The story’s initial setting inside a shelter establishes the theme of social exclusion and alienation. The children in the shelter either no longer have parents or—like Twyla and Roberta—have parents who are unfit to take care of them. Twyla says that she and Roberta were “dumped” at St. Bonny’s, and explains that the other children at the shelter refused to play with them because they were not “real orphans.” Because of their mothers, Twyla and Roberta experience double exclusion; first from society, and second within an institution consisting of social outcasts. The older girls at St. Bonny’s, who Twyla and Roberta call the gar girls, are described as “put-out girls, scared runaways… who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us.” Here Morrison shows how the most excluded and forgotten members of society can be mistaken for “tough” and intimidating, when in fact they are extremely vulnerable.
However, the children are not the only social outcasts in St. Bonny’s. Maggie, the racially ambiguous disabled woman who works in the kitchen, is arguably even more socially ostracized than the children. Bullied by the older girls, Maggie is unable to respond because she is mute and possibly deaf. She becomes a central figure in the story when Roberta claims that she and Twyla pushed and kicked her in the orchard. Although Roberta later takes back this statement, she remains obsessed with Maggie’s fate, and the story ends with her asking “What the hell happened to Maggie?”. Even though Roberta was only a child during her time at St. Bonny’s—and a child in a particularly vulnerable and difficult situation—she still feels guilty and complicit in Maggie’s exclusion from society.
Social exclusion is also an important element of the story’s depiction of race and segregation. As adults, Roberta and Twyla find themselves on opposing sides of a protest over school integration. Roberta complains: “They want to take my kids and send them out of the neighborhood,” a common objection to the “busing” method used to force school integration. Roberta wants her children to stay within her own community; however, this indirectly leads her to support segregation, which is socially exclusionary and prevents other children from receiving a high-quality education.
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted ThemeTracker
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Quotes in Recitatif
My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick. That’s why we were taken to St. Bonny’s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“They're just mothers."
"And what am I? Swiss cheese?”
"l used to curl your hair."
"l hated your hands in my hair."
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.
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.
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.
"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?"