Toni Morrison


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Recitatif Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 24-page guide for the short story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Racial Codes in the Construction of Literature and The Search for the Mother.

Part 1

Twyla and Roberta, the two main characters in Toni Morrison’s short story, “Recitatif,” meet at the Saint Bonaventure orphanage (St. Bonny’s) as 8-year-old girls. When Twyla first arrives at the shelter and sees Roberta, who is another race (the reader is not told which girl is white and which girl is black), Twyla immediately tells the staff, “My mother won’t like you putting me in here” (243). Twyla’s mother has warned Twyla about people who are of Roberta’s race. Despite this rocky beginning, Twyla and Roberta soon become close friends, especially as they are the only girls sharing their room. They discover their similarities, such as both of their mothers are still alive, compared to the other girls, whose parents are dead. Twyla and Roberta both do poorly in school, especially Roberta, who can’t read. And they both must deal with the bullying from the mean, older girls at the shelter. When both of their mothers happen to visit them on the same day, both of the girls eagerly anticipate their arrival. However, when Roberta’s mother snubs Twyla’s mother, refusing to shake hands with her, Twyla’s mother, Mary, loudly says, “That bitch!” (247). This ends any hope that their mothers will get along. Twyla notices that while Roberta brings chicken legs and ham sandwiches for their lunch, Mary has not brought any lunch for Twyla and her to share.

Eventually, Roberta leaves the shelter, promising Twyla that she will write her, despite Roberta’s inability to read or write.

Part 2

Years have passed and Twyla and Roberta are now teenagers. Twyla works as a waitress at a Howard Johnson’s diner. Roberta is part of a group of bus passengers who show up at the diner. Roberta is almost unrecognizable, with her heavy make-up, revealing clothing, and big hair. She sits at a booth between two guys. Twyla states, “I walked over to the booth, smiling and wondering if would remember me. Or even if she wanted to remember me” (249). Twyla is eager to talk but Roberta does not recognize her at first. When she finally does recognize Twyla, Roberta remains aloof, mocking Twyla for not knowing who Jimi Hendrix is. Twyla is uncomfortable as Roberta shows off in front of the guys. After awkwardly inquiring about each other’s mothers, Twyla, self-conscious, walks away.

Part 3

Twelve years later, Twyla is now married to James Benson, and they have a son, Joseph: “James is as comfortable as a house slipper. He liked my cooking and I liked his big loud family” (250). They live in Newburgh, where many of James’s family members live. The town of Newburgh has become run down, with many people forced to rely on welfare, but people are starting to move back into the neighborhood, many of them rich from working at IBM. In the new Food Emporium, which targets the richer neighbors, Twyla runs into Roberta, who has transformed herself again: “Diamonds on her hand, a smart white summer dress” (251). Roberta is also married; her husband is a widower with four kids. Unlike last time, Twyla and Roberta talk easily now. However, when they recall what happened to Maggie, a kitchen staff worker from the orphanage, they have differing recollections. Roberta recalls the time that the mean girls attacked Maggie: “Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes. In the orchard” (254). But Twyla remembers the incident differently, thinking that Maggie simply fell. She is disturbed by Roberta’s different recollection about that night.

When Twyla asks Roberta about her behavior at their last meeting, Roberta says, “Oh, Twyla, you know how it was in those days: black-white. You know how everything was” (255). Twyla does not remember racial tensions but rather the opposite: “You got to see everything at Howard Johnson’s and blacks…

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Story Analysis