Everyday Use Summary
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At the beginning of the plot of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the narrator, who we later find out is “Mama” or Mrs. Johnson, begins to tell the reader using first-person narration that she is waiting in the yard, which is “like an extended living room.” She moves away from her description of her yard to say that “Maggie will be nervous until her sister goes” because of her burn scars. She obviously feels inferior to this sister the reader has yet to meet who seems to have had many opportunities in life that Maggie did not. The narrator describes this unseen other daughter in terms of a TV show guest, implying that there is something stunning or glamorous about her. She says that she has had a dream in which she is on a TV show with her daughter and the host is congratulating her on raising such a fine girl as her daughter pins an orchid on her dress, a flower that the daughter has said she does not like because it is tacky.
The narrator of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker moves from her description of her dream to bring reality to light, saying in one of the important quotes from “Everyday Use” by Walker, “In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough man-working hands” and discusses how hard she works around her property, often comparing herself to a man or masculine things such as killing and cleaning hogs, wearing flannel pajamas, and killing a bull calf with a sledge hammer. This imagery of this immense man-like woman stands in sharp contrast to the glittering image of her appearing on the Johnny Carson show is a feminine dress with a flower on it. As one of the major themes in “Everyday Use” contrasting ways of life and thinking is embodied by these opposing images and set the stage for the later conflict between the rural versus urban paradigm that is more developed as the story continues.
To make matters more complex, this paragraph about the “real life” of this woman is concluded with the narrator’s knowledge that she is not what her daughter wants her to be. She says her daughter wants her to be “a hundred pounds lighter, [her] skin like an uncooked barley pancake” and with a “witty tongue.” Again, there is a tension developing between two contrasting ways of being. Interestingly, the mother/narrator assumes she want her mother to look more white and think to compliment her appearance as a more “white” woman rather than the hardy working woman that she is. In sum, it is clear that the narrator and mother of this daughter realizes that she is not living up to her daughter’s expectations and while she seems to take a great deal of pride in her rough work, this appears to bother her. She realizes that she could never be the woman her daughter wants her to be, saying, “Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?” (x) whereas her daughter, who is now named “Dee” “would always look anyone in the eye.”
As this plot summary of “Everyday Use” should make clear, there is a switch in perspective. The narration switches gears after this segment and a new paragraph begins with Maggie coming out and asking how she looks in her pink skirt and red blouse. It is clear that she is trying to look presentable but the narrator, when viewing the way she walks, compares her to a lame animal (“perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car”) but that still sidles up to the person treating it ill. She has her head down and her feet shuffle, ever since, as the narrator explains, there was a fire that burned her other house to the ground. This is also assumedly where she acquired the burn scars as well. The narrator says that Maggie is lighter than her sister Dee and has a better figure and states that almost forgets that Maggie is a woman. This is followed by a shocking sequence of images the mother/narrator remembers from twelve years ago during the fire from which Maggie emerged with “arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes.”