Recitatif

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperCollins edition of Recitatif published in 1998.
Recitatif Quotes

My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the opening sentence of the story. Immediately, it highlights a connection between Roberta and Twyla through the explanation of why they are brought to St. Bonny’s. This connection becomes the basis of their deep (if unstable) bond that lasts into adulthood. Meanwhile, Twyla’s words also draw a parallel between Mary (Twyla’s mother) and Roberta’s mother, and their respective afflictions. Although we might not ordinarily think of “dancing all night” as a problem—and certainly not a condition, like an illness or disability—Twyla suggests that in this context, that is exactly what it is. Mary’s tendency to “dance all night” is a metaphorical (or euphemistic) sickness or disability that prevents her from performing the duties of a normal, healthy mother.

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I liked the way she understood things so fast. So for the moment it didn't matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that's what the other kids called us sometimes. We were eight years old and got F's all the time. Me because I couldn't remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn't read at all and didn't even listen to the teacher. She wasn't good at anything except jacks, at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop pow scoop.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has explained that although she and Roberta first didn’t get along—a fact that was largely due to their racial difference and the prejudice that Mary had taught to Twyla—their social exclusion by the other children led the two girls to become close. Here she emphasizes this idea, noting that although she and Roberta were teased by the other kids and did not perform well in school, this brought them even closer together. At the same time, Twyla’s words foreshadow the pressure that the girls’ friendship will undergo as a result of their racial difference when they grow older, as she notes that “for the moment it didn’t matter that we looked like salt and pepper.” This may not matter when they are children, but it will in the future.

Twyla’s claim that Roberta “wasn’t good at anything except jacks” is proven to be false even within this passage. After all, Twyla begins by saying “I liked the way she understood things so fast.” Far from a minor matter, this is a crucial component to Twyla and Roberta’s friendship. When the women grow older, it is clear that they both feel misunderstood by the wider world, but—at least to some degree—understood by one another. However, this ease of understanding is not valued within the world of St. Bonny’s in the same way as academic achievement, and Twyla and Roberta are thus left feeling that they do not have any important skills or talents.

We didn't like each other all that much at first, but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped. Even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has continued to explain her and Roberta’s transition from a place of dislike and prejudice to close friendship. Both girls perform badly in school, but bond over the fact that they understand each other without asking questions. In this passage, Twyla describes the girls’ exclusion from the other children at St. Bonny’s, who have a higher social status because they are “real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.” Twyla repeats this childlike phrase several times throughout the story, and it serves as an illustration of the peculiar logic that dominates life at the shelter.

Whereas we might assume that Twyla and Roberta would feel lucky to not be “real orphans,” Twyla’s words show that the other children at St. Bonny’s are able to mythologize their “beautiful dead parents” in a way that is not possible for her and Roberta. The fact that the girls must live with the reality of their mothers—each of whom suffers from their own “sickness”—lowers them in the social hierarchy to an extent that trumps racial hierarchy, shown by the fact that “even the New York City Puerto Ricans and the upstate Indians ignored us.”

I used to dream a lot and almost always the orchard was there. Two acres, four maybe, of these little apple trees. Hundreds of them. Empty and crooked like beggar women when I first came to St. Bonny's but fat with flowers when I left. I don't know why I dreamt about that orchard so much. Nothing really happened there. Nothing all that important, I mean. Just the big girls dancing and playing the radio. Roberta and me watching. Maggie fell down there once.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Maggie, The Gar Girls (The Older Girls)
Related Symbols: Dance, The Orchard
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has introduced the “gar girls,” the teenagers who wear makeup and dance to the radio in the orchard. She has explained that she and Roberta were afraid of the gar girls, but in this passage notes that she doesn’t think of the orchard as being significant other than as a place where she and Roberta would watch the girls dancing from afar. Her description of the “empty and crooked” trees in the orchard implicitly links the orchard to Maggie, who is bow-legged and whom Twyla perceives to be a person without interior consciousness—in other words, who is “empty.” The orchard can also be seen as a symbolic Garden of Eden, where Twyla and Roberta’s childhood innocence is confronted with the gar girl’s “sinful,” sexualized behavior.

