Recitatif Short Story by Toni Morrison Summary and Analysis in English


Toni Morrison’s only short story, “Recitatif,” appeared in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women in 1983. The plot revolves around two girls who meet at a shelter for neglected and orphaned children, with race playing an important part. Morrison leaves readers wondering about their assumptions about the ethnicities of the characters by keeping their racial identities unclear. The word “recitative,” which is a rhythmically free vocal style utilized for conversation and narration in operas and oratorios, is the inspiration for the title.

About the Author

Toni Morrison, who was born to an African American family in Ohio during the Great Migration, obtained her BA and MA from Howard University and Cornell, respectively. At age 30, she started writing when she married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved are among her most well-known works. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her writing explores issues of race, gender, sexuality, and family and frequently includes perspectives of children. Despite controversial topics such as incest, rape, and Beloved, Morrison leaves space for forgiveness, redemption, and optimism.


Twyla declares that she and Roberta were taken to St. Bonny’s orphanage because Twyla’s mother (Mary) “danced all night” and Roberta’s mother was unwell. They do not get along when they are first introduced to one another. When Twyla informs Big Bozo (the person in charge of the shelter) that Mary has taught her to have prejudiced views about Roberta’s race, Bozo rudely rejects her.

The girls eventually get along because they can understand each other without having to ask each other questions. The fact that Twyla can’t recall anything she learns, and Roberta hasn’t yet learned to read, both of them receive Fs “all of the time” which helps them to become closer. They are forced to be together since they are separated from the other students at St. Bonny’s because they are not “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.”

Twyla and Roberta are sometimes picked on by older girls (or “gar girls”), who wear makeup and appear intimidating but are fragile runaways. The older girls gather in the orchard, where they dance and listen to music. Twyla has frequent nightmares about the orchard, but she isn’t sure why because “nothing really happened there,” except for one instance in which Maggie fell down there. Maggie is an old “sandy-colored” woman with several disabilities who works in the kitchen. She walks with bow legs that make her rock and sway. She is also dumb and may be deaf.

Mary and Roberta’s mother visit on Sunday and attend church services and lunch at St. Bonny’s. Twyla and Roberta are pleased about this opportunity; they dress nicely and curl each other’s hair. But when Roberta presents her mother to Twyla and Mary, Roberta’s mother just walks away and doesn’t say anything. When Mary doesn’t bring any food for them to eat, Twyla feels even more humiliated and thinks she could kill Mary.

The plot leaps ahead eight years. On the Thruway, Twyla works at Howard Johnson’s. When a Greyhound Bus makes a stop at the cafe one day, Twyla recognizes Roberta among the travelers, along with two young guys. Roberta is dressed in a way and with makeup “that made the big girls look like nuns.” The two ladies engage in a brief, casual conversation, but Roberta comes out as rude and uninterested. When Twyla unintentionally admits that she is unaware of Jimi Hendrix, Roberta scoffs. Before Roberta can go without saying goodbye, Twyla questions her mother’s health. After expressing that she is alright and asking about Mary, Roberta departs.

The timeline jumps another twelve years. Twyla is now married to a man called James, whose family has a long history in Newburgh, and the two are parents to a child named Joseph. Despite having a high level of poverty, Newburgh is gentrifying at the same time as a gourmet market has opened there. Twyla stops by out of curiosity, but she is hesitant to make a purchase. She finally makes the decision to only purchase Klondike bars because her son and father-in-law love them.

Roberta, who is dressed elegantly, tells Twyla she is now living in the wealthy neighborhood of Annandale with her husband and four stepchildren. They run into each other at the checkout. Roberta recommends that the two women go out for coffee. The women laugh and giggle while closely holding onto each other at the coffee shop, “behaving like sisters separated for much too long.” They share memories of their time spent at St. Bonny’s, and Roberta proudly displays her newfound reading ability.

Twyla brings up Maggie, and Roberta argues that Maggie did not fall into the orchard but was pushed by the other girls. Twyla doesn’t believe her, but Roberta confesses that she knows since she returned to St. Bonny’s twice and fled the second time. When Twyla brings up the time Roberta ignored her at Howard Johnson’s, Roberta explains her actions to the racial tensions of the period. Twyla gets confused since she recalls several interracial groups of friends going into the cafe together, but she ignores it. The two women express concern for each other’s mothers, swear to stay in touch, and depart from each other.

Twyla notes that in the autumn of that year, Newburgh was consumed in “racial strife” due to the problem of forced integration through busing. One day, Roberta is holding a placard that reads “MOTHERS HAVE RIGHTS TOO!” while Twyla unintentionally drives by a busing protest. Twyla is compelled to drive back and confront Roberta. The two ladies discuss the protest that quickly turns into frustrated and petty fighting. Some of the protesting women eventually start to rock Twyla’s car. She extends her hand for Roberta’s help, but Roberta stays still.

After the women leave, Roberta remarks that she has changed from the child she once was, but Twyla hasn’t changed at all—”the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground.” Twyla replies that Maggie wasn’t black, which surprises her. Roberta swears she was, and that the two of them both kicked her. Twyla returns to join a counter-protest, waving a series of banners that specifically address Roberta and make no sense to anybody else. When Roberta sees the final sign, “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?” she appears to give up the protest. Twyla decides not to attend because Roberta has left.

