Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

Article excerpt

Most readers of Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," published in her 1973 collection, In Love and Trouble, agree that the point of the story is to show, as Nancy Tuten argues, a mother's "awakening to one daughter's superficiality and to the other's deep-seated understanding of heritage" (Tuten 125). (1) These readers praise the "simplicity" of Maggie and her mother, along with their allegiance to their specific family identity and folk heritage as well as their refusal to change at the whim of an outside world that doesn't really have much to do with them. Such a reading condemns the older, more worldly sister, Dee, as "shallow," "condescending," and "manipulative," as overly concerned with style, fashion, and aesthetics, and thus as lacking a "true" understanding of her heritage. In this essay, conversely, I will argue that this popular view is far too simple a reading of the story. While Dee is certainly insensitive and selfish to a certain degree, she nevertheless offers a view of heritage and a strategy for contemporary African Americans to cope with an oppressive society that is, in some ways, more valid than that offered by Mama and Maggie.

We must remember from the beginning that the story is told by Mama; the perceptions are filtered through her mind and her views of her two daughters are not to be accepted uncritically. Several readers have pointed out that Mama's view of Maggie is not quite accurate--that Maggie is not as passive or as "hangdog" as she appears. (2) Might Mama's view of her older daughter, Dee, not be especially accurate as well? Dee obviously holds a central place in Mama's world. The story opens with the line: "I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon" (47). As Houston Baker points out, "The mood at the story's beginning is one of ritualistic waiting," of preparation "for the arrival of a goddess" (715). Thus, Dee seems to attain almost mythic stature in Mama's imagination as she and Maggie wait for the as-yet unnamed "her" to appear. Such an opening may lead readers to suspect that Mama has a rather troubled relationship with her older daughter. Dee inspires in Mama a type of awe and fear more suitable to the advent of a goddess than the love one might expect a mother to feel for a returning daughter.

Mama, in fact, displaces what seem to be her own fears onto Maggie when she speculates that Maggie will be cowed by Dee's arrival. Mama conjectures that

   Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand
   hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms
   and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her
   sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word
   the world never learned to say to her. (47)

But Mama here emphasizes the perceptual nature of this observation--she says that Maggie thinks these things, encouraging readers to wonder whether or not this first perception of Dee is true. We also find out in the next section, when Mama relates her Johnny Carson television fantasy, that she herself is the one that will be "nervous" until after Dee goes, that she is ashamed of her own appearance and very much seeks her daughter's approval. Mama confesses that, in "real life," she is "a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands" (48). However, in her television fantasy, as Mama tells us,

   all this does not show.... I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a
   hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair
   glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up
   with my quick and witty tongue. (48)

It is important to remember, though, that this Johnny Carson daydream is Mama's fantasy of a mother-child reunion, not Dee's. In fact, Mama even acknowledges that this particular scenario might not be to Dee's taste--she imagines Dee pinning an orchid on her even though Dee had previously told Mama she thinks orchids are "tacky flowers" (48). …