Read our detailed notes below on the short story Recitatif by Toni Morrison. Our notes cover Recitatif summary, themes, characters, and literary analysis.
The short story opens when Twyla declares that she and Roberta are in the Orphanage of St. Bonny because Roberts’s mother was ill, and Twyla’s mother had danced all night. When the story opens, the two of them do not appear to have to save viewpoints. Mary taught Twyla to have biased views of the people of Roberta’s race. When Twyla tells this to the woman in charge of the orphanage Big Bozo, she dismisses her rudely.
The two girls get along when they realize that they can apprehend each other without asking questions. They also get along because they all the time get Fs. Twyla is unable to remember anything she learns, and Roberta has not learned to read. Both of them are excluded from the rest of the children of the orphanage because they are not a real orphanage. That is why they also get along.
The older girls of the orphanage sometimes tease Roberta and Twyla. These girls wear make and appear to be scary and vulnerable. The older girls often hang out and listen to the radio and dance in the orchard. Twyla often sees the orchard in her dream; however, nothing really happened there except that Maggie, an old sandy color woman, fell down there. Maggie works in the kitchen and is suffering from multiple disabilities. She is deaf and perhaps mute.
Roberta’s mother and Mary come to attend the church on one Sunday. They lunch at the orphanage. Roberta and Twyla were happy. They wear nice dresses and curl the hair of each other. When Roberta introduces her mother to Mary and Twyla, her mother simply walks away. Twyla gets embarrassed when her mother does not bring food. She wishes to kill her.
The story then shifts eight years ahead in time. Twyla has been working on the Thruway at Howard Johnson’s. One day Greyhound Bus stops at the dinner, and Roberta is among the passengers. She is accompanied by two young men and wearing an outfit and makeup that made her look like a nun.
Twyla and Roberta have a short and casual conversation. However, Roberta appears to be disinterested and rude. Roberta also taunts her when Twyla discloses that she does not know Jimi Hendrix. Roberta is about to leave without saying goodbye that Twyla asks her about her mother. Roberts tells her that she is fine and formally asks about Mary and then leaves.
The narrative of the story then shifts to twelve years ahead in time. Twyla has married James, who lives in Newburg with his family. They have given birth to a son Joseph. Regardless of high poverty, Newburg is redeveloping. A gourmet market has been opened in the city. Twyla, out of curiosity, visits the shop. However, she is anxious to buy anything. She finally decides to buy Klondike bars as her son and father-in-law love them.
Twyla encounters Roberta at the checkout. Roberts is elegant dresses and tells her that she lives in the wealthy suburb of Annandale with her husband and four stepchildren. Roberta offers to have a coffee. The two women behave like sisters at the coffee shop. They were laughing, giggling, and tightly holding each other. They also recall their time at St. Bonny orphanage. Roberta also shows off that she has last learned to read.
Twyla talks about Maggie, and Roberta reveals that she did not fall but was pushed by the gar girls. Twyla does not believe what she says. However, Roberta discloses that she knows about it because she went back to St. Bonny orphanage twice, and the second time she ran away.
Twyla then talks about Roberta’s rude behavior at Howard Johnson’s. Roberta tells her that her behavior was because of the ongoing racial tension at that time. The two inquire about each other’s mother and promise to keep in touch and then leave.
Twyla then explains that that year the Newburgh faced “racial strife” because of the force integration by means of busing. One day, Twyla accidentally crosses the protest that she saw Roberta, who holds a placard reading “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!” Twyla feels compelled to drive back and meet Roberta. The two women talk about protest and then start backbiting.
Ultimately some women in the protest rock the car of Twyla. Twyla asks for Roberta’s hand by reaching out to her hand; however, Roberta does not move to help.
When all the women clear the area, Roberta observes that he has changed and is a completely different person; however, Twyla has not changed —“the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground.” Surprised at this, Twyla says that Maggie was not a black lady. Roberta asserts that she was black, and they kicked her.
Both of them call each other liars, and Twyla comes to join the counter-protest. She holds a series of placards that are directly addressed to Roberta. The last placard reads as “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL.” Seeing this sign, Roberta leaves the protest. Twyla also leaves and does not choose to come back.
