Cultural heritage is a comprehensive concept encompassing attributes (both tangible and intangible) of a particular society inherited from past generations, preserved and developed in the present, and transferred to descendants (Barthel-Bouchier 13). All physical objects, rituals, and approaches related to cultural heritage are symbolic as they are aimed to reflect national identities and their relationship with the environment (Whelan 27).
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Cultural symbolism in literature is used by authors to enhance their style and to add richness and depth to their ideas. A person, an action, an object, a word or a place can become symbols depending on the author’s intention (Pittock 7). In “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker uses multiple symbols to develop the major theme: conflicts within African American community. The story shows a clash of three attitudes to tradition and heritage (represented by a mother and her daughters, Dee and Maggie). Thus, the paper at hand will demonstrate that symbols in the story prove that heritage is not a matter of the past but a part of people’s daily life.
Analysis of Symbols
The first symbolic level that Walker makes leap to the eye is the level of physical symbols. The story begins with a symbol of the yard and its characteristics. The author particularly stresses that for the narrator it is “not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” (Walker 314). It is viewed as a continuation of her personality, a space that is free of all hardships of her life. The yard reappears at the end of the story, making the plot circular (returning the characters to their traditional lifestyle).
Yet, the major emphasis is made on quilts since they are viewed as pieces of the family’s heritage and all they had to go through. Symbolizing struggle, power, and pride, quilts cannot be truly valued by Dee although she understands that “they are priceless” (Walker 320). On the contrary, Maggie and Mama are the ones who realize that heritage is not in the price of artifacts but in the attitude to one’s present-day life.
Appearance and Behavior Symbols
Walker gives symbolic meaning not only to objects but also to the characters, their appearance and behavior. Mama describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (Walker 3015). Her behavior proves that she fully accepts her down-to-earth nature and body, which means that she does not want to forget her roots. Maggie is shown as a not very good-looking or smart girl.
Scars on her body stand for scars on her soul, which is torn apart between her mother and sister. However, her conduct demonstrates that she still opts for supporting her background: e.g. she is the only one who can quilt. As for Dee, she is attrative, well-educated, and detached from her culture. She refuses to accept the identity that her family members share. Instead, she chooses a partner who prefers pretending a Muslim.
Finally, Walker makes emphasis on the character’s names as they are also demonstrative in terms of culture. Mama’s name is not mentioned. This makes her more an architype of any African American woman of the past or the present. The origin of Maggie’s name is unknown. Yet, it is a typical American name that does not idicate cultural belongnin. In contrast, Dee wants to change her name to Wangero not to be named after her opressors. This formality means more to her than real bonds with her predescessors. This step implies that unlike her mother and sister, she views identity and heritage retrospectively as something having only formal connection to the present.
The analysis of the story reveals the complexity of such notions as tradition, heritage, and cultural identity. By using multi-level symbolism, the author proves that heritage is not limited to a bundle of artifacts found in museums. Culture-specific clothing or naming does not make one closer to one’s roots. Realizing and valuing identity means being proud to make it a part of your present.
Barthel-Bouchier, Diane. Cultural Heritage and the Challenge of Sustainability. Routledge, 2016.
Pittock, Murray. Spectrum of Decadence (Routledge Revivals): The Literature of the 1890s. Routledge, 2014.
Walker, Alice. Everyday Use. 1973.
Whelan, Yvonne. Heritage, Memory and the Politics of Identity: New Perspectives on the Cultural Landscape. Routledge, 2016.