All posts by Jack

Understanding Heritage

“‘You just don’t understand,’ [Dee] said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.

‘What don’t I understand?’ [Mama] wanted to know.

‘Your heritage,’ [Dee] said.”  (p. 59)

Everyday Use is a story about roots and heritage and this passage, which  appears on the final page of the story, encapsulates the struggle of understanding them.  In Everyday Use, we are introduced to  two radically different characters with two radically different views of heritage. The character and narrator, Mama, is introduced as a strong woman from humble beginnings who while she is a smart woman, she lacks a formal education. As a result, she appears simpler than her daughter Dee, an equally strong but formally educated woman who has changed her name from “Dee” to “Wangero” as part of her conversion to Islam.

While the two have lead very different lives, their friction is properly played out in the passage above. Up until that point, Mama and Dee showed signs of a clash with regards to the household objects like the benches made by their father, or the butter churn topper and the dasher carved by their uncles Buddy and “Stash” respectively. Mama views these objects as practical tools given to her by family so she may benefit from their use. Dee, on the other hand, views these objects as mementos representative of her heritage. They are not tools, but staples of her family history. For this reason, Dee asks if she can have these objects, not for their practical purposes but so she may remember her roots.

Ultimately, Dee goes rummaging through Mama’s bedside trunk and pulls out a couple of quilts made of old clothes dating back to the Civil War knitted by her grandmother (also named Dee) and asks Mama if she can have them. When Mama asks what Dee will do with them, Dee responds by saying she plans to hang them up. To this, Mama responds by taking the quilts from Dee’s hands and giving them to Maggie, Dee’s timid little sister. Mama tells Dee that Maggie should have them because she actually uses them; she gets “everyday use” out of them unlike Dee who would simply have them as a sort of trophy. At this point, Dee exits the house and goes to leave with the man she came with. She tells Mama before she leaves that Mama does not understand her heritage; their heritage.

This then begs the question, what is heritage? Is it based on culture and the origins of a people, or is it based on the relationships between close family members?  Is it about trying to reach back to an era that predates even your great-grandparents like Dee is trying to do? Or is it about making use of the lessons,  tools, and skills imparted on you by your family like Mama and Maggie do by using the objects as they were meant to be used.

50 Follies of Gray

“’Can you remember any great error that you committed in your early days, Duchess?’ [Lord Henry] asked, looking at her across the table. 

‘A great many, I fear,’ she cried. 

‘Then commit them over and over again,’ he said, gravely. ‘To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies.’ (Ch. 3 Pg. 37)”

 

            As the dinner guests gather round and listen to Lord Henry, he outlines a philosophy riddled with selfishness and hedonism. Henry’s claim is basically that the fountain of youth can be found in one’s own attitude toward their past actions. He believes that one should not look upon past errors with disdain. Furthermore, he suggests that they should repeat these “follies” in order to feel young again. Mistakes are not about regret and self-loathing. To Lord Henry, mistakes are what exemplify the beauty and happiness of youth. In addition, the consequences of one’s actions are irrelevant. Lord Henry’s selfish notions appall the guests, however, both they and Dorian are fascinated by his thoughts. They speak directly to Dorian’s desire to preserve his youth and happiness. Ironically, it is this same philosophy that turns Dorian from an optimistic young man into a colder and more cynical one.

This passage is important because it foreshadows the emotional train wreck that will become of Dorian. This is one of the first times in the story Lord Henry is able to sink his thoughts into Dorian. In this passage, Henry plants the seeds in Dorian’s mind for the self-indulgence that will eventually consume him. Dorian’s lack of regard for his actions and their consequences, namely when he calls things off with Sybil Vane and is not bothered by her suicide, can all be attributed to this exchange. At one point in time he was convinced he was in love with this woman. However, her death ceases to affect him because at that point remorse for him is obsolete. Thanks to Lord Henry, Dorian is convinced that remorse for his actions is to be avoided at all costs in order to maintain his precious youth.

Youth Is Narcissism

“’In short, my dear miss, I have a great deal of knowledge and experience in the world, therefore take my advice: divert yourself, and prevail upon each passenger to tell his story, and if there is one of them all that has not cursed his existence many times, and said to himself over and over again that he was the most wretched of mortals, I give you leave to throw me headfirst into the sea.’” (Chapter 12 pg. 31)

This statement uttered by the old woman travelling to the Americas with Candide and Miss Cunegund serves as an emphatic bookend to the details of her trying past. The old woman says this to Miss Cunegard after she hears Miss Cunegard complain about her life and its many misfortunes. The old woman first informs her that her complaining is unwarranted: “’What murmuring and complaining is here indeed!’ cried the old woman. ‘If you had suffered half of what I have there might be some reason for it.’ (Chapter 10 pg. 23)” She then backs up her assertions with a telling of her own life’s story and concludes them with the statement above. In making this statement, the old woman accomplishes two goals. First, she legitimizes the life advice Miss Cunegard had so far been dismissing, and second, she calls attention to a staple of the typical youth mentality: narcissism.

Like many young people, Miss Cunegund was convinced that her problems were both more significant and more trying than anybody else’s and that nobody could possibly empathize with what she was going through. While what Miss Cunegund went through was indeed horrific, the old woman proved through her story that she too had been through sheer hell and in turn she had a “great deal of knowledge and experience in the world.” In addition, she tells Miss Cunegard that others have suffered as well. She implores Miss Cunegard to “…prevail upon each passenger to tell his story, and if there is one of them all that has not cursed his existence many times, and said to himself over and over again that he was the most wretched of mortals…” then Miss Cunegard would be given leave to throw her “…headfirst into the sea.” In other words, she stood to reason that everybody has problems and nobody goes through life unscathed, so to place one’s own troubles at the pinnacle of hardship is both arrogant and ignorant.

The passage as a whole speaks to the idea that hardship is relative. Everybody at one point or another has believed his or her existence to be the hardest one could endure, however irrational that belief may have been. Basically, in this passage, Miss Cunegard comes off like a youth shouting “parents just don’t understand” while the old woman comes off like a seasoned senior citizen who simply understands too much.