Time passes. Christmas has arrived. Joseph is not admitted to the college. Twyla chooses to stop and buy a coffee after buying a Christmas tree. She observes a group of wealthy people near dinner. She admits that she made herself try to look at them. Twyla goes inside and finds Roberta. Roberta wants to speak to her. Twyla, even though she resists, finally agrees to talk.
The woman talks about small things before Roberta tells her that she has to say something. Roberta claims that she thought Maggie was black and knew that she and Twyla did not kick her at all. They both just watched the gar girls kicking her. Roberta also admits that she wants the gar girls to kick her, and that is bad.
Twyla comforts her when Roberta starts crying. Twyla suspects Roberta is upset and drunk. She tries to comfort her by reminding her that they are eight years old lonely children. Robert appears to have better feelings. Twyla inquires about Roberta’s mother. Roberta tells her that her mother never got a mother. Twyla also says that Mary never stops dancing. Suddenly Roberta again is overwhelmed with despair and exclaims, “Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?”
Background of the Story
The short story “Recitatif” is set in three different time periods. All of these time periods saw shifts in culture and racial tensions in the United States. The first part of the story took place in the 1950s when Twyla and Roberta were eighteen years old. It was the time when the Civil Rights Movement began, and Jim Crow segregation was in full swing.
The Supreme Court issued Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which outlawed the segregation of school. In 1957, “Little Rock Nine,” a famous school enrolled nine African-American students. The schools faced a severe protest by the white segregationists, and to be able to set foot in their school, they required the intervention of President Eisenhower.
The second stage of the story is set in the 1960s. During that time, Twyla and Roberta are young adults. In 1964, the Civil Rights Movements were passed. Following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, the Black Power Movement also was in full momentum.
There was also a huge cultural shift in the 1960s. There was a rise of an uncontrollable youthful counter-culture that broadly reject the progressive politics, conservative social norms, and clasp of a “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.” Jimi Hendrix, the psychedelic rock guitarist, was a key figure in this movement. In the story, Roberta is on her way to meet Jimi Hendrix.
The decade of the 1970s appears to have more improved race relationships. However, the black communities still suffered from incarcerations and high rates of poverty. Their conditions worsened during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Ha was elected in 1981.
Even though the short story was written when the Reagan era has started, it also alludes to the social issues that got intensified during his presidency. The short story points out the increased discrepancy between the lives of the poor and the rich. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Brown vs. Board of Education also saw an increase in the usage of busing as a means to force the racial integration of schools.
The short story “Recitatif” was published during the time when in the global culture, there was an increasing acceptance and celebration of the literature of African-Americans. Several other key movements of the twentieth century, like that of the Harlem Renaissance, preceded the movement. The central literary figures of these movements include Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, and Langston Hughes.
Writers such as James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Richard Wright also deal with the themes of segregation and racism in the 1940s and 1950s. Therefore, they create a sense of the cultural moment that leads to the Civil Rights Movement in 196s.
The period was followed by the Black Arts Movement, which was the cultural and key factor of the Black Power Movement. This movement was started by Imani Amiri Baraka. He, along with his wife Amina, edited the volume Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women. “Recitatif” was first published in this volume.
The Black Art Movement deals with those aesthetic principles that were not included in the white Western tradition. They also intend to liberate the black writers and artists from white dependency and institutions such as publishing houses and universities. Writers who were the leading figures of the movement were Baraka, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovani.
Even though Toni Morrison is not part of the Black Arts Movement, she is generally associated with it, and her works are placed in the African-American tradition. Toni Morrison worked on the texts of Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, the African-American writers. Alce Walker published the novel The Color Purple one year before Toni Morrison published “Recitatif.” The Color Purple turned out to be the widely read novel in the literary tradition of African-Americans.
The title of the story is the French word for “recitative.” The word refers to the passages (speech-like) of opera in which the storyline or plot is moved forward.
She is the narrator of “Recitatif.” She is the main character of the story, along with Roberta. When the story opens, she is eight years old. She has been brought to St. Bonny’s Orphanage because her mother dances all night. Mary has abandoned her daughter and taught her biases towards the people of Roberts’s race. The race of both of the characters remains ambiguous throughout the story.
