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Every Encounter Matters

In: English and Literature

Submitted By humd
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A fascinating and powerful narrative, “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison, tells the story of two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who share quite a complicated relationship. From the time they meet at St. Bonaventure, an orphanage, at the tender age of eight to when they become adults and start leading lives of their own, they are plagued by their racial, social, and economical differences. One of the most interesting aspects of the short story is the symbolism of Maggie, a disabled woman who works at the orphanage, and the tremendous impact she has on Twyla and Roberta. Numerous critics have analyzed the portrayal of Maggie in the story, and have come to some varied conclusions. In my opinion, as Twyla and Roberta are reunited with one another through the course of their lives, they slowly begin to see and accept that Maggie is a reflection of their mothers, and – to a larger extent – also themselves.
The issues explored in “Recitatif” resonate with many readers on many different levels and, in effect, much has been written and discussed about it. This is largely due to the fact that Morrison has left a lot open to the reader for interpretation. “Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and Presence in Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ and Viramontes’s ‘Tears on My Pillow’” by Helane Adams Androne is a very focused critical piece that argues that both central characters have suffer from strained relationships. "Transfiguring Aesthetics: Conflation, Identity Denial, and Transference in “Passing Texts” of Black Narrative" by Tomeiko Ashford and "Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative" by Juda Burnett are both well-written reviews that examine the racial identities of the characters and provide various explanations how the race component affects the story. Last but not least, "Watchers Watching Watchers: Positioning Characters and Readers in Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues' and Morrison's 'Recitatif.'" by Trudier Harris is an essay in which a thorough opinionated analysis of the story and the characters is provided. I enjoyed reading these particular reviews, however, upon assessment; there were certain opinions and points with which I disagreed.
To fully comprehend my argument, it is crucial to first evaluate the role, or purpose of Maggie in the entirety of the text. Maggie is old, deaf, and disabled, and falls victim to abuse by the girls at the orphanage. I view the character of Maggie as a symbol of innocence and humanity. I say innocence because I personally find her to be very childlike, as she seems to be oblivious to her surroundings and because is not able to stand up for herself. Twyla describes her saying, “…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 […]” (Morrison 202). However, during the incident where Twyla and Roberta watch Maggie as she is treated with utter disrespect and violence, Maggie suddenly becomes a symbol of insecurities, hatred, silence, and absence. This is the exact time and place where Maggie subconsciously becomes the image of their mothers in the minds of the two girls. This association between their maternal figures and Maggie keeps them in the dark about the reality of the situation, and turns out to haunt them as they grow older, mainly because they do not realize the sheer impact this one event has on the individual they have evolved into.
Twyla and Roberta both share a troubling relationship with their mothers – so much so that they go to great lengths to bottle their negative emotions. When Twyla and Roberta do not come to Maggie’s defense when witnessing the incident in the orchard, both Twyla and Roberta lose their innocence. They are consumed by the overwhelming hatred and insecurities that stem from their broken lives, and at that moment in time, they are no longer merely pure, young children. These angry and spiteful emotions, consequently, become directed toward Maggie, as they are able to mentally construct a parallel between characteristics of Maggie and their mothers. In their eyes, they see Maggie as being both silent and absent. She is there, physically, yes, but she is not completely there – just like their mothers. When the gar girls are beating Maggie, she does not speak, listen, or give any indication towards having any emotion, and Twyla and Roberta draw upon this similarity.
Trudier Harris, on the other hand, argues that, “Maggie is the site on which Twyla and Roberta can exercise their mob psychology, their desperation to belong in the same positions of power and favoritism as the gar girls […] Maggie enables powerless people to feel powerful, and who can be more powerless than children abandoned to a shelter?” (113). Essentially, Harris is saying that Twyla and Roberta wanted be viewed like the gar girls at St. Bonaventure’s, and by “aiding” in the beating of Maggie, this is the goal they had accomplished (113). I do not think that Twyla and Roberta ever wanted to be like the gar girls. While reading, I was struck by the strong notion that the older girls absolutely disgusted them. I see them acting horribly to Maggie from the stance that they simply related her to their mothers because of the problems with their mothers that they could not readily express, and they saw a version of their mothers in Maggie. I do not believe it was a matter of them wanting to feel superior in any sense. Rather, I would make the case that they did not even know at that time the identity connection they were making subconsciously.
Overtime the girls create a false reality in their minds about Maggie and what really occurred the day they witnessed her fall. Helane Androne analyzes how Twyla and Roberta both come to view Maggie: “In Morrison's "Recitatif," the archetypal mother figure is embodied through a domestic servant named Maggie; the female protagonists' continually revised memories of an incident in which Maggie is attacked attempt to negotiate a traumatic mothering situation that is both absent and present” (134). Both their mothers are absent for a significant portion of their lives, and even when they are present, they feel neglected and rejected because their mothers do not have much to offer them (i.e. words of wisdom) as one is presumably mentally ill and the other is morally loose. Twyla perceives Maggie through her physical attributes, explicitly describing how her legs looked like parentheses (Morrison 202). Similarly, Twyla focuses on her mother’s physical appearance when she comes to visit; Twyla discusses what her mother is wearing, physical features, etcetera. However, Roberta sees Maggie as a mentally ill person, an assumption that I drew while reading. It makes sense because Roberta’s mother is institutionalized and I can easily see Roberta fixating on that quality. This reflects my point that the girls visualize their mothers when they think of Maggie because Maggie evokes such similarities in their presence. Androne wonderfully explains this exact point:
[…] their memories of their mothers frame memories of this experience of Maggie in the orchard. This is because Maggie embodies Twyla's and Roberta's intersecting pasts. Rather than dealing directly with their maternal realities of absence and presence, memories of Maggie become the center of strife between them. The racial difference between Roberta and Twyla is insufficient to counter the "dumped" aspect of their identities. The class difference between them is insufficient to separate them from the memory of their shared experience of physical, psychological, and economic abandonment Maggie represents the intersection of their identities and their desire to revise their pasts to explain their present selves. (Androne 137).
Roberta and Twyla fixate their entire memory of Maggie based on incorrect conclusions because they are so desperate to seek some explanation or answer. By changing and blocking some key facts, they are able to accept their situation, although it is primarily false. Basically, it gives them a false sense of release of their pain.
Race plays a major role in this short story, and many of the conflicts that arise are because of this factor. Twyla and Roberta’s races are not disclosed, but Maggie’s skin color is described as only being sandy colored. This fact creates a rift and becomes a source of contention among both Twyla and Roberta because they each had Maggie pictured in a different race. Every interaction Twyla and Roberta have after they depart St. Bonaventure’s always involves this looming presence of racial difference. The Maggie factor, if you will, becomes too big of a hurdle to overcome to renew the acquaintanceship they once had. But most importantly, discovering that they did not know the truth about Maggie serves as a means for them to confront the truth; it pushes or instigates them to rethink their altered perceptions. Juda Bennett, in her critical piece offers her own take on the topic of Maggie’s race as seen in the story, and its effects.
As the tragic figure in the margins of the story, Maggie functions as a foil for Twyla and Roberta. But Maggie, more importantly, highlights the role that language plays in determining who we are and how others react to us. Because her race is passionately debated by Twyla and Roberta and in much the same way that readers of the story may debate the racial identities of the girls – Maggie becomes representative of the text itself, specifically symbolic of "Recitatif" and its "removal of all racial codes.” (214).
I think this statement is clear and speaks for itself. Personally, I feel like the assumption being made here is an extremely valid one, and I completely agree with it. The racial tension that overlooks the entire story and the barrier that results from race is temporarily cast aside after Twyla and Roberta have their revelation about not knowing what Maggie really was. The ambiguity, essentially, allows them to propel forward and confront their differences.
It is during the last encounter that Twyla and Roberta are able to have an open and lengthier exchange concerning Maggie and the memories linked with her. This is where Twyla and Roberta realize why they have been hesitant to embrace the truth about the past. During the last exchange between Twyla and Roberta in the story, Roberta eventually admits that, “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” (Morrison 213). In addition, Twyla also faces the truth head-on:
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. […] And when the gar girls pushed her down, and started roughhousing, I knew she wouldn't scream, couldn't-just like me and I was glad about that. (Morrison 212).
It is seen from their more accurate account of the events that took place at St. Bonaventure’s is that they were trying to relieve their suffering. Although it is not justified – mind you, it was at the extent of a poor, helpless old woman – it does provide a logical explanation. Furthermore, it illustrates that Twyla and Roberta mirror many of the same characteristics that Maggie represented. Maggie was powerless and had no voice, and at the time, so did they. Twyla and Roberta are products of their broken homes and resentment, and as too often is the case, they created a hard shell around their hearts. In his essay, Ashford brings up the fact that “Although the two do not physically participate in the assault, their sideline observance of the violent act allows their vicarious participation in it […]” (93). I disagree with the fact that they were participants in this. In my opinion, even though they were by-standers to the whole scenario, they did not understand the situation at hand. Firstly, they were too young and their mindset was not one that could easily differentiate between right and wrong. I mean, it took them almost their entire lives to come to terms with their identities and their childhood. Them observing the act was something I found wrong because they did not stand up for her, but I can understand the reasons that it was basically impossible for them to do so. Maggie was just someone who they saw such a resemblance with – in themselves and in their mothers – that they could not bear it and forced themselves to remove themselves from the event, but could also not help themselves from using Maggie as a pain reliever.
In conclusion, Maggie is a prominent figure in “Recitatif” as she embodies both Twyla and Roberta, and also their mothers. Toni Morrison does a wonderful job constructing a story that deals with such a wide range of issues in society, all the while teaching us an important lesson about humanity through the ordeals of the characters.

Works Cited
Androne, Helane Adams. “Revised Memories and Colliding Identities: Absence and
Presence in Morrison’s ‘Recitatif’ and Viramontes’s ‘Tears on My Pillow.’” MELUS 32.2 (2007): 133-50. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Ashford, Tomeiko R. "Transfiguring Aesthetics: Conflation, Identity Denial, and Transference in “Passing Texts” of Black Narrative." The Review of Black Political Economy 33.2 (2005): 89-103. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Bennett, Juda. "Toni Morrison and the Burden of the Passing Narrative." African American Review 35.2 (2001): 205-217. JSTOR. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
Harris, Trudier. "Watchers Watching Watchers: Positioning Characters and Readers in Baldwin's 'Sonny's Blues' and Morrison's 'Recitatif.'" James Baldwin and Toni Morrison: Comparative Critical and Theoretical Essays. Ed. Lovalerie King and Lynn Orilla Scott. New York: Palgrave, 2006. 103-20. JSTOR. Web. 21 November 2013.
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Spencer Richardson-Jones. New York: Norton, 2013. 200-214. Print.…...

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