What Can We Steal from Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”?
Title of Work and its Form: “Everyday Use,” short story
Author: Alice Walker
Date of Work: 1973
Where the Work Can Be Found: The short story has been anthologized in about a million collections. (And with good reason!)
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Voice
“Everyday Use” is one of my favorite short stories for a lot of reasons. I love the simplicity of the story and the narrator, a woman who is equally proud and vulnerable, simultaneously tough and loving. Mrs. Johnson, along with her younger daughter Maggie, awaits the return of Dee, the daughter who got out of the small town and went to college. Dee returns with a different style of dress and a different name: Wangero. There’s also a boyfriend named Hakim-a-barber. (Mrs. Johnson has misheard the Arabic; I believe his name is “Hakim Akbar.”) Having seen a different way of life, Wangero is no longer pleased with the way she grew up. There is a fight over some quilts; Wangero wants to hang them and cherish them as an artifact of African-American culture and Mrs. Johnson expects Maggie will get them and will use them as, well, quilts. You know, for warmth when it is cold. Wangero and Hakim-a-barber leave after a short argument over what “heritage” really means.
Whenever you write a first-person narrator, it’s vital that you understand the way their voice should sound. Mrs. Johnson is not “book smart,” as her education was ended for her after second grade. (The school was closed. As she points out, “in 1927 colored asked fewer questions.”) It’s therefore unrealistic that Mrs. Johnson would, for example, start quoting Shakespeare or use a lot of “big” words. Walker instead restricts herself to employing fairly short sentences. The poeticism comes through in the more “rural”/”down-home” expressions that Mrs. Johnson uses. Mrs. Johnson is not at all simple-minded; she just expresses herself in a less complicated manner than might be the case if she had more formal education.
Mrs. Johnson describes a dream in which she is erudite and classically beautiful and famous. This dream is immediately followed by the truth: “In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” Walker introduces the central conflict of the piece while setting the tone. There is rich fantasy in the lives of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, but that fantasy is as strong as reality. We trust the narrator because she is telling us the story straight.
“Everyday Use” could be considered a kind of attack against Wangero and the fantasy she has chosen. Instead, Mrs. Johnson primarily restricts herself to observing and reporting. There’s subtext in the climactic fight—
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!”
“Well,” I said, stumped. “What would you do with them?”
—Mrs. Johnson reinforces a tone of loving indignance. Instead of flying off the handle and being vicious to her daughter, she calmly allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
What Should We Steal?
- Match your character’s diction to his or her level of education and mindset. Now, Mrs. Johnson COULD have caught up with formal education on her own, but she didn’t. (She certainly seems very smart to me!) Therefore, Ms. Walker writes Mrs. Johnson’s thoughts in a conversational, relatively unadorned manner.
- Allow your subtext to emerge from the scene instead of making it excessively explicit. I guess this is one of the main reasons I’ve always loved the story so much. There is a HUGE debate going on in the story. What is identity? Who decides what we are and what we will be? How beholden are we to the past? How much should we respect the way we grew up? What does it mean to honor one’s parent(s)? Ms. Walker takes a step back narratively and allows Mrs. Johnson to simply report the story and allow us to confront the debate on our own terms, just as we would if we happened to walk by Mrs. Johnson’s house mid-argument.