Even though over the course of Twyla’s friendship with Roberta, the racial prejudices appear to diminish, they resurface when two meet after a long time as adults. Though Twyla could not perform well at school, she is better than Roberta as she can read. At St. Bonny’s, Twyla is afraid of girls as the pick on her and Roberta. She is affectionate towards Roberta and curious about Maggie.
When her mother, Mary, comes to visit her at an orphanage, she has strange emotions as she is excited to see her but simultaneously ashamed at her behavior. In her late teens, Twyla started working at Howard Johnson. She becomes more responsible and weary. She marries a man whom she describes as wonderful to Roberta and privately calls him as comfortable as a house slipper.”
Twyla appears to be alarmed by the incursion of wealth and development in Newburg. She is anxious and stressed because of her financial conditions. She also appears to be upset with the “racial strife” that starts at Newburg due to bussing, even though she does not have any personal opinion about the matter.
When Roberta claims that both of them kicked Maggie, she feels resentful. However, at the end of the story, she realizes that her anger and helplessness towards her mother ignites her desire to kick Maggie.
Besides Twyla, Roberta is another main character of the story. Roberta is the roommate of Twyla at St, Bonny’s orphanage. Both of the girls are eight years old. One of the girls in white, and while the other is black, however, it is ambiguous which race belongs to which race. Roberta’s mother is such; that is why she is unable to look after her. At the end of the story, Roberta reveals that her mother was in an institution that claims her illness to be mental rather than physical.
Even though Roberta appears to be raised up in a less neglectful way than Twyla, she is unable to read. Roberta leaves St. Bonny before Twyla; however, she returns back to it twice, and for the second time, she runs away.
In the second part of the story, when the story is shifted eight-year ahead in time, Roberta and Twyla meet at Howards Johnson’s. Roberta has to wear a glamorous and sexy outfit with lots of makeup. Two men are accompanying her, and they are heading to meet Hendrix. In this part of the story, Roberta appears to be part of the 1960’s rebellious youth culture. She taunts Twyla for not knowing Hendrix. She also embraced the self-indulgent command of “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.”
In the final section of the story, Roberta has undergone a transformation. She has married a rich man when Twyla meets her at the gourmet market. She is associated with luxury. However, she also becomes a passionate opponent of forced integration. The personality of Roberta appears to be less stable than that of Twyla. She also has insecurity about her identity. However, it is also suggested that Roberta is more self-centered than serious and responsible Twyla. That is why the readers are surprised to see that she cared about Maggie’s and is obsessed with her fate.
In the short story “Recitatif”, Maggie is a minor character; however, she takes the central and mysterious significance in the story. She has been referred to as the “kitchen woman” by the children at St. Bonny orphanage. She is old bow-legged and “sandy-colored.” Maggie is unable to talk, and some children claim that her tongue was cut. However, Twyla assumes that she is deaf as well.
She, along with Roberta, tries to test her listening ability by calling her “Dummy1″ and Bow Legs,” to which she does not react. However, Twyla is certain that she can listen to them and is guilty about it.
Due to her helplessness and vulnerability, children at St. Bunny feel angry towards her. However, she later realizes the similarity between the unusual way of Maggie’s walk and her mother dancing all night. Roberta and Twyla also want to hurt Maggie because she resembles and represents their mothers and their vulnerability.
Maggie has become a point of contention between Roberta and Twyla when Roberta asserts that they also, along with other girls, Kicked Maggie at the orchard. Roberta also asserts that Maggie is black. However, Twyla does not agree with it. Later, Roberta confesses that they did not kick her with other girls, but they want to kick her.
The racial ambiguity of Maggie in the story mirrors the complicated relationship of a woman with race. They resist being identified as oppressive and bigoted while at the same time, they want to distance themselves from the pitiful and helpless existence of Maggie.
She is the woman in charge of St. Bonny. The real name of Big Bozo is Mrs. Itkin. Her official title is not mentioned in the story. She assigns Roberta and Twyla to be roommates. When Twyla objects that her mother would disdain this, she rudely dismisses her. The children at the orphanage appear to dislike Big Bozo. Twyla notices that the only time she smiles was when Twyla’s mother and Roberta’s mother come to visit them.
