Recitatif

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Themes and Colors
Friendship vs. Family Theme Icon
Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted Theme Icon
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon
Childhood vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Race and Prejudice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Recitatif, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Sickness and Disability Theme Icon

Many people read “Recitatif” as a story whose primary theme is disability. Although the main disabled figure in the story, Maggie, at first appears to be a background character, by the end of the story she takes on a central (if still passive) role. Maggie’s disabilities—she is mute and possibly deaf, with “legs like parentheses”—make her even more vulnerable than the children at St. Bonny’s. She is mysterious, and the characters in the story all have different ideas about her. The other children claim her tongue was cut out, but Twyla doesn’t believe them. Roberta and Twyla are also unsure whether she can hear or not, and try to test her by calling her “Dummy!” and “Bow legs!”; however, her lack of reaction is inconclusive, and Twyla is left ashamed at the possibility that Maggie could hear this cruel taunting. Later in the story, it is revealed that Roberta thinks Maggie is black, whereas Twyla thinks she is white. Maggie is thus something of a mystical, surreal figure. Twyla even wonders if “there was somebody in there after all,” with “in there” referring to Maggie’s body. As an adult, she looks back on the incident when Maggie fell and concludes: “Nobody inside.” Because of her disability, Maggie is not considered a person with interior emotions and subjectivity.

Significantly, the children at St. Bonny’s seem to blame Maggie for her disability and defenselessness. Twyla condemns her for wearing “this really stupid little hat”—a hat with earflaps that symbolize her rumored deafness and disconnection from those around her. As an adult, Roberta says that “Because she couldn’t talk—well, you know, I thought she was crazy,” and both Twyla and Roberta admit that even if they didn’t kick Maggie, they wanted the gar girls to do so. Roberta even confesses, “I really wanted them to hurt her.” For the children in the shelter, the sight of someone already suffering from a physical disability causes them to want to inflict even more pain on her. This can be read as a result of the children’s own suffering and marginalization in society; they take out their own feelings of helplessness and rejection on someone who is even weaker and more vulnerable than they are.

Maggie is not the only disabled character in the story, however. In the very first sentence, Twyla declares: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” Roberta’s mother’s sickness makes her unable to take care of her daughter; this is paralleled by Twyla’s mother’s mysterious problem with dancing, a connection that suggests that Twyla’s mother’s obsession with dancing all night is itself a kind of disability that prevents her from properly performing her role as a mother. This idea is emphatically confirmed when Twyla says: “Maggie was my dancing mother… Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night… Rocking, dancing, swaying as she walked.” Maggie and Twyla’s mother are linked by the unusual way they move and from their detachment from the world around them. This in turn suggests that there is something about their ways of moving that is deemed socially inappropriate, which is also a racialized concept; throughout American history, black people have been demonized for dancing and other forms of movement associated with African culture.

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Sickness and Disability ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Sickness and Disability appears in each chapter of Recitatif. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Sickness and Disability Quotes in Recitatif

Below you will find the important quotes in Recitatif related to the theme of Sickness and Disability.
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.

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 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.