The Blaze of Life
Picture this, a young beautiful girl smiling and standing by a big gum tree. On the surface you might think this is a pleasant picture. But then you take a closer look. She is standing there looking at a fire, but not just any fire, it is a fire of her house. But not only is her house burning down, her mother and sister is also burning in the fire. Even though her family and house is burning down to the ground, we just see her standing there. She is just staring intently at the fire, not doing anything and not being panicked at all. Somehow this picture does not seem right. Should she not be screaming or crying or getting help?
In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use (For Your Grandma)”, this picture of the fire, is presented to us from a story told by the girls mother. This fire, along with Characterization, setting, and dialogue, lead one to believe that the fire was the start of the mother’s loss of power. And the beginning of Dee’s, the beautiful girl, rise to power. From the very beginning the story there is a sense that Dee has a bit of an “upper hand” in the family. But why does the mother and Dee’s sister Maggie cower to Dee? Why is what Dee thinks and wants so important?
In the beginning of the story, the mother describes Maggie as being not exceptionally beautiful. In fact, she is described as looking like a lame animal. She walks like she has been left on the side of the road, “. . .chin on chest, eyes on the ground, feet in shuffle” (292-3). She even cowers in the corner when asking her mother how she looks for fear she does not look beautiful. On the hand, Dee is described as being very beautiful. The mother says that, “Dee is lighter then Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure” (293). So Maggie already feels that Dee is a little “above” her in the way of looks. But why does she cower behind Dee as if she is in Dee’s shadow?
In the story, the mother has a dream about reuniting with Dee. In her dream she thinks:
Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. (292)
The fire is mentioned to us before we even read the story of the fire. It is foreshadowing, to clue us in on the fact that the fire is a significant event. It is enough of an event to scar Maggie and her mother, in such a way that it would come out his clearly in the mother’s dream.
The way the story of the fire is told, is also a clue that it is an important event that caused dramatic results. The description of the fire is as follows:
Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them (293)
Maggie was obviously effected by this fire. But where was Dee?
If her mother and sister were both burning in the fire, how come Dee was not inside? According to the mother:
And Dee. I see her standing off under the gun tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot chimney (293).
Dee was just standing there, watching her mother, sister and home burn down. She was not crying; she was not yelling for help; she was not doing anything. She was just standing there concentrating on the fire. The mother, in her mind, asks the question of Dee, “Why don’t you dance around the ashes?” (293). We get the sense that Dee is almost happy about the fire. It does not seem to effect her, except that she can now get a new house. As the mother states, “She hated that house so much” (293). So Dee only gained from the fire. She gained more beauty, a new house, and she causes a fear in her sister and mother that does not leave until the very end of the story.
After the fire, Dee seems to get everything that she wants. On the other hand,
Maggie and her mother are left behind. Maggie and the mom even raise enough money for Dee to go to Augusta for school. Because of the fire, the mom thought that Dee had hate for Maggie. Dee treated Maggie with the same disrespect that she treated her mother with. But when Maggie helps to raise money for Dee to go away to school, Dee no longer hates Maggie. The mother realizes at this point, that Dee has the power to do evil things when she does not get her way. Dee instills such a fear in the mom, that even when Dee is away at school the mother contemplates their new home and wonders how Dee will think of it. “No doubt when Dee sees it, she will want to tear it down” (294).
Another example of the power that Dee has over her mother, after the fire, is in the dream that the mother has at the beginning of the story. The mom dreams of a moment when her and Dee meet, and are happy. They are both on the same level, and Dee treats her with respect instead of “putting her down”. But it is not just that, in her dream she says, “I am the way my daughter would want me to be” (292). The mother is again, so effected by the power that Dee has over the family, that she wants to be everything that Dee wants her to be. She wants to make Dee happy because Dee will cause problems if she does not get the things that she wants.
The thing that drives Dee is that she wants to get away from her heritage. She thinks that her family and past are holding her back and oppressing her. She watches her house burn down and was not upset, because now she did not have to be embarrassed of the home that she lived in. Even when she comes back to visit her home, she has changed her name to a Muslim name, Wangero. She does not understand that her heritage is important. She only does what she wants to do. She just walks into her home that she has always cut down and started saying that she wants all of these things. Dee will do anything to get what will “help” her out. But she does not understand that the items that she wants are important. She does not understand that her name was given to her from her grandma. She is used to being the one that everyone does things for so why should this visit to home be any different? Dee believes that she is in control and can do anything that she wants to do.
But her mother finally starts to understand that Dee is not in control. The mother realizes that Maggie is the one who deserves all of the things that Dee wants, because Maggie understands and appreciates her heritage. When Dee asks for the quilts that were promised to Maggie, the mother looks at Maggie and thought, “. . . she stood there with her hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn’t mad at her” (297). At that moment the mother realizes that Dee had control over her and Maggie, and that it was not right. She states, “When I looked at her like that something hit me on the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet” (297). The mother now understood that Dee was not in control because she knew nothing of her heritage.
In “Everyday Use (For Your Grandmama)”, by Alice Walker, emotions and change run rampant. One single event, a fire, spawns years of pain and want. The mother and Maggie go through an unfair amount of suffering all because of the power that Dee gained over them, because of the fire. Alice Walker uses the fire, characters reactions, and the character’s thoughts to show the reader that the fire is a really significant event. It is the turning point, when Dee gains control, and Maggie and her mother lose it. But in the end Maggie and the mother gain their power back, and all happiness is restored. “Maggie smiled . . . a real smile, not scared” (297). Maggie no longer has to be afraid of Dee and what she might do if she does not get her way. Maggie and her mother are back in control and, “. . .the two of us sat there just enjoying” (297).