The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'

A Story of Regret and Pain

Knit hat with ear flaps.
Image courtesy of distelfliege.

Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," appeared in 1983 in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women. It is Morrison's only published short story, though excerpts of her novels have sometimes been published as stand-alone pieces in magazines, such as "Sweetness," excerpted from her 2015 novel, God Help the Child.

The two main characters in the story, Twyla and Roberta, are troubled by the memory of the way they treated -- or wanted to treat -- Maggie, one of the workers in the orphanage where they spent time as children.

"Recitatif" ends with one character sobbing, "What the hell happened to Maggie?"

The reader is left wondering not just about the answer, but also about the meaning of the question. Is it asking what happened to Maggie after the children left the orphanage? Is it asking what happened to her while they were there, given that their memories conflict? Is it asking what happened to make her mute? Or is it a larger question, asking what happened not just to Maggie, but to Twyla, Roberta, and their mothers?

Outsiders

Twyla, the narrator, twice mentions that Maggie had legs like parentheses, and that's a good representation of the way Maggie is treated by the world. She is like something parenthetical, an aside, cut off from the things that really matter. Maggie is also mute, incapable of making herself heard. And she dresses like a child, wearing a "stupid little hat -- a kid's hat with ear flaps." She isn't much taller than Twyla and Roberta.

It's as if, by a combination of circumstance and choice, Maggie cannot or will not participate in full adult citizenship in the world. The older girls exploit Maggie's vulnerability, mocking her. Even Twyla and Roberta call her names, knowing she can't protest and half-convinced she can't even hear them.

If the girls are cruel, perhaps it's because every girl in the shelter is also an outsider, shut out from the mainstream world of families taking care of children, so they turn their scorn toward someone who is even further in the margins than they are. As children whose parents are alive but can't or won't take care of them, Twyla and Roberta are outsiders even within the shelter.

Memory

As Twyla and Roberta encounter each other sporadically through the years, their memories of Maggie seem to play tricks on them. One remembers Maggie as black, the other as white, but eventually, neither feels sure.

Roberta asserts that Maggie didn't fall in the orchard, but rather, was pushed by the older girls. Later, at the height of their argument over school busing, Robert claims that she and Twyla participated, too, in kicking Maggie. She yells that Twyla "kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground. […] You kicked a black lady who couldn't even scream."

Twyla finds herself less troubled by the accusation of violence -- she feels confident that she would never have kicked anyone -- than by the suggestion that Maggie was black, which undermines her confidence completely.

"Wanting to Is Doing It"

At different times in the story, both women realize that even though they didn't kick Maggie, they wanted to.

Roberta concludes that wanting to was the same as actually doing it.

For the young Twyla, as she watched the "gar girls" kick Maggie, Maggie was her mother -- stingy and unresponsive, neither hearing Twyla nor communicating anything important to her. Just as Maggie resembles a child, Twyla's mother seems incapable of growing up. When she sees Twyla at Easter, she waves "like she was the little girl looking for her mother --, not me."

Twyla states that during the Easter service, while her mother groaned and re-applied lipstick, "All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed."

And again, when her mother humiliates her by failing to pack a lunch so that they have to eat jellybeans out of Twyla's basket, Twyla says, "I could have killed her."

So perhaps it's no wonder that when Maggie is kicked down, unable to scream, Twyla is secretly pleased.

The "mother" is punished for refusing to grow up, and she becomes as powerless to defend herself as Twyla is, which is a kind of justice.

Maggie had been brought up in an institution, just like Roberta's mother, so she must have presented a frightening vision of Roberta's possible future. To see the older girls kick Maggie -- the future Roberta didn’t want -- must have seemed like exorcizing a demon.  

At Howard Johnson's, Roberta symbolically "kicks" Twyla by treating her coldly and laughing at her lack of sophistication. And over the years, the memory of Maggie becomes a weapon that Roberta uses against Twyla.

It is only when they are much older, with stable families and a clear recognition that Roberta has achieved greater financial prosperity than Twyla, that Roberta can finally break down and wrestle, at last, with the question of what happened to Maggie.

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Sustana, Catherine. "The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'." ThoughtCo, Sep. 20, 2017, thoughtco.com/meaning-of-maggie-in-recitatif-2990506. Sustana, Catherine. (2017, September 20). The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/meaning-of-maggie-in-recitatif-2990506 Sustana, Catherine. "The Meaning of Maggie in Toni Morrison's 'Recitatif'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/meaning-of-maggie-in-recitatif-2990506 (accessed December 13, 2017).