Study Guide
Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

Plan on reading the story at least 3 times in accordance with the promptings in this study guide.

In your first reading, get your bearings by carrying out the standard agenda of curiosity:

Where do you figure the story is set?  (It may not be possible to specify exactly where, but you ought to try to come up with some reasonably specific sense of where and when we are to imagine the action of the story taking place.  As for the time, don't forget to take into account when the story was published, and then to ask whether there are any hints as to whether the original audience was being invited to think of it as taking place in what was for them "now," or in the near or remote past, or some time the future.

How do we need to take this setting into account in understanding the assumptions that play a role in the characters' experience, interpretations, decisions?

Who is the narrator?  A character in the story?  (central to the story's main action,or marginal?)  A voice that does not belong to any of the characters?  (Is this voice able to report on the subjective experience on one but only one of the characters? on that of more than one? able to report only on objectively observable details?)

What are the conflicts the action of the story turns upon?  Who is at odds with what, or whom?  (Of course there may be more than one conflict at work.  If this is the case, then one question we want to follow up with is:  which seems to be most central to the story, and exactly how do the others relate to it?)

Do not read further in this study guide until you have completed your first reading.

In your second reading,  let's explore the roots of one of the major conflicts you will have detected in the story:  let's try to get as clear and deep a picture as we can of the wealth of ways in which the two sisters, Dee and Maggie, function as foils to one another. 

Can you see how the story invites us to do this by contrasting what the quilts mean for them?  In your second reading, take some notes in which you try to be as specific as you can about the multiplicity of connotations each sister attaches to the quilts, in the context of their experience of them and the sort of use they would imagine putting them to.  (Let's not make the mistake of supposing that only Maggie would "use" them; Dee, too, has a range of "uses" in mind.)

What do you need to do here?

Our question proposes that the quilts mean different things to these two characters, and that this difference is central to the story's overall theme.  Dee and Maggie live very different lives not merely in terms of their material circumstances but in terms of the framework of values with which they approach life.  Because their priorities in life are different, they are interested in different things and, when (as in this case) they are interested in "the same" things (the quilts), they are interested in very different aspects of them, and for quite different reasons.

We can think of this in terms of the concept of abstraction.  Which of the various facts about the quilts do Maggie and Dee "single out" as what is "essential" about the quilts, for them?  How do the preferences behind these different practical concepts of what the quilts "are" lead us to appreciate the contrasting basic values of the two characters?

By a "practical concept" here I mean the concept of what is most important ("essential") about the thing in light of the way a given person is inclined to behave towards it.  (Our term "practical" and "practice" come from the Greek word praxis, meaning "action.")  Dee and Maggie both want to use the quilts -- but in ways that, when carefully explored, turn out to have quite opposite implications.

Your job then is to spell out what in particular is valuable about the quilts, for Dee and Maggie, and to show how this illuminates the difference between their general systems of values. 

What then are some of the specific questions that would lead you to facts (explicit or implicit) that might be relevant to consider as possibly important aspects of the concrete objects that the quilts are?


What materials are the quilts made of?

What are the histories associated with these constituents?

By what process do the quilts get made?  What is remarkable about the social occasions which bring them into being?  What do people (who?) do there, while they are making these things?  (For example, what sorts of things to they talk about, think about, while they are making these objects?)  How, for example, would it be different if these were made in factories?

How does one learn to quilt?  What does one depend on?  How does one feel about this dependence?  What does one do, in turn, with the skill, once acquired (besides use it to make quilts)?

Potential uses -- and the values served by them:

What memories are part of the meaning of the quilt, and in what does the worth of these memories lie?  (Could the same memories have positive worth of quite different kinds?)  Are there perspectives from which these memories would have no worth (be simply irrelevant)?  perspectives from which these memories would have "negative worth" (be something to defend against, flee from -- something fearsome or even hateful)?

How might they make the experience of a bedroom different from what it would be if the beds were covered with store-bought blankets?

What might one use them for with children? 

Comforting, warming a sick child:  what would that do for the connotations the quilt would take on for the child?

What else:  suppose you ran your finger over the surface of the quilt and stopped at a certain point.  What might you do then, for/with the child who's bundled up in it?  (What sorts of stories might get told?)

What would be the functional equivalent today, in your family's life?

What does this do for a kid?  Why might it be important in the formation of the child's identity, insight, values?

What sorts of stories would Dee make them a part of?

What would be the theme of those stories?  What would Dee use them to say, and to what sort of people?

Why would Dee be wanting to communicate these notions to these folks?  I.e., what would that "do for" her?  What would that gratify, for her?

Where did these appetites, these needs (or "needs"?) come from, do you think?

Do not read further in this study guide until you have completed your second reading.

Dedicate your third reading to doing three things.

(1) Be on the lookout for more details and more implications of details that enable you to enrich the harvest of the agenda of curiosity you carried out in your second reading:  what do the quilts mean to these sisters, and how is this because they are radically different kinds of person?  (In talking about the quilts -- inanimate objects -- we have, in other words, all along been talking about character.)

(2) Does the story incorporate any clues that would lead us to any conclusions as to how we might explain how such opposite kinds of persons arose within the same family?  That is:  does the explicit story disclose any facts along the way that might enable us to construct in our minds another pair of stories, as to how these two radically different persons came to be?

(3) Finally:  how does the story invite us to evaluate these opposing sets of values:  with whom does Walker invite us to side, to identify?

Here it is of course relevant to note that the mother, who narrates the story, sides with Maggie.  But it is also important to keep in mind that narrators are not the same as authors:  whether a persona expresses the moral outlook of its creator is a distinct question.  You'll need to take note of how the story works to get us to understand the mother as a reliable or as an unreliable narrator, depending on which you conclude is the case.

  Go to the Writing Assignment on this story.

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   Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 03 October 1999.