Twyla’s words suggest that even though she is not consciously aware of the orchard’s importance, she understands it on a subconscious, intuitive level, which is why she dreams about it even though “nothing really happened there.” This foreshadows Roberta’s revelation years later that Maggie didn’t just “fall once” in the orchard, but was in fact pushed and kicked—an episode that becomes the emotional and moral center of the story.

She wore this really stupid little hat––a kid's hat with ear flaps––and she wasn't much taller than we were. A really awful little hat. Even for a mute, it was dumb––dressing like a kid and never saying anything at all.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Maggie
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has described Maggie, the racially ambiguous “kitchen woman” who is bow-legged and cannot speak. Overall, Twyla’s feelings about Maggie seem to range between curiosity and neutrality. However, in this passage, she takes on a more judgmental tone, expressing stern disapproval at the “stupid little hat” Maggie wears. This leads Twyla to indirectly blame Maggie for her own disability, saying “even for a mute, it was dumb… never saying anything at all.” This logical slip reveals the ease with which people can come to blame those who are vulnerable for their own difference and misfortune.

Twyla does not blame Maggie for her disability outright, but is fixated on the hat as a visual manifestation of Maggie’s inability to communicate with the outside world, a manifestation that—unlike Maggie’s actual disabilities—Maggie chooses to wear herself. These cruel thoughts foreshadow the eventual revelation that both Twyla and Roberta wanted the gar girls to hurt Maggie, a fact that Roberta eventually claims is as bad as hurting her themselves.

I thought if my dancing mother met her sick mother it might be good for her. And Roberta thought her sick mother would get a big bang out of a dancing one. We got excited about it and curled each other's hair.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

During Roberta and Twyla’s time at St. Bonny’s, there is a visiting day during which relatives and other adults come to attend a church service and have lunch with the children. Roberta and Twyla grow excited over this prospect, imagining that their mothers will enjoy meeting one another. Like their “salt and pepper” daughters, Mary and Roberta’s mother are constructed as parallel versions of each other, even as they are also opposites. Whereas Roberta’s mother is sick and (as we later learn) deeply religious, Mary’s problem seems to be that she is too fun-loving and irresponsible to take care of Twyla. The girls’ optimism about the prospect of their mothers meeting draws them even closer together, symbolized by the intimate, reciprocal act of curling each other’s hair.

I saw Mary right away. She had on those green slacks I hated and hated even more now because didn't she know we were going to chapel? And that fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them. But her face was pretty––like always––and she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother, not me.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Mary (Twyla’s Mother)
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

The visiting day has arrived, and Twyla and Roberta have carefully prepared, wearing their best outfits and making baskets out of construction paper which they fill with candy. When Twyla sees Mary, however, she is overcome with embarrassment; Mary is dressed inappropriately for chapel, and wearing a fur jacket that is obviously ripped. In this moment, Twyla and her mother Mary perform a role reversal, in which Twyla becomes the sensible, disapproving mother, and Mary the giddy, frivolous little girl. This reversal foreshadows Twyla’s development into a responsible (and perhaps slightly boring) adult, who is focused on creating a conventional, stable life for her family—the opposite of what her mother provided for her.

James is as comfortable as a house slipper. He liked my cooking and I liked his big loud family. They have lived in Newburgh all of their lives and talk about it the way people do who have always known a home.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), James Benson
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

This section begins the final jump in time of the story, after the incident when Twyla and Roberta meet again in Howard Johnson’s. At this stage, Twyla is a 28-year-old adult, married to James and living surrounded by his family in Newburgh. James’ family is a clear contrast to Twyla’s upbringing, both with her erratic, fun-loving mother and the difficult—if happier—stage of life she spent at St. Bonny’s. James’ family is so stable that they remain consistent while the city around them changes. Meanwhile, James himself is reliable and “comfortable,” providing Twyla with the consistency and solace that she did not receive from her mother as a child. Even Twyla’s friendship with Roberta is defined by instability and strife, the opposite of her life with James.