Roberta, after twenty years when she meets Twyla at the gourmet market, discloses that Big Bozo was a friend when the gar girls kicked Maggie at the orchard. Twyla also raised a placard at the protest that those mothers who protest against integration are “Bozos.” Roberta replies to this that they are not. Big Bozo represents harsh and loveless authoritarianism that is endured by the children as for not being raised by their own parents. The story also suggests that some parents can be more unpleasant.
Marry is the mother of Twyla. She is introduced at the beginning of the story when Twyla describes her arrival at St. Bonny because her mother danced all night. Throughout the story, Twyla uses this simple phrase to explain why Mary is unable to take care of her. However, the true meaning of this phrase is ambiguous. She could be suffering from any disease, or she could be a sex worker. That is why she does not want to have any child.
The name of Mary is ironic. She is completely opposite to the self-sacrificing and morally perfect figure. Instead is a careless mother who abandoned Twyla. Twyla mentions that her mother’s idea of super was a can of Yoo-Hoo and popcorn. Whenever she comes to meet Twyla, she jiggles throughout the church service.
Instead of calling her mother “Mom” or something like that, Twyla calls her by first name “Mary.” This indicates a skewed nature of the relationship between the two. Even at the age of eight, Twyla appears to be more responsible than her mother.
Twyla has mixed feelings about her mother. She is excited when she comes to meet her. However, she is also embarrassed at the same time because of the weird and crazy behavior of her mother. At the end of the story, Twyla repeats the phrase that even though she has become a mother, Mary has not stopped dancing.
The real name of Roberta’s mother is never mentioned in the story. Moreover, the detail about the character is also not clearly mentioned. Roberta describes her as sick. However, her illness is not mentioned. It is unclear whether she is suffering from mental illness or physical. Twyla describes her as bigger than any man when she comes to meet Roberta. She is wearing a cross and carrying the Bible. Roberta’s mother, unlike Mary, is serious and religious. At the end of the story, Roberts discloses that her mother was raised in an “institution,” which claims that her illness is mental rather than physical.
The Gar Girls
At the beginning of the story, Twyla and Robert are picked on by some older teenage girls. Both of them called these girls as gar girls based on the misunderstanding of Roberta of the “gargoyles.” The gar girls listen to the radio and dance in the orchard. They wear makeup and smoke cigarettes. Roberta and Twyla are afraid of them and think of them as touchy and mean.
However, Twyla notices that they are scared runaways who have fought off their uncles. They are the paradox of vulnerability and toughness. They represent how children who faced abuse and neglect are considered threatening. They also kick Maggie in the orchard, thereby representing an abuse that Roberta and Twyla are trying to escape from.
He is the only son of Twyla and James. He does not mind being bused or integrated into another school. He prefers to study at home while the schools are closed and watch TV. He hangs the placard of Twyla in his room reading, “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?”
Friendship vs. Family
The short story “Recitatif” is an account of the two girls’ friendship, Roberta and Twyla. They meet in the orphanage or shelter St. Bunny’s. There are lots of parallels between the two girls, which creates a sense that they are twins. They are of the same age; their mothers are alive but could not take care of them.
This fact is emphasized when they have the same fashion sense; for example, they curl each other’s hair when their mothers come to meet them. Moreover, Twyla also says that they both are behaving like sisters meeting after twenty years living in St. Bonny together.
However, the notion that Roberta and Twyla are sisters is disrupted by the fact that they both belong to different races. Even though Toni Morison deliberately makes it unclear that which girl belongs to which race, it is clear that both of them do not belong to the same race. Twyla also mentions that other children at St. Bonny calls them “salt and pepper.” This illustrates their difference yet conjunction as a single unit.
The family relationship of both Roberta and Twyla is out of reach, which shows their desperate desire to have a family. Their relationship is counterfeit against the setting of a symbolic ‘family” at St, Bonny that is made up of children that have no parents along with the socially expelled figures like Maggie.
Even though the children at St. Bonny are linked as family, they are also haunted by the absence of their own family. Moreover, Roberta and Twyla are excluded from the family at St. Bonny because they are not real orphans.
Even though, as adult women, both of them have their own families, these families are not talked about in detail in the story. Therefore, the story suggests that symbolic families and familial relationships are more significant and meaningful than real families.
Twyla and Roberta conveyed their undecided feeling about their motherhood in a confusion that surrounds protest. Even as an adult woman, Twyla depends upon Roberta for her sense of identity, which is the strong evidence of her familial nature of their friendship.
