knowledge of the world is limited, and their identity, while to a large degree shaped by race, is more defined by family. On the other side of this divide stands the narrator’s other daughter Dee, who, as her recent name change makes clear, is driven by an identity that is newly claimed and far more evolved than her mother and sister’s: African-American. No more white names, no more self-applying the term “colored.”
But is Dee truly evolved? And if she is, does it entitle her to speak and act the way she does towards her family? The story’s conclusion and the significance of its title seem to suggest that, while Dee may be justified in seeking to escape the deeply-driven submissiveness towards whites that typifies the attitude her mother and sister share, her own inability to value the reality they also share, specific to them, their home, and their family, illustrates a limit to her enlightenment. Is such total self-reinvention ever truly possible, or does it always point back to the past, and the people and places you are trying to forget? The quilts her mother refuses to give her are, for Dee, artifacts that should be preserved for posterity’s sake; for Maggie they are simply quilts, to be used to keep warm.
Perhaps we should think about the type of knowledge these women claim as a way to open our analysis of the story next week. What does Dee know, and how does she know it? What about Maggie? What about our narrator? If knowledge is supposed to help us live better, and perhaps make us happier, than how much value should we ascribe to the different kinds of knowing this story is home to? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these and other questions next week. Until then, happy reading!
Details about the session: https://www.iie.es/agenda/