Character Analysis of Maggie Johnson in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
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When two daughters are raised alike yet live differently, there is a fine line of distinction between the traits and aspirations of the two, as Alice Walker drew portraits of three women in a family in “Everyday Use”. Maggie Johnson was the youngest of the two daughters, and her older sister Dee had gone to college and hadn’t been home in over a decade. Maggie stayed at her mother’s side, to make a life for herself that seemed suitable for her. In this story, Maggie is a fragile young woman, however a strong character that is opposite of her sister Dee, who underestimates Maggie for the person she is.
The story takes place at ‘mama’s’ house, where Maggie and Mrs. Johnson were at their home waiting for Dee to come for a visit. She had gone off to Georgia for college to make a bigger and better life, and was coming home to visit her family. The story was set after their first home had burned down, when Maggie was incidentally burned and scarred at a young age. Maggie is more developed as a character once Dee arrives at the home.
The traits of Maggie were apparently different from Dee in that she wasn’t handed life’s opportunities and when it came to Dee, “that, ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (73). This statement in the beginning of the story brings an understanding as to the feelings that Maggie has conjured up while living in the shadow of an older sister. Alice Walker molded one daughter from the other, taking the strengths and qualities of Dee and omitting them in Maggie. Although Maggie does have strengths of her own, she is a character that unfortunately has a simple life and has made complex problems for herself. Learning more about Maggie’s character could be drawn from learning about Dee’s character as well.
Maggie seems to be the pessimist, although she is only reacting to her sisters dramatic and overbearing presence. This shows true symbolic meaning when Dee arrives at their home and wants to take all of the important family valuables (hand-stitched quilts, butter churn, etc.) back to her ‘home’. It is these valuables that bring out the worst characteristics in Dee, and the best in Maggie. These symbolize how much Maggie cares about family values and things kept within a family for certain purposes, and how much Dee would rather , “use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table” (77) than use the churn top to actually churn.
Dee wanted some of the quilts that her mother and Grandma stitched together before she had passed away. Mama had promised Maggie that she would get the quilts when she married John Thomas, and Dee was outraged. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (77). This statement alone centralizes and expresses the theme of this story. Dee was accusing Maggie of caring about sentimental family valuables, and that is, to Dee, backward. It almost sums Dee up by saying that she’s the backward character in this story. She is built up to seem like a strong and driven woman, but a woman in this story must be weak if she rejects the past she came up from and turns her back to the history that got her where she was.
Maggie is a fragile girl: burn scars down her arms and legs reveal a tragedy that has broken her spirit, and the crooked depressing way in which she walks shows her self-esteem in every step. “She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground” (74). Dee hated that first house, and watched it burn without a tear in her eye. The author draws great depth from that house fire by somewhat bringing good and evil into the story. Maggie is afraid to step out of Dee’s shadow, because she might get burned. Dee’s character has the supremacy and power to strike that fear in Maggie.
When Dee comes home to visit, Maggie’s happiness vanishes and leaves her quiet and nervous in a corner of the house. Like burying her head in the sand, she stood outside to greet her sister as if it was the most painful thing to do, “Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand” (75). As this story unfolds, the visit from Dee is anything but pleasant. She arrives home and is instantly commanding that she be referred to by her new name, Wangero. This was given to her as a changed black Muslim, something she apparently got involved in after she left her mother’s home for college. The author refers to Dee as Wangero in the rest of the story, making her seem like she has some guise for herself to pull her further from her family roots. She claims that she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (76). The name Dee had been in her family for generations, Mama “could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches” (76). This is an important symbol when comparing Dee to Maggie, as Dee is in a sense rejecting her family, and Maggie embraces every memory from it.
The moment Maggie opens her mouth around her sister, it’s as though Dee was there only to make her life more miserable, making harsh and snide comments at Maggie’s every word. “‘Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s’, Wangero [said]” (77). After rummaging through Maggie’s trunk, Dee insisted that her mother let her take the quilts that were put away. Mama told Dee that she was saving them to give to her sister after she married but Maggie said, “She can have them, Mama, I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (78). Family to Mama and Maggie is not just made up of tangibles and people, but also memories and shared times. Dee said, “She can always make some more. Maggie knows how to quilt” (78). It was in a shared time when Grandma Dee had taught Maggie how to quilt, and not her older sister. Maggie will have that memory and craft for the rest of her life. Though Maggie is a fragile young woman, she has knowledge that Dee will never learn, and that makes her strong in her own way.
Maggie is simply an underestimated character by her older sister. Alice Walker scripts a story with this young woman as the opposite of her outspoken sister, but behind Maggie’s scars is a gentle and caring soul. She is intelligent in her own ways; Dee went to college, Maggie will make a great wife and make a wonderful home. “Everyday Use” brings importance of family and memories to the reader. “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (78). Dee wants the world to revolve around her. It is a new day for Maggie because she realized that she is her own person and doesn’t have Dee’s shadow over her. Mama said that Dee, “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 serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand” (74). This knowledge wasn’t important for Mama or Maggie, neither of them had a good education, but to Dee this made up all the importance in the world.
Dee, or Wangero, leaves when she is upset with her Mama over the quilts. Mama didn’t give in to Dee’s persistence about those quilts, and at the end of this story, Maggie smiles “a real smile, not scared” (78). Dee’s visit, although unpleasant and annoying, brought closure for Maggie. She’s not afraid anymore, and the fear that she once had can be filled with happiness and comfort in knowing that the fear she felt was like a monster in her closet. It was only there because she created it. At least now she can enjoy the time she’s spending with her mother without hearing Dee whine.
Maggie Johnson, a fragile and frail young woman on the brink of starting a new life with her future husband, solved some unanswered questions after this visit from her sister Dee. Maggie didn’t need fancy clothes, makeup, or a new name to cover up who she once was because she excepted the traits that she was born with and developed herself as a person in the Johnson family. She was Dee’s opposite, and although Dee went off to college to make herself someone else, Maggie stayed home to simply make herself who she truly was at heart.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing.Compact ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs. New Jersey. Prentice,1998. 73-78.