Keeping aside the familial implications of their relationship, the friendship of Robert and Twyla is also intensely charged. When the story opens, they have different opinions and are enemies because of racial prejudice. Even though they have become very close to each other, when they meet at Howards Johnson’s, their friendship is plagued with alienation, resentment, and misunderstanding.
All of the issues are because of social class differences. Roberta appears to have a glamorous and exciting life, while Twyla is working as a waitress at a restaurant. Even though the ladies are closer to each other than any other at some points in the story, their class and racial difference come in their way, and they are not able to overcome them.
Outcasts, Outsiders and the Unwanted
The initial setting of the short story “Recitatif” inside an orphanage /shelter launches a theme of alienation and social exclusion that is carried throughout the story. In the shelter, the children brought to be raised whose parents are dead or cannot take care of them. Twyla says that she and her friend Roberta were “dumped” and alienated because their mother is alive and are not real orphans. Thereby, Roberta and Twyla face double exclusion: from society and also from the institution of social outcasts.
The older girls at St. Bonny’s are described as the scared runaway of pit out girls who fight off their uncle. However, these girls would threaten Twyla and Roberta. Over here, Toni Morison points towards the fact that how abandoned or excluded members of the society are regarded as “tough” and threatening. However, they are extremely weak and sensitive.
However, at St. Bonny, children are not only the outcasts. An old lady who is disabled and works in the kitchen is arguably more outcast and unwanted than children. The children bully her, and she cannot respond because she is mute and perhaps dead. She has a significantly most central role in the story when Roberta and Twyla fight over her. Roberta claims that along with other girls, they also kick her. However, Twyla refuses this.
Even though Roberts changes her opinion, she remains obsessed with the fate of Maggie. Roberta was not only a child at St. Bonny; she belongs to the category who are socially excluded and vulnerable. She still can feel complicit and guilty at Maggie’s exclusion from society.
The story mainly deals with the theme of social exclusion. It demonstrates race and segregation. Robert and Twyla are having the opposite opinion about busing or integration of school when they are adults. Even though Roberta’s protest is mainly because her children are sent to other schools out of the neighborhood, she is indirectly supporting segregation.
Sickness and Disability
The primary theme of the short story “Recitatif” is a disability. Even though Maggie’s is the main disabled character in the story, she appears to be the background character of the story. However, at the end of the story, she becomes a central character. Maggie appears to be more vulnerable than the children at the shelter. She has a mysterious character, and everyone has a different perspective on her.
Some children claim that her tongue has been cut, while Twyla supposes that she is deaf. They try to test her listening ability by calling her with rude names. Though she does not respond, her reaction cannot be concluded with certainty. Twyla is guilty and ashamed that Maggie could possibly listen to her. Because of her subjectivity, interior emotions, disability, and vulnerability, Maggie is not considered as human.
Moreover, the children at the shelter/orphanage also blame Maggie for her vulnerability and defenselessness. For them, the sight of someone miserable and vulnerable makes them inflict more pain on them. This is the consequence of the Children’s own expulsion and suffering at the hand of society. They express their feelings of helplessness and rejection by inflicting suffering and pain on someone inferior to them.
However, Maggie is not the only vulnerable or disabled character in the story. Twyla, as a narrator, asserts in the very first sentence of the story that they are brought to St. Bonny because her mother Mary danced all night, and Roberta’s mother is sick. Because of the mental/physical sickness of Roberta’s mother, she is unable to take care of her. This sickness is paralleled with Mary’s obsession with dancing all night and is shown as a kind of disability that prevents her from taking care of her daughter.
The way Maggie walks makes Twyla compare her with her mother. This suggests that there is something about the way they move, which is socially not acceptable or inappropriate. This idea is a racialized concept as in American history, and black is demonized for dancing or any other kind of movement that is linked with black culture.
Childhood vs. Adulthood
The central topic that the story deals with is childhood and adulthood. Half of the narrative is set at the shelter where Twyla and Roberta spend their childhood while the other half the story is set when they are adults. The children are living in a world in which Maggie, an old woman, is presented as a child because of her dressing and helplessness.
