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 dress (Twyla describes her as “dressing like a kid and never saying anything at all”).
On the other hand, because of the absence of parents in their lives, the children at St. Bonny’s are forced to grow up quickly, and frequently perceive themselves and each other as more adult than they really are. This is true of the gar girls, who wear makeup, dance, and intimidate the younger children, but who in retrospect Twyla recognizes were actually “scared runaways… poor little girls.”
Meanwhile, Twyla and Roberta are also forced to behave like adults because their mothers are unable to properly perform the role of parents. Twyla calls her mother by her first name, Mary; when Mary comes to visit St. Bonny’s, Twyla notes that “she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother—not me.” The reason why Twyla does not live with Mary is because she “danced all night,” a detail that associates Mary with youth culture and suggests she was unable to mature enough to be a proper parent to her daughter. This fact conveys the idea that childhood and adulthood are not concrete, absolute opposites, but rather fluid states of being that people inhabit in different ways and at different points in their lives.
The binary between childhood and adulthood is also thrown into question when the story shifts to depict Twyla and Roberta as adults. The first time they meet again, Twyla is working at a diner and Roberta is hanging out with “two guys smothered in head and facial hair.” Roberta smokes a cigarette and wears makeup that “made the big girls look like nuns.” Both Twyla and Roberta have grown up, but in very different ways. Twyla is in a stable marriage and earning a living, whereas Roberta is sexy and glamorous, and on the way to meet Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was an icon of the newly emergent youth culture of the 1960s, a culture that took the form of a rebellious and hedonistic reaction to the conservative pressures on young people to get married, have children, and live “sensible” lives. It is telling, therefore, that Twyla doesn’t even know who Jimi Hendrix is.
When the story jumps further in time, Twyla remains in a similar position—albeit now with a son—whereas Roberta has moved to Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives,” and has four stepchildren and two servants. Roberta’s husband is rich, though she has little understanding of his career, describing it childishly as “computers and stuff.” Twyla asks if Roberta ever learned to read, a fact that once again infantilizes Roberta—even though she did learn, she reveals this in a childlike manner, by reading a menu in a show-off manner.
Furthermore, Twyla and Roberta’s involvement in opposing sides of a protest over forced school integration may initially be interpreted as a demonstration of their maturity and dedication to their maternal roles. However, the reality is, again, childish; the two women bicker at each other, and Twyla makes signs that nobody at the protest can understand.
The ending of the story also confirms the collapse of the distinction between childhood and adulthood. Although it is 20 years after her time at St. Bonny’s, Roberta remains overcome with guilt over the bullying of Maggie, even though Maggie was an adult and the bullies were children. Memories of the past invade her present life, and it is clear that both women symbolically remain both adults and children at the same time.
Childhood vs. Adulthood ThemeTracker
Childhood vs. Adulthood Quotes in Recitatif
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
“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?"