Shoes, dress, everything lovely and summery and rich. I was dying to know what happened to her, how she got from Jimi Hendrix to Annandale, a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives. Easy, I thought. Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Jimi Hendrix
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has gone to the new gourmet market in Annandale out of curiosity, though she can only bring herself to buy Klondike bars as the other groceries are too expensive. In the checkout line, she runs into Roberta, who is dressed in elegant clothing and carrying expensive grocery items. In this passage, Twyla moves from a dazzled curiosity about Roberta’s new life to a bitter resentment of Roberta on the grounds of her (unknown) race. Rather than seeing Roberta as an individual, Twyla considers her a representative of negative stereotypes about her race: “Everything is so easy for them. They think they own the world.”

It may at first seem more likely that Twyla would make this statement about white people, considering the power and privilege of white people within American society. On the other hand, because of the constant mixed, ambiguous signals regarding Twyla and Roberta’s races, the reader is forced to consider the possibility that Twyla is white and assumes that black people “think they own the world.” This would actually cohere with anti-black racism, particularly during the latter half of the 20th century, when African Americans did experience an improvement in political rights and social mobility. To many white racists, even this marginal progress was a sign that black people were getting too entitled and arrogant.

We went into the coffee shop holding on to one another and I tried to think why we were glad to see each other this time and not before. Once, twelve years ago, we passed like strangers. A black girl and a white girl meeting in a Howard Johnson's on the road and having nothing to say. One in a blue-and-white triangle waitress hat, the other on her way to see Hendrix. Now we were behaving like sisters separated for much too long.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Jimi Hendrix
Page Number: 216
Explanation and Analysis:

Having run into one another at the gourmet market, Roberta asks Twyla to join her for a coffee. Twyla briefly worries about the Klondike bars she has just bought melting in her car, but chooses not to mention them and go to the coffee shop with Roberta. Unlike the scene in Howard Johnson’s, now the two women warm to each other and descend to a joyous, childlike state—“like sisters separated for much too long.”

Twyla’s words emphasize the fact that she and Roberta do have a familial relationship to one another, even though at other points in the story this sense of kinship has seemingly been erased by their racial and socioeconomic differences. This inconsistency is conveyed through Twyla’s language. When describing their meeting in Howard Johnson’s, she and Roberta are just “a black girl and a white girl” who “passed like strangers”; in Annandale, however, they are “like sisters.”

You got to see everything at Howard Johnson's, and blacks were very friendly with whites in those days. But sitting there with nothing on my plate but two hard tomato wedges wondering about the melting Klondikes it seemed childish remembering the slight.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta
Related Symbols: The Klondike Bars
Page Number: 219
Explanation and Analysis:

At the coffee shop, Twyla has asked Roberta why she was rude to her when they met at Howard Johnson’s 12 years earlier. Roberta has responded dismissively, saying it was because of the state of race relations at the time. This confuses Twyla, who remembers groups of friends made up of different races coming into Howard Johnson’s all the time. To Twyla, this was an era of increasing racial harmony, particularly among young people—although this opinion only shows that the ability to perceive racial tensions often depends on one’s particular position in society. However, rather than standing by her contrasting opinion, Twyla is embarrassed by the notion that by clinging to resentment she is behaving in a “childish” way—a state of being from which she is keen to distance herself.

Joseph was on the list of kids to be transferred from the junior high school to another one at some far-out-of-the-way place and I thought it was a good thing until I heard it was a bad thing. I mean I didn't know. All the schools seemed dumps to me, and the fact that one was nicer looking didn't hold much weight. But the papers were full of it and then the kids began to get jumpy.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Joseph Benson
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla has explained that “racial strife” has come to Newburgh in the form of tensions around the policy of busing, which was used to force schools to integrate. Twyla does not have a strong opinion on the subject, even while the community around her is whipped into a frenzy. In this passage, she explains that her ambivalence is rooted in a negative opinion of schools in general. Twyla’s words echo her feelings about St. Bonny’s and her schooling while there, which she found difficult because she “couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said.”