However, the children are forced to live responsible lives and act as grown-up because of the absence of their parents. They grow up more mature and responsible than the children of their age. This can be seen in the behavior of gar girls who wear makeup and intimidate young children.
Twyla and Roberta are made to behave like grown-up adults because their mother cannot take care of them and fails to perform their role. Twyla’s mother was unable to be mature enough to take care of herself. Twyla associates her with youth culture. These facts demonstrate the idea that childhood and adulthood are not something concrete or could be measured with age. They are not the absolute opposite. However, they are in moving states and depend on the different ways and situations in the lives of people.
Race and Prejudice
Like most of the works of Toni Morrison, the short story “Recitatif: also deals with racial identity, prejudice, and community. Toni Morison deliberately kept the races of the three main characters in the story. The readers are certain that Twyla and Roberta belong to two different races: black and white; however, it is uncertain who belongs to which race.
Moreover, Maggie is described as sandy-colored, while Twyla asserts that Maggie is not black. The vagueness of the racial identity of Maggie is the main element that makes her mysterious and significant. This ambiguity shows that race is a largely social construction and arbitrary. These are practiced in real life because these prejudices and racial concepts originate in the minds of people.
Twyla and Roberta disagree over the race of Maggie after 20 years when they live together in the shelter, even though both of them had a strong awareness of race and racism when they were children. Moreover, St. Bonny’s is an institute where all types of races exist; even then, the children face racial discrimination and are at their forefronts.
Morrison offers contradictory clues about Twyla and Roberta’s race that, most of the time, confuses the readers. Through this, the readers illuminate their own prejudices and assumptions about race.
Toni Morison shows Twyla and Roberta’s clash over the integration of schools as a vague scene. This fact reveals her amazing skill as a writer. The two women show the socio-economic gulf between them. Roberta lives in a place where executives and doctors are her neighbors while Twyla lives in a poor neighborhood in Newburgh. However, these facts do not reveal anything about the races of these women.
Twyla and Roberta argue and fight over the issue of busing and integration. It is ambiguous what their final opinion about racial integration is. Moreover, the race is not made obvious through their support or opposition for the integration as Roberta mainly protests because her children are being abused at different schools out of her neighborhood.
The arbitrariness of the racial identity is emphasized when Twyla and Roberta assert that “I wonder what made me think you were different.” Apparently, the assortment sounds like racial prejudice as both women appear to have negative views about each other’s race. However, the thought that the other is “different” is not advocated by anyone.
The sense of racial ambiguity and the fact that both women say this sentence in succession points out towards another contradictory meaning. Considering the sentence out of context, it can be taken as a gesture of racial reconciliation. In reality, we are the same, but I don’t know what made you think that we are different.
As the differences between the two women are racial and significant, it also deals with arbitrary economic and social circumstances. Even though racism and discrimination is the real part of the world in which live, everyone regardless of assumption and stereotype should be given even opportunities and values as other people.
Between 1955 and 1968, a movement named as the African-American Civil Rights movement reigned in the United States. The main agenda of the movement was to illegalize the racial discrimination and sufferings of African-Americans. Like any other powerful movement, the movement initiates collective changes in American society both mentally and physically. In any public accommodation, discrimination based on race, religion, and nation was banned.
One can say that African-Americans have gained significant freedom. For American-Americans, doubleness became more attractive, and they started reviving and analyzing it more broadly. For example, W.E.B. Bois suggested a concept of double consciousness. He describes this concept as being caught in “self-conception” as an American and as a person of African origin.
“Recitatif” was published in 1983 by Toni Morison. It is an account of two childhood friends. The one among them is black while the other is white. The lives of the main characters of the story intersect over the course of many years. The main and significant point about the short story is Toni Morison never mentions which gild belongs to which race. She deliberately does so and intends to reveal the tendency of humans to categorize people instantly.
Morison overlaps the version of different characters about the same and shared history and shows what happens when two people’s memories of the same event bump against each other. When Twyla and Roberta discover that both of them have different memories about the same event, Twyla asserts that “I wouldn’t forget a thing like that. Would I?”
