Recitatif by Toni Morrison: Summary & Analysis

Toni Morrison's only short story, "Recitatif," was published in 1983 as part of the anthology "Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women." The narrative centers around two young girls who meet at a shelter for neglected and orphaned children, with the theme of race playing a significant role. Morrison skillfully keeps the racial identities of the characters ambiguous, leaving readers to ponder their assumptions. The title is inspired by the term "recitative," a rhythmically free vocal style often used for conversation and narration in operas and oratorios.

About the Author

Toni Morrison, born into an African American family during the Great Migration in Ohio, earned her BA and MA degrees from Howard University and Cornell University, respectively. She embarked on her writing journey at the age of 30, after marrying Jamaican architect Harold Morrison. Morrison's acclaimed works include "Sula," "Song of Solomon," and "Beloved." In 1993, she became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Through her writing, Morrison fearlessly delves into issues of race, gender, sexuality, and family, often presenting perspectives from the eyes of children. While tackling controversial topics like incest and rape, Morrison also weaves themes of forgiveness, redemption, and optimism into her narratives.


The story begins with Twyla and Roberta being placed at St. Bonny's orphanage due to their mothers' challenges. Despite initial friction, the two girls eventually find common ground, understanding each other without needing to ask questions. Their academic struggles bring them closer as they are separated from the other students at St. Bonny's for not being "real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky."

Life at St. Bonny's

Twyla and Roberta's journey begins at St. Bonny's orphanage, where they both endure hardships due to their mothers' situations. Initially, they struggle to get along, but they eventually bond over shared experiences and academic challenges. The separation from the other children fosters a unique connection between them.

Encounters and Reunions

The plot advances eight years, where Twyla works at Howard Johnson's and encounters Roberta during a casual conversation at the café. A subsequent meeting occurs twelve years later, with Twyla now married and Roberta living a luxurious life. The two women reunite, reminiscing about their time at St. Bonny's and sharing updates about their lives.

Unveiling Secrets and Regrets

During their reunion, Roberta confesses her knowledge about an incident involving Maggie, shedding light on a past mystery. The women also discuss racial tensions during a busing protest, leading to heated confrontations and buried emotions.


Toni Morrison's "Recitatif" masterfully weaves themes of race, identity, friendship, and reconciliation. Through Twyla and Roberta's intertwined lives, Morrison challenges societal assumptions and encourages readers to reflect on their own biases. The emotionally charged narrative and skillful storytelling make "Recitatif" a thought-provoking and unforgettable literary work.

Critical Analysis

Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," published in 1983 as part of the anthology "Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women," presents a narrative deliberately vague about the races of the main characters, Twyla and Roberta. As the story unfolds, Morrison skillfully employs racial ambiguity to explore the impact of identity, self-confidence, and societal perceptions. The plot revolves around the protagonists' separate journeys, emphasizing personal growth and self-discovery rather than solely commenting on racism. The story challenges readers to seek deeper truths beyond surface appearances.

Twyla and Roberta: Uncertainty and Search for Truth

Throughout "Recitatif," the reader grapples with identifying the races of Twyla and Roberta, as Morrison introduces subtle hints but refrains from explicit disclosure. Twyla's description of Roberta's appearance leads readers to believe she may be black, but later events and encounters challenge this assumption. As the characters meet again over time, Roberta's changing behavior and demeanor reflect her efforts to conceal her past, while Twyla's curiosity drives her quest for the truth about their mothers and their shared history.

Maggie: A Symbol of Powerlessness

Maggie, a character with minimal development, represents vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of societal injustices. As a mute woman enduring humiliation from the "gar girls," she embodies those who suffer silently without the ability to resist their mistreatment. Additionally, Maggie becomes a focal point in Twyla and Roberta's conversations, highlighting the unreliability of memory and the uncertainty surrounding their perceptions of her. Through Maggie, Morrison underscores the characters' anxieties about their own identities and the truths they seek to uncover.

Themes of Identity and Memory

Recitatif delves into themes of identity and memory, exploring how individuals grapple with their true selves and the past. Twyla's selective memory and Roberta's struggle to construct a persona illustrate the complexities of self-understanding. The story raises questions about how one comes to realize their truth and how society's biases and expectations can influence personal perceptions.


Recitatif by Toni Morrison is a powerful literary work that goes beyond conventional discussions of race and racism. By crafting characters whose identities remain deliberately uncertain, Morrison compels readers to confront their assumptions and reflect on the complexities of self-awareness and memory. Through the journeys of Twyla and Roberta, the story explores themes of powerlessness, self-discovery, and the quest for truth. Ultimately, Recitatif serves as a compelling commentary on the human experience and the importance of understanding one's own identity amidst societal expectations and prejudices.

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