Twyla notes that “all the schools seemed dumps to me,” a phrase that echoes her repeated statement that she and Roberta were “dumped” at St. Bonny’s. Clearly, Twyla associates schools and other childhood institutions as places of exclusion and social abandonment. This actually connects Twyla’s feelings about schooling to the issue of segregation, although this connection is not made explicit. In both cases, institutions that should provide support, resources, and tools for children become oppressive sites of social exclusion.

"Well, it is a free country."
"Not yet, but it will be."
"What the hell does that mean? I'm not doing anything to you."
"You really think that?"
"l know it."
"l wonder what made me think you were different."
"l wonder what made me think you were different."

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla and Roberta have confronted one another at the protest over busing. Twyla argues that there is nothing wrong with busing, whereas Roberta is outraged by the policy. The women’s argument—which is theoretically about a complex political issue—then descends into childlike bickering. Both women make vague, ambiguous statements, such that it is easy for the reader to lose track of who is saying what—an effect that coheres with the racial ambiguity hanging over the entire story.

This sense of ambiguity is emphasized in the moment when both women say one after another, “I wonder what made me think you were different.” Like an optical illusion, this statement could have two completely different meanings depending on the context in which it appears. In the midst of Twyla and Roberta’s argument, it betrays a logic typical of racist ideology; the idea that any likeable member of a despised race is an exception, “different” to the rest of their race. However, if approached from another angle, the sentence could convey an understanding that race is in fact an arbitrary social construction, and that beneath racial distinctions everyone has the same value. This is significant in light of the trajectory of Roberta and Twyla’s friendship, as the women did start off by thinking the other was “different,” but came to realize (at least as children) that they were in fact as similar as sisters.

“They're just mothers."
"And what am I? Swiss cheese?”
"l used to curl your hair."
"l hated your hands in my hair."

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla and Roberta have continued to argue at the protest. Although they are supposedly debating the policy of busing, their comments have grown increasingly vicious and personal. Twyla exclaims that the women protesting busing along with Roberta are “Bozos,” referring to the bossy and authoritarian woman who was in charge St. Bonny’s. Roberta disagrees, saying they are “just mothers,” which Twyla then interprets as a personal insult.

Things get even more personal when the topic turns to hair, and the intimate act of curling each other’s hair before their mothers came to visit. This is a particularly charged example because of the racial tensions surrounding hair. In the US, Afro-textured hair has often been demonized as “dirty” and “unprofessional,” and the world of black hair styles and care is largely obscured from white people. Thus for a black person to invite a white friend to curl their hair is a particularly intimate act of trust.

I brought a painted sign in queenly red with huge black letters that said, IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?. Roberta took her lunch break and didn't come back for the rest of the day or any day after. Two days later I stopped going too and couldn't have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta, Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Protest Signs
Page Number: 223-224
Explanation and Analysis:

Although she earlier stated that she didn’t have a strong opinion on busing, Twyla has joined a counter-protest motivated by her argument with Roberta. She makes protest signs that address Roberta directly, and become increasingly strange and difficult for anyone except for Roberta to understand. Her final sign, reading “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?”, has nothing to do with busing at all and instead takes the form of the refrain with which she and Roberta have ended most of their conversations as adults—by asking about each other’s mothers.

Twyla’s words in this passage convey the sense that while Roberta has assimilated into a group of others who feel able to vocalize their opinions about political issues affecting their families, Twyla remains an outsider who cannot effectively communicate with others. Her statement that she “couldn’t have been missed because nobody understood my signs anyway” can be read at both a literal and metaphorical level. In the metaphorical sense, it implies that Twyla feels like a perpetual outcast and unwanted member of society because of her inability to be “read” and understood by those around her—with the one exception of Roberta.

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. Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody who could tell you anything important that you could use. Rocking, dancing, swaying as she walked. And when the gar girls pushed her down and started rough-

housing, I knew she wouldn't scream, couldn't—just like me—and I was glad about that.

