Quilt as a Thematic Motif in Walker's Everyday Use
Does qulits signify the African American tradition?? How Walker describes this idea in her short story 'Everyday Use'?????
Quilt as a Thematic Motif in Walker's Everyday Use
‘Everyday Use’ is a short story written by the world famous African American feminist author Alice Walker. “Everyday Use,” published as part of the short story collection ‘In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women’ (1973), focused on women’s lives and the interconnection of the past and present. Ma Johnson is the narrator in the story and she is talking about the different attitudes of her daughters to the African American heritage and culture. The elder daughter Dee is totally indifferent towards their past and culture while the younger one, Maggie is home-bounded and decides to put the quilts to her ‘everyday use’.
Quilt is a highly relevant motif of the African American aesthetic tradition. The word "quilt" is derived from Latin "culcita" meaning "mattress" or "cushion". A quilt is made up of two layers of fabric sewn together over an interlining of cotton or other soft material; usually in a pattern of stitches. The quilts began to wear out due to constant use and they had to be repaired with bits of fabric from old clothes or from other quilts that could not be mended. This resulted in the original patchwork quilt which became popular among the people.
Alice Walker adopts the technique of quilt making in the structural gradation of her works. Elaine Showalter's description of the different stages involved in making a quilt is equally applicable to the narrative techniques adopted by Walker. In Showalter's words:
“Making a patch-work quilt involves four different stages of artistic composition. The quilt-maker first selects her colors and fabrics, traditionally using neglected clothing or household material with emotional association; and cuts out small, geometrically-shaped pieces. These fragments are then "pieced" or joined together in a particular pattern to form a larger square unit called a 'patch' or 'block'. The patches are joined together into an overall pattern, usually a traditional one with a name that indicates it’s regional, political or spiritual meaning. Finally, the entire fabric is stitched to padding and bevy backing with a variety of large scale embroidery motif” (Sister's Choice 149)
The first step which constitutes the selection of colors and old bits of fabrics can be considered similar to Walker's attempt to combine myths, folk- tales and the stories told by the biological and literary mothers. Neglected and forgotten black writers and artists of the past-Rebecca Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O'Connor, Dessy Woods, and Joe Harris-all fill the "blocks" with poems, curse prayers, folk-tales, stories, songs and other expressions of traditional value. In her narrative quilt, a multi-racial, multi-cultural types of narrator forms the different strands by which several scraps of his (her) stories are woven together.
The short story entitled 'Everyday Use’ deals with the quilt as a thematic motif. The story is set in the context of a daughter’s returning home for the first time since she left for college. When the story begins, the narrator and her younger daughter, Maggie, was waiting for Dee, the elder daughter, in the yard. Mama knows that Maggie is too shy and introvert but she is the one who loves their culture and heritage. And Dee, who went for new world and its values, hates her original tradition. Mama thinks that Dee hates Maggie and she reminds of the day when their house burns and how she managed to escape Maggie from the fire, when Dee stands still looking at the burning house. Later on Ma Johnson and others of their community raised money to send her to education. But education changed Dee and she became bold enough to leave her culture behind and even changed her name.
When Dee arrived home with Hakim-a- barber, her boy friend, she wanders through the house and claims for the things like “butter churn carved by Uncle Buddy”,” the dasher” and so on. When she came to find the quilts made by her mother, aunt and her grandmother inside the old trunk, she asked for it. Dee, the sophisticated daughter looks at it as an “aesthetic object that has prize commodity value” and “something to be hung on the wall”. The sophisticated girl suddenly becoming aware of the artistic charm of antique pieces in a postmodern milieu returns to possess them. Mrs. Johnson sees it as an object of everyday use, one that is infused with personal and family value. The quilt also represents the dailiness of women’s live in the American South. So Mama decides to give her valuable possessions to Maggie so that she will keep it for generations. Because she knows that only Maggie, who possesses qualities of love and willingness to sacrifice, can keep such splendid manifestation of cultural heritage: “Only by remaining in touch with a proximate history and an immediate cultural reality one can lay claim to the quilts and or hope to produce the authentic art they represent”. Maggie is preserving the ancestral importance of the quilts. The title of the story, “Everyday Use”, itself reveals the message conveyed by Walker that the quilts should be put to everyday use so that it reminds the generations about their forefather’s suffering and their culture.
The description of the quilt in the story reveals its clear association with the past:
“They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them…In both of them were scraps of dresses. Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny match box that was from great grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil war.” (In Love and Trouble 56)
Therefore we can conclude that quilts are the symbols of African American tradition and they are passed through generations not for aesthetic purposes but for the ‘everyday use’. As a thematic motif, Walker used the idea of quilts effectively through her story and conveyed the emotional feelings that the narrator and her younger daughter had towards their culture. In spite of being worried over the plights and dreadful life conditions of the Blacks, Walker, in this short story, celebrates African tradition and culture and its values and teaches the lesson of true inheritance.
• Walker, Alice: In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women: Mariner Books, 1993. Print.
• Showalter, Elaine: Sister’s Choice, USA: Oxford University Press, 1991. Print.
• Sparknotes Editors: Sparknotes on Everyday Use: Sparknotes.com. Accessed on 6th Sept 2012. Web.
• Google Images: Accessed on 8th Sept 2012. Web.