Twyla’s uncertainty points towards the instability and insecurity of memory. Du Bois asserts that “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
In the short story “Recitatif,” there is a third character that gives alteration to Twyla and Roberta’s memories. The third character is dwelling in the fictional suspension of Morison’s works. The character is a deaf Maggie who is vulnerable, and the far girls of the shelter torment her. As Twyla and Roberta grew older, the memories of what happened to Maggie torment them. Maggie represents silent by having a metamorphic role between the two main characters. Even if the cultural role of Twyla and Roberta are changed, Maggie is still found in the crippling cultural discourse.
It is mentioned that “the heart of stereotyping is the “concept of fixity” in the ideological construction of otherness”. The fixity is defined as signs of historical/cultural/racial differences and is a paradoxical mode of representation.”
Therefore, it can be said that there is one main character in the story for whom the ideological construction of otherness is mixed, and this character is Maggie. Contrary to Twyla and Roberta, the main sign of the difference between Maggie is her disability. Moreover, Maggie has an important prosthetic function in the story. Toni Morison provides the readers with the uncertainty of Maggie’s race, just like the other two characters of the story, and the perception of the two women constantly changes about her.
This change of perception, on one side, can be taken as a consequence of the idea of narrative, and the misleading readers concern more about the racial identities of Roberta and Twyla. Even though time and again gives clues in the story to guess the race of the girls, the readers are not sure about the race of any character.
The conversation between Roberta and Twyla corresponds to the ambiguity of the race of Maggie as well. For instance, Roberta says that “Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. You kicked a black lady, and you have the nerve call me a bigot.”
To this Twyla replies that
“What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black.”
“She wasn’t black,” I said
Roberta: “Like hell, she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream.”
Roberta: You’re the lair. Why don’t you just go home and leave us alone, huh?”
Roberta has taken the terrifying and traumatic memory of the victimization of Maggie and changed it into a site for her own feelings of victimization by substituting herself for Maggie. It is clearly observed that one cannot precisely be certain about the racial identity of Maggie by considering the conversation between Twyla and Roberta.
To conclude, “Recitatif” is an African-American short story by Toni Morison. The story is an account of the relationship between the two women and how their relationship is shaped by their differences in races. Morison does not disclose the races of any character of the story. Instead of focusing on the distinctive culture of African-Americans, Toni Morison makes a point that the diving cultures of black and whites are largely based on whites and blacks defining themselves as opposed to each other.
Abstract ideas and concepts in a literary text are represented by objects, characters, and figures. The following are the symbols in the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morison.
The symbol of the dance is introduced in the story when the narrator narrates the first sentence of the story: “My mother danced all night, and Roberta’s was sick.” The illness of Roberta’s mother is parallel to that of Mary’s dancing. Certainly, the dancing habit of Mary prevents her from performing her duties as a mother. It is possible that the phrase “dancing all night” is used to hide the important detail of Mary’s life. Mary could be a sex worker who dances at the bar, or there could be any other reason that prevents her from taking care of Twyla.
Throughout the story, the act of dancing is linked with some sort of abnormality. The sexuality and rebelliousness of gar girls are shown by the fact they listen to the radio and dance in the orchard to the music. Moreover, explaining her reason for escaping St. Bonny, Roberta says that she had to escape as she cannot dance in the orchard. Therefore, the act of dancing symbolizes the future that Twyla and Roberta want to escape from.
The first part of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, many popular forms of dances common among people were linked with immorality and sexuality. This association also started when Africa-American traditional forms of dances were demonized, and white culture viewed it as hypersexual, wild, and un-Christian.
Moreover, with the character of Maggie, a more metaphorical form of dace is associated. Maggie walks in an unusual way because of her bow legs. Twyla makes an explicit link between her mother dancing and the way Maggie walks. She says that “Maggie was my dancing mother… rocking, dancing, and swaying as she walked.” Twyla, once again, associates dancing with abnormality and disability. In other words, one can say that dancing shows their inability to function according to the set rules of society.
The short story “Recitatif ” contains a lot of symbolic settings. The setting includes the bedroom of Roberta and Twyla, Howards Johnson’s chapel, the Newburg dinner, and the gourmet market. The most important setting of the story is the orchard at St. Bonny’s. While talking about the gar girls and their habit of hanging and dancing at the orchard, Twyla first introduces the orchard.
Twyla would frequently dream about the orchard. She describes the orchard as 2-4 acres and contains apple trees. However, the trees were “empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny’s but fat with flowers when I left.” The description that Twyla gives about the apple trees is clearly connected between Maggie and trees as Maggie is also crooked because of her disability.