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Maggie, The Gar Girls (The Older Girls)
Related Symbols: Dance, The Orchard
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

In the midst of an argument partly about busing, Roberta has revealed that Maggie didn’t fall down in the orchard, but was pushed and kicked by the gar girls. Roberta has also claimed that she and Twyla joined in with this kicking, but in this passage Twyla concludes (after some deliberation) that this is false. However, this moment of realization is not about exonerating herself from blame over Maggie’s suffering. Rather, Twyla suddenly comes to understand the true nature of her feelings about Maggie and why, even though she didn’t push Maggie herself, she wanted the gar girls to hurt her.

To the young Twyla, Maggie is symbolic of both her mother, Mary, and herself. Like Mary, Maggie has an unusual way of walking that causes her to “dance” and attracts negative attention from others. Similarly, Mary’s habit of dancing is framed as a kind of disability when Twyla compares it to Roberta’s mother’s illness, and uses it as the justification for why Mary cannot take care of her. At the same time, Maggie’s inability to speak is a reflection of Twyla’s own powerlessness as a child living at the shelter. As a result of having a neglectful mother, Twyla prematurely developed an adult sense of responsibility and maturity. However, she had no “voice” with which to articulate this, and if she “cried in the night,” there was no mother there to hear her. As a result, Maggie becomes a symbol of Twyla’s painful frustrations toward Mary and toward herself, a frustration so powerful that it verges on violence.

And you were right. We didn’t kick her. It was the gar girls. Only them. But, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her. I said we did it too. You and me, but that's not true. And I don't want you to carry that around. It was just that I wanted to do it so bad that day––wanting to is doing it.

Related Characters: Roberta (speaker), Twyla, The Gar Girls (The Older Girls)
Related Symbols: The Orchard
Page Number: 226-227
Explanation and Analysis:

Twyla and Roberta have accidentally run into each other again, this time in a diner where Twyla is stopping for a coffee on her way home, and where Roberta has gone after attending a luxurious ball at the Newburgh Hotel. Although Twyla is resistant to talking to Roberta, Roberta insists that she needs to tell Twyla something. In this passage, she reveals that her claim that she and Twyla kicked Maggie was false, but that she wanted to do it badly, which ultimately means the same thing: “wanting to is doing it.”

Note that this is the same realization—it even uses some of the same language—that Twyla experienced in the previous scene. Both women understand that although they did not take part in beating up Maggie, they watched the gar girls do it not only without intervening, but even hoping that they would hurt her. However, unlike Twyla, Roberta has not fully grasped why she wanted this to happen. In other words, she cannot see that her desire to hurt Maggie was a manifestation of her own frustration, anger, and fear as a vulnerable child living without her mother in the shelter. As a result, Roberta is far less forgiving of herself than Twyla managed to be.

"Did I tell you? My mother, she never did stop dancing."
"Yes. You told me. And mine, she never got well." Roberta lifted her hands from the tabletop and covered her face with her palms. When she took them away she really was crying. "Oh, shit, Twyla. Shit, shit, shit. What the hell happened to Maggie?"

Related Characters: Twyla (speaker), Roberta (speaker), Maggie, Mary (Twyla’s Mother), Roberta’s Mother
Related Symbols: Dance
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

Roberta has become hysterically upset over the incident with Maggie, and Twyla has attempted to comfort her, telling her that they were just children. In an effort to distract her, Twyla returns to a consistent refrain in the women’s relationship: their habit of asking about each other’s mothers. At first this seems to help, however the last words of the story are in the form of Roberta’s sudden exclamation: “What the hell happened to Maggie?” As a result, the story ends on a climactic, unresolved note. While Twyla has been able to move on from the incident with Maggie and does not seem to feel guilty about it, Roberta remains fixated.

Meanwhile, Roberta’s question also speaks directly to the reader, and raises two possible lines of inquiry. One refers to the episode in the orchard, and brings up the unresolved issues of what took place. Why did the gar girls kick her? Why did no one intervene? Why was Big Bozo fired, and was it a direct result of what happened to Maggie? However, the more obvious reading points to the question of Maggie’s ultimate fate. While both Roberta and Twyla have overcome their traumatic childhoods and achieved relative success in life, Maggie’s circumstances remain completely unknown. She is a lost character, an outcast within the narrative. The question of her fate is only raised at the very end of the story, when it is too late to receive an answer.

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