Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Ambiguities and Contradictions in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”—Why Classically Simple Stories are Never All that Simple

Although this article dates from some years ago, I am posting it because it might be of some interest to fans of Alice Walker’s fiction

When I first began teaching “Everyday Use” a decade ago, I used it as an example of classic Aristotelian plot structure: It begins with a lengthy and informative exposition, it has a definite complication (Dee’s arrival), clear rising action punctuated by easily identified crises, a dramatic climax of both action and epiphany (skillfully unified and dramatized in a Pentecostal-style vision), and a satisfying denouement. The plot is almost naïve in its adherence to the classic structure, including its unity of time and place. Thus, in my own naivete as a new teacher, I saw little more to the story than its smooth surface provided, and I approached it from that perspective in the classroom.

Over several semesters of classroom discussion, however, students raised questions that undermined my view of the story as little more than an exemplum of the classic plot. For example, why does Dee so readily and quickly acquiesce to her mother’s refusal to give her the quilts? Would such a strong-minded woman give in without an argument? What happened to the churn cover and dasher, which she had so carefully wrapped? There is no mention of her either taking them with her or leaving them behind. Thus, she doesn’t seem like a very good antagonist.

More oddly still, every semester, up to one half of the discussion circles cited Dee as the protagonist, not Mama, and some even occasionally opted for Maggie as the true heroine, despite the fact that, from a pure plot analysis viewpoint, neither fit the definition of a protagonist. Were my students better readers, better deconstructionists, than I? Or, in their own naivete, their own lack of familiar ease with the theory of the classic plot, were they unimpeded in their responses to the story? Intuitive as they were, they could not point to anything particular in the story to justify their preferences; they just liked Dee (and occasionally Maggie) better than they liked Mama.

Then, one day as I was reading the last few paragraphs of the story aloud to the class, an image leaped out: “Class,” I said, “where has Dee left her mother and sister?”

“In the dust,” several chanted in unison.

“So what does that suggest about Walker’s relationship to her own story? What does it say about her intentions? About her attitudes to her own characters? About how we should talk about and understand her story?”

The discussion that followed was a difficult and contradictory one, halting, inconsistent, punctuated by silent gaps as students pressed their minds against the questions we were raising. But what were offered up were new insights into character and point of view, and new, closer readings of previously slighted passages (those passages which had not squared with the perspective with which I had originally begun the discussion). For example, students noted that Mama is both proud and resentful of Dee; that Walker may be nostalgic for a past that is not only gone, but which she helped to disappear; that it is ironic (in paragraphs 59-61) that Mama prefers the machine-made, while Dee prefers the hand-crafted (we want that which we ordinarily don’t have). That sentimentality is an aesthetic only a consumer society can afford—a traditional society crafts these beautiful objects to be used, not to be viewed, yet it is in the viewing that they become worth preserving. That protagonists are not necessarily role models for the reader.

And that first-person narrators are not necessarily to be believed (not so much on the facts they describe, but on the perspective they bring to those facts) just because it’s their words printed on the page. To whom, for example, is Mama speaking? One student pointed out that the audience couldn’t be, say, her neighbors, for they would not need to be told what Mama could do (e.g., kill hogs and butcher bull-calves)—only people for whom such activities were unfamiliar would need to have them described. And is Mama bragging? Why do people brag? Is she talking to herself? Is she imagining herself on television, on that program she envisioned at the beginning of the story, explaining to that video world her way of life? Is so, what is the irony in that?

By the end of the period, some students were energized (“I always thought this story was so dumb, but it isn’t!”), others were upset (“We’ve just ruined my favorite story!”). But none of us, including me, was taking the story, or the author, at face value anymore. We had found at least two layers in the story, that presented by the conventions of fiction, and that hidden behind the conventions: Walker’s elegy to the authenticities of a traditional, “natural” way of life, and her conflicting recognition that, in penning such an elegy, she was acknowledging that life’s disappearance. When Dee says “It’s really a new day for us,” she speaks as much for Walker as Mama ever does. And when Mama notes the dust raised by Dee’s departing vehicle, she perhaps is acknowledging that she and Maggie have indeed been left behind.

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