Everyday Use- Characterization

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The characters in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use each contribute to show the contrast that exists among the varying interpretations of a heritage and its contribution to one’s identity as she establishes her idea through the ironic tone that is present throughout the story, the contradiction in personality, dress, and demeanor of her leading characters, as well as through the difference in values and definitions each holds of her own roots. The values one may hold of their own origins are undoubtedly influenced by social stereotypes. She creates metaphors in order to establish relatable circumstances in which readers are able to grasp the rift between a mother and daughter who both view their origins in opposite terms. Walker sheds insight upon the differences in self-identification versus identification by society by developing distinct values and beliefs in each of her characters.

Walker beings the story under the narration of Mama, who describes the arrival of Dee, a daughter who denies her true roots to find escape in the stereotypical image of what her heritage should be. Mama compares the reunion to that of a cliché one in which mother and daughter share a warm embrace as the host praises her for such an accomplished daughter. However, Mama infuses irony in the seemingly touching experience by stating that in fact she is “in real life …a large, big boned woman with rough, man working hands … [wears] flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day [and she kills and cleans] a hog as mercilessly as a man”, all of which are characteristics that add contradiction by presenting a less than graceful image of what should be the stereotypical overwhelmed with joy mother on television. Rather than a tear-filled reunion however, the world of difference that exists between Dee and Mama and Maggie stands as a block between mutual understanding. From the beginning, the impact of society (the television) is visible. Dee personifies the television, as she arrives in style of dress so outrageous that “it [hurts Mama’s] eyes. The contrast between reality to what is expected is evident as Dee plays the role of a stereotypical African woman as Mama and Maggie embraces their identity as black women living in the south with a history as told through the stories and experiences of their ancestors and not through society.

The irony of originating from the same upbringing and yet possessing such contradictory views of their heritage is exemplified by Dee and Maggie. Dee changes her identity to fit into what society expects her to be. By changing her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” she detaches herself from her family and accepts societal expectations regardless of how fallacious they may be. Her views clearly differs from those of Maggie and Mama who both know of their heritage through items such as the quilt and butter churn, all of which serve as remnants of their family’s history. Dee does not share the same appreciation for those ancestral items as she sees them as decoration and a sort of validation of her relation to her ancestry. She holds the items in a more detached sense then that of an affectionate one. Though Maggie expresses few words throughout the novel and is hardly noticed behind the shadows of Dee, she ironically possesses the one thing that Dee lacks: a real understanding, appreciation, and acceptance of who she is, not by the standards of society but by her own definition. Mama recognizes the difference in the attitudes of each sister and recognizes that though Dee may outshine Maggie in many other aspects it is Maggie that is deserving of the quit, a symbol of her heritage and obstacles that were defeated to make the progress they have now.

Walker raises the question of not only how one’s appreciation and acceptance of one’s true roots, may differ, but also addresses why they differ. She juxtaposes two siblings of the same heritage and show that one’s identity without a doubt based on self interpretation and not interpretation by society. Dee allows society to create the image of who she is, while Maggie, though less sophisticated and experienced, is ironically the one who is strong enough to defy the stereotypes of society and have a true grasp of who she really is. Walker praises the natural sincerity that comes in appreciation of one’s heritage while mocks one’s unwillingness to embrace one’s true roots.


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