Toni Morrison constructs her short story “Recitatif” as an amalgamation of five chronological descriptions of the stilted encounters between Twyla and Roberta, women connected by a handful of months spent as roommates in an orphanage during their childhood. In spite of the many years spent apart, each instance finds Twyla drawn back to reflection upon the definitive past and the friendship that the two young girls used to share. The first of the narratives is perhaps the most crucial, for it depicts the initial bond shared between them. Morrison depicts a connection defined primarily by circumstantial existence; the girls stick together by their shared hardship and difficulty. They face adversity in the forms of the abusive “gar girls” of the orchard and the uncertain world which lies before them. Throughout the story, a crucial remembrance of the mute “kitchen woman” Maggie brings about a point of particular contention. Maggie struggles to overcomes the obstacles of her infirmities, as her bowed legs further inhibit her ability to easily carry out the tasks she must complete. Yet in spite of her hard work, the disabilities become a central point of cruel ridicule exploited by the inhabitants of orphanage. In their own uncertainty and hardship, they select her as their scapegoat, a means by which to attack the brutal world by verbally and physically mistreating one of its most fragile inhabitants. Because Maggie cannot hear their calls and cannot fight against assault, she is the perfect target; her powerlessness is taken as consent, her inability to scream as indifference. This “justifies” actions in the minds of her abusers.
The evolution of the story behind Maggie evolves in Roberta’s mind. Starting with the third vignette, Roberta begins to twist the story against Twyla’s remembrance. A blunt snub at the Howard Johnson is contrasted by this conversation, in which Roberta skates over the issue of the previous encounter by assuming a warm air. Yet the memory in which Maggie merely fell in the orchard becomes an incident carried out by the vengeful, unforgiving spite of the gar girls (1411). Roberta further causes Twyla to doubt herself as Roberta vacillates between open amiability and opposition. Yet the fourth encounter, in cold blood, turns Roberta against Twyla during the protest – as she accuses Twyla of helping her beat Maggie, who is now recalled in Roberta’s mind as an African-American woman. This intensified allegation almost manipulates the memories within Twyla’s mind – until she realizes that “I didn’t kick her; I didn’t join in with the gar girls and kick that lady, but I sure did want to. We watched and never tried to help her and never called for help” (1414). This sentiment, echoed by Roberta in the fifth vignette, displays an indifference and lack of action conceivably just as serious as the commitment of the action itself. Roberta is displayed as overwhelmed with guilt and regret that she has been taking out against Twyla for the past years. Though Twyla tries to comfort Roberta by assuring her that they cannot be held accountable for their childhood actions and sentiments, disproportionately violent imagery of the first section of the story may be recalled. As Twyla had faced embarrassment at the actions of her mother Mary in church, she said, “All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed” (Morrison 1407). Just a few lines later, “I could have killed her” makes an appearance. While her bitterness may be attributed to youthful overreaction, it comes across not humorously, but perturbingly. What a twisted place the world can be; for as children remain malleable to the influence of their elders, they learn the means and pleasures of cruelty, the effects of which haunt one throughout the rest of her life. A final, despairing cry: “‘What the hell happened to Maggie?'”
(I apologize for the lateness of this post. Posted at approximately 10:55 pm on April 6th.)