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Irony

Irony

The significance of the title “Everyday Use” and the effect of the story’s portrayal of a daughter’s brief visit hinge on the irony that comes from the sisters’ differing intended use for the quilts. The quilts are most valuable to Mama and Maggie, not as objects to be hung on the wall and respected as folk art, but as the practical household items they are. Mama risks Maggie’s harming or destroying the quilts, valuable and irreplaceable documents of family history, in exchange for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they have been passed on to the right daughter. Mama contends that Maggie, supposedly mentally inferior to her sister, has an ability that Dee does not: she can quilt. While Maggie may subject the quilts to the wear and tear of everyday use, she can replace them and contribute a scrap of family history to the next generation. Dee wants to preserve the quilts and protect them from the harm her sister might inflict, but she shows no true understanding of their inherent worth as a family totem. She relegates the objects to mere display items.

Although claiming that the preservation of the quilts is of paramount concern, Dee has no real understanding of or respect for her mother’s ancestors, viewing them much as she views her mother: a country clod she is glad to have left behind. While Dee claims to have reverence for the past, at the end of the story, she criticizes Mama and Maggie for remaining mired in the old ways of living and thinking. Creating a life altogether different from the past is Dee’s primary objective. This attitude is yet another way in which she expresses her disconnection to and lack of appreciation for her heritage. To Dee, life in the country is something to escape, deny, and condemn. Her sudden turn to embrace the objects of the past is thus all the more empty and unbelievable. While she believes she is earnest, it is Mama, despite her poor education and lack of worldliness, who sees the shallowness of Dee’s motives. For Mama, the best way to protect the spirit of the quilts is to risk destroying them while in Maggie’s permanent “care.” The irony of this is not bitter but touching: preserving the objects and taking them out of everyday use is disrespectful because it disregards the objects’ intended, original uses. Keeping them in circulation in daily life keeps the family history alive.

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by MariaDPettiford, August 15, 2017

"Everyday Use" is a widely studied and frequently anthologized short story by Alice Walker. It was first published in 1973 as part of Walker's short story collection In Love and Trouble.

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