Toni Morrison

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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.

Friendship vs. Family

“Recitatif” chronicles the friendship of two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who meet in a shelter, St. Bonny’s. The parallels between the girls—including the fact that they are the same age and that both of their mothers are alive but unable to take care of them—create a sense that they are something like twins. This is emphasized in moments when they behave in a parallel, mirroring fashion—such as when they curl each other’s hair in…

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Outsiders, Outcasts, and the Unwanted

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…

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Sickness and Disability

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…

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Childhood vs. Adulthood

The binary of childhood and adulthood is central to the story; this is first made obvious by the fact that half of the narrative is set during Twyla and Roberta’s childhood, and the other half when they are adults. In the first half, Twyla and Roberta live in St. Bonny’s, a world of children. Even Maggie, who is technically an adult, is presented as a child in her helplessness and her mode of…

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Race and Prejudice

Like all of Morrison’s work, “Recitatif” centers questions of racial identity, community, and prejudice. Unusually, however, the races of the three main characters are deliberately kept mysterious. The reader is told that one of Twyla and Roberta is black and the other is white, however it is unclear which is which. Meanwhile, Maggie is describes as “sandy-colored”; Roberta insists that she is black, while Twyla is sure that she is not. The ambiguity of Maggie’s…

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