Tag Archives: Toni Morrison

The Significance of Ambiguity in Recitatif

The central motif of ambiguity is utilized by Morrison in “Recitatif” to cause the reader to question racial boundaries, and promote the idea that race is a superficial quality. Morrison purposefully does not explicitly mention the races of Roberta or Twyla. She only mentions them in the story as “salt and pepper”, and never clarifies whether Roberta and Twyla are white or black. Any descriptions of the characters, such as “Her own hair was so big and wild I could hardly see her face”.  and “her big serious looking eyes” are racially neutral, and could apply to individuals of any race. This ambiguity persists through the encounters Twyla and Roberta have through the years: meeting at the diner, the grocery store, etc.

The tone of the penultimate encounter is quite different, as the two run into each other at a protest against integration. Roberta is protesting the integration, while Twyla ultimately joins the other side. Twyla is accused of hypocrisy, considering she had kicked Maggie. Another layer of ambiguity again emerges-Maggie’s race. This ambiguity is directly addressed by the characters in the story, Twyla replies “She wasn’t black” when Roberta accuses her of kicking a helpless black woman. The issue appears to be whether or not Magie was black, not the fact that they had kicked an old woman. Morrison callas attention to the idea that the characters are fixated on Maggie’s race, which does not worsen/better the fact that they kicked Maggie. Morrison may be suggesting the insignificance of race, as the encounter at the protest induces even more confusion over what race Roberta and Twyla are. In fact, Morrison may be hoping the reader gives up on attempting to figure out the race of the characters, as it is irrelevant in both the story and in daily life.



VI – “Maggie” – A Recurring Manifestation of Resentment and Regret

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.)

Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”

Racial identity plays a crucial role in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif.” The story is about two women – Twyla and Roberta – who became friends when they lived in a shelter as kids. Though they were only together for four months, they developed a bond despite the racial tension prevalent in the world around them, evidenced by the interactions between the girls’ mothers.  As Twyla and Roberta continue to cross paths over the course of the story and their lives, race becomes a major factor in how those chance meetings are portrayed. Even the girls’ memories are laced with racial ambiguity, as each is haunted by the memory of what happed to Maggie, though the varying ideas of racial identity shape the story in opposing ways.

When Twyla and Roberta first meet, one of the first things Twyla says is that her mother wouldn’t be happy with Twyla’s living arrangements (1403). Though Twyla ponders Roberta’s interpretation of the comment, what Twyla really meant was that her mother wouldn’t like her living with someone of a different race. For the majority of the story, the reader must infer the race of each of the girls. It is not outright stated which is white and which is black. All we really know for sure is that there is tension in their relationship. As the two girls keep running into each other over the years, elements of their past bubble up to the surface.

One particular instance that cannot be forgotten – but that is not entirely remembered – is what happened to Maggie in the orchard. The first time Twyla recounts the story, we learn that Maggie fell while walking in the orchard, but the girls didn’t help her. However, each time she sees Roberta, the story becomes more haunting; apparently, not only did Twyla not help Maggie, but she also contributed to the beating Maggie received from the gar girls. According to Roberta, Twyla “kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground” (1413). Though that isn’t how Twyla remembers the event, she can’t help but admit that she didn’t feel sorry for Maggie. She imagined that Maggie was her mother and took pleasure in the fact that no one was coming to Maggie’s rescue (1414). This is another part of the story where race becomes a prominent issue. Both Twyla and Roberta imagined themselves beating up Maggie, who served to represent each of their respective mothers. During the Civil Rights era, it was black versus white. Each side pointed out the other’s flaws and sought to make society to better serve their own interests. Usually, when we talk about civil rights, we don’t think about the conflict just within one group.

I thought it was interesting that the girls imagined beating up their own mothers, because they were focusing on something other than the racial tension of the time. At this part of the story, it didn’t matter which girl was white and which was black; their internal battles were just as important as the conflicts they faced in society. When it came down to it, the problem did not lie in how their mothers viewed each other based on race, but how the girls viewed their relationships with their mothers.  In the four months they shared a room, Twyla and Roberta were able to look past their racial differences and become friends, but they couldn’t forgive their mothers for sending them to the shelter. A person can’t help what race they are, but they can change their behavior. Every time Twyla and Roberta ask each other if their mothers ever changed, the answer stays the same: No. Though race is constant, the girls couldn’t help but hope that their mothers’ behavior was only temporary and resented them when a lack of nurturing became habitual.