More time goes by. It’s the time of Christmas, and Joseph is now at college. Twyla chooses to stop and have a cup of coffee on her way back after buying a Christmas tree. She observes a gathering of wealthy people outside the cafe dressed for the event and admits, “It made me tired to look at them.” Twyla enters the restaurant and discovers Roberta, who has undoubtedly arrived from the hotel event. Twyla first refuses when Roberta requests to talk with her, but later gives in.

Before Roberta confesses that there is something she had told herself she would tell Twyla if the two ever met again, the women engage in some light small talk. Roberta acknowledges that she mistakenly believed Maggie to be black, but that she and Twyla never really kicked Maggie; rather, they only stood by and watched as the Gar girls did it. Roberta adds that it would have been just as horrible if the girls had really injured Maggie.

Twyla consoles Roberta when she breaks down in tears because she thinks Roberta is upset due to her drunkenness. Twyla comforts her friend by telling her that they were just lonely eight-year-old kids. Twyla inquires about Roberta’s mother, who appears to be feeling better. Twyla confirms that Mary never quit dancing, and Roberta regrets the fact that she never got better. Roberta then abruptly experiences despair again, and the narrative closes with her yelling, “Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Magie?


Morrison’s “Recitatif” is a narrative that is deliberately unspecific in terms of the characters’ races. Morrison includes hints that make it difficult for the reader to determine Twyla and Roberta’s potential races, even though it is stated at the opening of the novel that one of the characters is white and one is black. As Twyla tells the reader at the beginning of the narrative, “they never washed their hair and they smelled funny,” the reader is made to conclude that Roberta is black. The Easter gathering, however, appears to contradict this notion as Roberta’s mother exits with her daughter rather than shaking Mary’s hand.

The rest of the story is filled with contradicting elements that one would expect to find as clues to the race of the two significant protagonists. Morrison highlights the struggle with identification and the impact situations have on a person’s self-confidence and sense of self through the usage of racial ambiguity. Despite the possibility that “Recitatif” is a commentary on the role of racism, the unclear nature of the topic causes the women’s separate journeys to take center stage.

It is difficult to read Morrison’s “Recitatif” without trying to figure out the “truth” about Twyla Benson and Roberta Fisk Norton’s given races. The narrative contains a deeper search for the truth. The reader is informed at the beginning of the narrative that Twyla’s mother “danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” What is not made clear to the reader is what was meant by the words “danced” or “sick.” At first look, it seems that Roberta’s mother is physically unwell and that Twyla’s mother is more focused on her personal enjoyment. This “truth” turns out to be the fact that Twyla’s mother is a terrible caretaker and that Roberta’s mother has a mental disorder as the plot develops. 

Roberta’s worries about her past and her worries about Twyla’s ability to reveal those realities are highlighted in their next encounters. Every time they cross paths, Roberta’s dress and behavior, which change depending on the circumstance, are described. While Twyla seems comfortable with who she is and her background, Roberta is obviously looking for a persona and identity that conceal her history. At Howard Johnson, Twyla does seem to protect herself against Roberta’s rudeness, but a later encounter reveals her desire to learn the truth about what happened, and eventually, her relationship with Roberta.

There is also a search for the truth about Maggie’s character throughout the entire story. The differences in their memories are brought to light during occasional conversations between Twyla and Roberta. Actually, Twyla does not remember Roberta’s behavior during the protests; rather, it is her assertion that Maggie was black, which Twyla cannot imagine not remembering. The fact that she didn’t remember earlier in the story that Maggie wasn’t just pushed down in the apple orchard but also that the other girls in the orchard were responsible for her fall emphasizes her memory loss even more. Throughout the novel, there is an underlying question about how a person realizes their truth.

Maggie is a character that appears regularly in Morrison’s “Recitatif,” although she doesn’t go through any character development. The reader just has a vague understanding of her age, muteness, and “legs like parentheses.” Morrison uses Maggie to represent those who are powerless to resist the injustices that society imposes on them. Maggie has to put up with the “gar girls,” a group of young girls who regularly humiliate and ridicule her since she is powerless to defend herself.

However, we see through Roberta’s personality that Maggie also represents the anxiety that comes from being powerless to prevent situations beyond one’s control. At the conclusion of the story, Roberta tells Twyla that Maggie, like her mother, spent her life in institutions and that she (Roberta) feared living a similar life. Roberta’s anxieties of being unimportant and living a life without purpose are brought into focus by the story’s concluding phrase, “What the hell happened to Maggie?”

Twyla sees Maggie as a representation of memory and the uncertainties that surround it. In Twyla’s later interactions with Roberta, every time she brings up Maggie, Twyla either forgets or misinterprets the underlying fact or piece of information. Given that neither Twyla nor Roberta is quite certain of who Maggie is, the significance of her race is not about race in and of itself but rather the insignificance of the character. Maggie is a representation of the characters’ worst fear in a story about people trying to figure out who they are.


To sum up, Toni Morrison was able to convey a strong message through her works, with Recitatif being one of the most significant. After decades of fighting against prejudice, she drew inspiration for her stories and characters from her experience. Twyla and Roberta provide examples of healthy interpersonal connections that are not dependent on race. Recitatif made a significant contribution to literary diversity as well as concerns surrounding equality in general.