The site of the orchard is also important as the gar girls abuse Maggie by kicking her. Therefore the symbol of the orchard is Edenic (the garden of Eden). It is the place where the innocence of childhood paves the way for “sins: of vanity, cruelty, sexuality, and adolescence.
The Klondike Bars
The Klondike bars that Twyla bus at the gourmet market after deciding upon it too much represent her character as an adult woman and her circumstances after marriage. It also signifies the difference between Roberta and Twyla. Twyla visits the gourmet market out of curiosity. While walking in the market, she cannot justify spending her husband’s salary on anything except for buying Klondike bars as her son and father-in-law both love it.
This small incident shows the responsible, restrained, and modest personality of Twyla and also shows how much her life revolves around the desires of others.
However, Twyla feels guilty after buying them. When Roberts suggests having a coffee, Twyla instantly thinks about the bars that will melt in the car. Twyla again thinks about the Klondike bars when the conversation in the coffee bar gets sour. She wonders that she is too childish to think about the instance when Roberta snubs her in Howards Johnson’s. This confirms the link between the Klondike bars and the self-esteem and delicacy of Twyla’s maturity.
Roberta and others start protesting when the schools in Newburg are made to integrate through busing. Roberts is holding a placard that reads, “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!”. Twyla accidentally drives past the protest and sees Roberta holding the placards. After having an argument with Roberta, Twyla decides to join the counter-protest as hold the placard that reads, “AND SO DO CHILDREN***.” This placard is followed by a series of other placards that make no context to the ladies but are directed to the shared experience of Roberta and Twyla.
In the story, these protest signs play an important role as it symbolizes Twyla’s and Roberta’s transformation from powerless and vulnerable children to an adult woman who can speak for them on public platforms. However, the statement of Roberta and her identification with motherhood appears to be unconvincing and emphasizes her assimilation with influence, wealth, and responsibility.
The placards, at the same time, also show Roberta and Twyla’s obscurity to the world around them. Twyla repeatedly says while reflecting on her friendship with Roberta that she does not ask questions and appreciates it. Instead of asking questions and interrogation from each other, the two kids simply accept each other’s life as it is. Therefore, the cryptic signs that Twyla makes are only addressed to Roberta and very significant.
The placard “AND SO DO CHILDREN***” could be interpreted in a way that Roberta is the stepmother of four kinds and is not technically a mother. In response to this, Roberta creates a placard that reads that “HOW WOULD YOU KNOW?” and “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?.”
Even though these placards have nothing to do with the ongoing protest, the question is a motif with which Roberta and Twyla end their conversation each time when they meet as adults. Roberta’s placards show her responsibility and maturity as an adult, while Twyla’s signs show the unstable childhood of both women.
The tone of the short story “Recitatif” is realistic and somber. The apparent prejudices make it impossible for the two girls to get along with each other. Robert’s mother and society are among the sources of outside society that makes such prejudices
Point of View
The story is narrated from the first-person point of view. The narrator of the story is the main character, Twyla. Twyla narrates the story from first-hand experience. She cannot understand why Roberta is treating her the way she does. If the story were narrated from Roberta’s point of view, it would be drastically different.
The story begins when the girls are preteens. This was around the 1940s or 1950s. The story continues until both girls are much older women with kids of their own. Although Twyla has settled into a comfortable life, where she is happy, she realizes that when she meets up with Roberta, her life has not been happy or comfortable.
The word “Recitatif” is taken from the French language, which means recitative. It is a style of the musical oratorio that hangs between ordinary speech and song. During operas, Recitatives are used for narrative and dialogic interludes. It can also be defined as the tone and rhythm specific to any language.
These definitions suggest the episodic nature of the story. It deals with the five sections of the story that are different from the ordinary lives of the two main characters Twyla and Roberta. The sections of the story bring rhythm in the lives of the two characters. All of the moments are narrated in the voice of Twyla, so one can say the short story is the “Recitatif of Twyla.
“Recitatif” belongs to the category of a short story fiction. It is a story in racial writing as the race of Twyla and Roberta is ambiguous and debatable. It is not clear which is Caucasian and which one is African American.