Below you will find three outstanding thesis statements / paper topics for “Everyday Use" by Alice Walker that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in the text and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.
Click Here for a Free, Detailed Plot Summary of “Everyday Use” from SuperSummaryThesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Significance of the Title of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use"
The title of Everyday Use by Alice Walker carries several meanings apart from being a convenient beginning. In fact, many of the those most important themes of the story are highlighted by the issue of how things are used on an everyday basis. For example, the most obvious issues surrounding the everyday use of items and the disagreements around them is that of the quilts. For Dee / Wangero the quilts should not be actually used for warmth, but their everyday use is wrapped up in presenting a cultural or historical ideal—it is something to show off. The issue of everyday use also extends to other matters, such as the usefulness of reading, considering race and class, among others. For this essay, spend one paragraph on different examples of the duality of usefulness. Look at how Dee / Wangero thinks something should be used versus how her mother and sister might. For your conclusion, reflect on why there might be different ideas on usefulness.Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: Race and Rural Versus Urban
The issue of race is viewed and discussed differently in country versus urban settings and this issue is one of the main themes throughout “Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. The rural setting that Dee’s mother is immersed in is based on the idea of hard work. Her mother and Maggie do not have the time, education, or motivation to think deeply about race, racism, or equality and her mother openly admits that she would not even be able to look a white man in the face. Dee / Wangero, on the other hand, although she is originally from the country, eventually moves away and is exposed to ideas about racial equality. This, combined with her urban education, makes her view matters of race differently and causes the inherent conflict between her and her family’s ideals. For this essay, explore the ways the country and city settings are directly opposed to one another through characters and their understanding of race. A great place to start would be by considering Dee’s change of her name to Wangero and what it means for her versus what it means (or doesn’t) to her family.
Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Burned-Down House
Critics have often questioned whether or not Dee / Wangero burned down the house—an event that eventually led to her sister being scarred for life. Although her mother does not come out and directly say it, she makes sure to mention how much Dee hated the house and furthermore, how she stood back coldly and watched it burn. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of how selfish and single-minded Dee / Wangero is. By performing a character analysis or character sketch, form an argumentative essay that argues that she did or did not burn the house down. Make sure to use her character traits to back up the claim. If you need outside sources, there are plenty available in academic databases that will argue either way.
** For more information on another work by Alice Walker, visit the PaperStarter entry for “The Color Purple“
This list of important quotations from “Everyday Use" by Alice Walker will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs than those already mentioned. All quotes contain page numbers as well. Look at the bottom of the page to identify which edition of the text they are referring to.
Click Here for a Free, Detailed Plot Summary of “Everyday Use” from SuperSummary
“Then we were on stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers" (27).
“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" (27).
“She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serf’ oust way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand" (30).
(Dee / Wangero) “I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table…and I’ll think of something artisitic to do with the dasher" (33).
(Dee / Wangero) “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts… She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use" (34).
All quotes from the Norton Anthology of African American Literature Volume VI
In her short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker takes up what is a recurrent theme in her work: the representation of the harmony as well as the conflicts and struggles within African-American culture. “Everyday Use” focuses on an encounter between members of the rural Johnson family. This encounter––which takes place when Dee (the only member of the family to receive a formal education) and her male companion return to visit Dee’s mother and younger sister Maggie––is essentially an encounter between two different interpretations of, or approaches to, African-American culture. Walker employs characterization and symbolism to highlight the difference between these interpretations and ultimately to uphold one of them, showing that culture and heritage are parts of daily life.
The opening of the story is largely involved in characterizing Mrs. Johnson, Dee’s mother and the story’s narrator. More specifically, Mrs. Johnson’s language points to a certain relationship between herself and her physical surroundings: she waits for Dee “in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy” (88). The emphasis on the physical characteristics of the yard, the pleasure in it manifested by the word “so,” points to the attachment that she and Maggie have to their home and to the everyday practice of their lives. The yard, in fact, is “not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” (71), confirming that it exists for her not only as an object of property, but also as the place of her life, as a sort of expression of herself. Her description of herself likewise shows a familiarity and comfort with her surroundings and with herself: she is “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (72)—in other words, she knows the reality of her body and accepts it, even finding comfort (both physical and psychological) in the way that her “fat keeps [her] hot in zero weather” (72). Mrs. Johnson is fundamentally at home with herself; she accepts who she is, and thus, Walker implies, where she stands in relation to her culture.
Mrs. Johnson’s daughter Maggie is described as rather unattractive and shy: the scars she bears on her body have likewise scarred her soul, and, as a result, she is retiring, even frightened. Mrs. Johnson admits, in a loving manner, that “like good looks and money, quickness passed her by” (73). She “stumbles” as she reads, but clearly Mrs. Johnson thinks of her as a sweet person, a daughter with whom she can sing songs at church. Most importantly, however, Maggie is, like her mother, at home in her traditions, and she honors the memory of her ancestors; for example, she is the daughter in the family who has learned how to quilt from her grandmother.
Dee, however, is virtually Maggie’s opposite. She is characterized by good looks, ambition, and education (Mrs. Johnson, we are told, collects money at her church so that Dee can attend school). Dee’s education has been extremely important in forging her character, but at the same time it has split her off from her family. Mamma says, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” (73). Dee, in other words, has moved towards other traditions that go against the traditions and heritage of her own family: she is on a quest to link herself to her African roots and has changed her name to WangeroLeewanikaKemanjo. In doing so, in attempting to recover her “ancient” roots, she has at the same time denied, or at least refused to accept, her more immediate heritage, the heritage that her mother and sister share.
The actions Walker’s characters take, as well as their physical attributes, are symbolic of their relation to their culture. Dee’s male companion, for example, has taken a Muslim name and now refuses to eat pork and collard greens, thus refusing to take part in the traditional African-American culture. Mrs. Johnson, meanwhile, has “man-working hands” and can “kill a hog as mercilessly as a man” (72); clearly this detail is meant to indicate a rough life, with great exposure to work. Symbolic meaning can also be found in Maggie’s skin: her scars are literally the inscriptions upon her body of the ruthless journey of life. Most obviously—and most importantly—the quilts that Mrs. Johnson has promised to give Maggie when she marries are highly symbolic, representing the Johnsons’ traditions and cultural heritage. These quilts were “pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee “(76), both figures in family history who, unlike the present Dee, took charge in teaching their culture and heritage to their offspring. The quilts themselves are made up of fragments of history, of scraps of dresses, shirts, and uniforms, each of which represents those people who forged the family’s culture, its heritage, and its values.
Most importantly, however, these fragments of the past are not simply representations in the sense of art objects; they are not removed from daily life. What is most crucial about these quilts—and what Dee does not understand—is that they are made up of daily life, from materials that were lived in. This, in essence, is the central point of “Everyday Use”: that the cultivation and maintenance of its heritage are necessary to each social group’s self-identification, but that also this process, in order to succeed, to be real, must be part of people’s use every day. After all, what is culture but what is home to us, just as Mrs. Johnson’s yard is home to her.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 8th ed. New York: Longman, 2002. 88-95.
—Juan R. Velazquez