In the story “Everyday Use” written by Alice Walker, the narrator outlines the life of a family of women who have attained different stations in life. Though all three are African American, Dee has attained a university education and has returned to her family transformed. The changes she has made in herself stem from a fundamental tendency she has always exhibited to define herself as an individual.
Dee portrays an element of self respect in her ability to rise up from a debased condition of poverty and define herself as an educated and self-governing woman. However, though she appears to have distanced herself from the influences of her own family, she does appear also to be bound by the creeds of other individuals. Dee therefore, does falter in her ability to truly incorporate into her own self-definition the meanings of her heritage. The fact that she has only attained in part the freedom of self-respect is evident in the way she stomps on the right of others to achieve their own level of freedom. In this she demonstrates an incomplete grasp of the idea of freedom, growth, and the self respect that underlies it.Dee demonstrates from a young age that she possesses a tendency toward the kind of self respect that according to Didion has “everything to do with courage.” As a child and teenager, she exhibited determination in her efforts, perhaps to a fault. Yet this determination is evidence that she was often very clear about what she desired and possessed the courage to go after and conquer it.
She demonstrates this courage in her decision to leave home, and is shows itself again in the defiant way in which she returns with her name changed and an unkempt Africanized man in tow.This episode demonstrates that she has accepted her life as her own responsibility and has sought to fashion it the way that she prefers it. Though the disapproval of her family most likely came as no surprise to her, she has returned to them to present her new self and does so unflinchingly.
She argues that she has gained a new-found pride in her heritage, and sports the African garb as a testimony of the ease with which she accepts her African roots. In light of the racial prejudices that existed during that period, this demonstrates a high level of pride and self respect, as it does take courage to flaunt attributes that have long been considered undesirable.Despite the self respect that Dee has on one level, one gets the idea that this elaborate show masks a deeper level of self doubt and a lack of appreciation for her more immediate heritage: her sister, mother, and dead grandmother. She expresses the sort of defiant attitude that borders on disrespect of her mother, and one gets the idea that the courage that she appears to have is a thin film that covers a much thicker layer of self deprecation. She seems embarrassed of her family’s comparative lack of education, and uses almost every opportunity to remind them that their stations make them unable to understand what she means. Since she is as much as part of the family as they are, her own origin is represented by their lot. Her abhorrence of them hints at a dislike and lack of respect for herself at the point where she is connected to them.
This fact is perhaps also represented in the way she attempts to put the work of her grandmother’s hands up on display rather than to “everyday use.” This can be seen as representing a method of distancing herself from her past. It demonstrates an attempt at removing from her current life what she has considered the servile and debased nature of those women who have had to stoop to manual labor to produce quilts for use.
The current trend in America is to relegate hand-crafted things to artistic display cases, while things that are put to use become almost distinguished by their assembly-line manufacture. It can be argued that Dee is embarrassed by the fact of her family’s having to rely on their own hands to make bed coverings that they otherwise might not have been able to afford. This shows that beneath her pretended courage is a lack of self worth and respect for her heritage.It can also be argued then that it is arrogance and a supercilious nature (rather than self respect and courage) that makes her able to stand up to her family. Her actions are in this sense not fully courageous but depict a self-defeating belief that she is better than them. This betrays a much deeper level of self doubt because if her belief that she is better than her family holds enough weight to make her act in that manner to them, then she might also think that a similar (but stronger) belief in others about her might prove itself able to crash her own determination.
According to this view, Dee’s apparent self respect is tinged by a much deeper and weightier burden of self-loathing. This comes strongly into view in light of her decision to discard the name given her, which had been in the family for generations and was a symbolic representation of her heritage. She, in effect, changes her name and who she is in an act of disrespect toward her family and ultimately of disrespect to herself.In some ways, Dee’s character in “Everyday Use” exhibits self respect in her courageous determination to be who she wants to be, despite the disapproval of her family. She is able to stand up to their strange stares and apparent inability to understand her actions. However, she also demonstrates that she is, at root, unable to respect herself in that she cannot accept and integrate into her life the heritage from which she has sprung. Her attempts to put that heritage up on a pedestal only accentuate her distancing of herself from her culture.
Her other distancing actions also demonstrate that her inability to respect her heritage can be traced to a fundamental inability to respect herself.Work CitedWalker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2.
Eds. Nina Baym et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.