Recitatif by Toni Morrison: Summary & Analysis

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

'Recitatif' by Toni Morrison follows the story of a young girl and her friend. The plot is filled with interesting twists and turns. This lesson offers a few ideas on how to navigate this story.


If you have ever sat down with a friend or family member and chatted about the past only to find that you both remembered stories differently, you will relate to some of what happens in ''Recitatif'' by Toni Morrison. Let's jump in and see what happens when two old friends meet up at various points throughout their lives.


''Recitatif'' by Toni Morrison opens with an unnamed narrator talking about being in a shelter for orphans. There are few details or explanations, but the narrator reveals that it isn't so bad aside from being placed in a room with someone of a different race. Eventually the two children begin to get along. They have one important thing in common, that they ''...weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.'' In other words, they were there not because their parents had died but because their parents didn't want them.

The reader finds out that the narrator's name is Twyla and her friend's name is Roberta. Life at the shelter is interesting and maybe a bit scary. There are older girls who pick on Roberta and Twyla. These two are not their only targets. A worker named Maggie is mute and the other girls laugh at her when she falls down. Roberta and Twyla don't say anything, and Twyla seems to regret not standing up to the girls.

A Visit

Roberta and Twyla eventually get a visit from their mothers - both of whom are mentally ill. When Twlya sees her mom she notes that the interaction makes her feel like she is the parent and her mom is the kid. Roberta's mom shows up but refuses to shake hands with Twlya's mom. Twyla's mom responds by calling the woman a bitch really loudly. Twyla admits, ''All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed.''

Chance Meetings

Twyla and Roberta eventually leave the shelter and lose touch. They run into each other years later while Twyla is working at a restaurant. Roberta snubs her, and the two don't speak again until they meet by chance in the checkout aisle of a store. Roberta is nicer this time around, and the two sit down and have coffee. It's a bit awkward at first, but Twyla cracks a joke about one of the women in charge of the shelter, and the two women giggle together. Twyla explains that,''Suddenly, in just a pulse beat, twenty years disappeared and all of it [their friendship] came rushing back.''

The two women chat about their lives and memories of the shelter. Things are going nicely until Twyla mentions how the mean girls laughed when Maggie fell. Roberta insists that Maggie didn't fall but rather that the girls pushed her. This makes Twlya uncomfortable and she leaves shortly after Maggie is brought up.

The narrator skips ahead again to the time of segregation protests. As Twyla is bringing her son to school, she sees Roberta protesting against integration. The two get into a confrontation and Roberta brings up the awkward memory, this time accusing Twyla of kicking Maggie. Other protesters begin to rock Twyla's car and the police move the protesters along so Twyla can leave. In the following days, Roberta and Twyla have a protest and counter protesting match until the schools are eventually integrated.

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