Burnt Reality by Lauren Simon

Writer’s Reflection

After being given the task to analyze the short story, Everyday Use by Alicia Walker, I found the underlying meaning that the author wanted to share with the reader. The process of composing this essay consisted of reading and rereading the story, compiling the important pieces, and then finding the connection between them all. Although it was a longer process than usual, it made me aware of how much a reader can miss or disregard the meaning by just simply reading the words versus putting the words together. As I was reflecting about the story, trying to understand the various parts, I realized that the random pieces fit together like a puzzle. As I closely read Walker’s words and emotions, I recognized the overall unity of the short story. The relation between family, heritage and race played a larger role than I expected at first glance. However, by breaking down the story by person, history, and personality, it is clear that her characters connected to create a complex web, which can exist in any family. All in all, this essay portrays struggles that families can go through, making it easier for me to comprehend the intricate relationships between the characters. The final product of this paper is one that I am proud of; it analyzes the various key aspects that are united by the common bonds of family, heritage and race.


The short story, “Everyday Use” (1973) written by Alicia Walker, tells a tale about an African American family of a mother and her two daughters in the mid-twentieth century. Like all families, they have their own struggles that tear them apart, yet bring them together. Anchoring around the main scene where Dee, one of the daughters, comes back home after being away at college with a man, the story alters between that point (being present time) and drifts back to the past. In previous years, their home tragically burnt down, leaving Mama’s other daughter, Maggie, with brutal scars on her arms and hands and their family to live outside for a period of time. This unfortunate catastrophe yielded an emotional hardship for each of them: Maggie’s grudge for her sister’s easy life, Dee’s desire for a better life, and Mama’s realization that it’s reality. By examining the significance of the terms, “dream”, “extended living room”, “quilts”, “everyday use”, and “burn scars”, this essay argues that the deep family tensions between Mama, Dee, and Maggie are caused by heritage and race.

The word “dream” used only once or twice but plays a large role in Mama’s life and implies one of the overall themes of the short story. This word signifies the aspiration Mama has for a different life. Going hand in hand with her idealistic image of life and how things could be, Mama “dreams a dream” in which she wishes to see herself on television, happily and coming out of a limousine (Walker 298). To Mama, this is a fantasy because she somewhat unintentionally dreams of being on TV, like white people, along with her happy, burden-free family, wealthy enough to be getting out of a limousine. Just like Mama, Dee has higher hopes for Mama. Hoping Mama would be thinner, not as “large” as she is, to have lighter skin and glistening hair. Coming back to reality, Mama accepts that she is “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” but she keeps dreaming about having an ideal life. It seems as if most of these physical features are supposed to make life better or easier for Mama, thus, for her dreaming and thinking about all of these idealistic thoughts, allows her to escape from her unremarkable and unhappy reality.

“It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” (297). After their house burnt down, living outside for a little while was their way of trying to hold on to their homely foundation. This upsetting event signifies how badly their family was torn apart. Through the burn scars across Maggie’s limbs, everyone was hurt. Mama feeling as if she can’t provide for her family and Dee leaving to go away to school, Mama calling their lack of a home an “extended living room” proves that they were struggling to keep it together. Moreover, since everyone was there to experience the flames that burnt their safe shelter down, their life after the event showed drastic changes to them. For example, when Dee comes back for a visit she explains that she no longer is called Dee, and wants to be called “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” (300). This confirms that change was the only way to cope since “[Dee’s] dead” (300). As a turning point for their family, this symbolizes the lowest part of their life.

Upon Wangero’s (Dee’s) arrival, her new fixation on her Grandmother’s “quilts” shocked everyone (302). Made up of Grandma Dee’s old clothing before she died, these handmade quilts suddenly impressed Wangero. Stitched by Grandma Dee herself, Dee wanted that piece of her family that represented her heritage. This was a very important part in the short story due to the fact that Dee wants to change a lot from her past, such as her name and being more pleasant to her family. This shows that she too wants to hold on to family and her family values. Compared to the older quilts that belonged to Mama, for the first time, Dee wanted something that could belong to her, only her. This yet again proves that after dealing with a horrible situation like your house burning down, with time, she chose to hold onto her roots.

The title “Everyday Use” was not only in the short story but also used as the title. This expression is communicating the comparison between everyday uses that are just an object versus what makes something symbolic. In this instance, the main object that relates to this contrast is the quilt. To Dee, it is a symbol for heritage. Thus, when arguing over the quilts, Maggie is expected to actually use the old quilts like any other normal quilt, use it for warmth. However, Dee claimed she would only hang it on the wall and admire it because it was heritage, not something to be made into a rag. Therefore, Maggie sees it only as an object and the extra bonus is that their Grandmother made it. Digging even deeper, this goes into Maggie and Dee’s underlying rivalry, regarding education. Unlike Maggie, Dee went away to school to get a better education. Coming back from school with a deeper understanding of her heritage and how important it is, she sees the bigger picture of the world and what in her world is significant. Additionally, Mama states that since Dee has lighter skin; opportunities were made more available for her. Education alone was something more available to Dee, therefore, in her eyes, she was always one step ahead of Maggie. Uneducated Maggie is considered as simple in Dee’s eyes and as one who doesn’t understand the value of everything. Dee’s mindset on objects also applies to her Grandma Dee’s churn top. Subsequent to Dee asking for it, she added that she would only use it as a “centerpiece for the alcove table” (302). This shows that Dee is turning everyday objects into art on the wall or centerpieces on the table. Coming back from school, Dee seems privileged to use objects not practically: quilts not for warmth, churn top not for butter. All in all, this term is significant because it distinguishes Dee’s longing for heritage but also her uncontrolled superior feelings towards Maggie.

Covering Maggie’s arms and hands are the “burn scars” that are a nonstop reminder of a past vivid memory (297). It’s obvious that these scars confirm how ashamed Maggie is of herself and it reflects her lower self-esteem compared to Dee. This leads to another reason for her envy of her older sister; for Dee, she “held life always in the palm of one hand… [and] ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (297). In comparison, nothing comes as easy, Maggie is “used to never winning anything” (303). With her battle against the flames, she lost. Regarding the whole family, Maggie’s burn scars are a physical manifestation that holds her and her family in the past, a reminding label of life with a burden.

Walker’s short story reiterates over and over again how important family is to each of Mama, Maggie and Dee, but also how their heritage and race ties their bond together. The flames transform the life of each forever; their family is forced to hold on to each other for hope. While Maggie and Mama try to preserve the past, Dee embraces the change to cope with the loss and move on. Understanding the key words of the story, “dream”, “extended living room”, “quilts”, “everyday use”, and “burn scars”, the reader gets a better appreciation for the characters and their difficulties through life.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Uses.”  Fiction:  Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen G. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.

Editorial Team’s Note

One of the tricks to writing about a good close reading is finding a way out of just summarizing or talking about the text by using a specific point of inquiry, described nicely in Simon’s reflection: “As I was reflecting about the story, trying to understand the various parts, I realized that the random pieces fit together like a puzzle.” Simon narrows in on a network of key terms that enables her to build a frame for putting the pieces together, specifically the different objects that have more than “everyday uses.” In the end, she is able to see better how heritage and history play into the novel, which would provide a great starting place for researching this short story further for a cultural and historical analysis paper. The goal of ENG 112 is to give students a chance to build their own textual approach with tools that are presented in class, so as to write a solid analytical paper. This essay provides a great example of how one student was able to achieve this goal.