In "Recitatif," Morrison explores the theme of the lasting hold a childhood friendship forged from pain has on two women as they occasionally meet during their adult lives.
The plot or story line is as follows: Twyla and Roberta both have troubled mothers. Both are therefore put into an orphanage, where the two outcast eight-year-olds, neither of whom do well in school, become close friends. Twyla is Black and Roberta white. In the orphanage, they sometimes make fun of the mute and peculiar kitchen worker Maggie.
The story is told from Twyla's point of view. We feel her hurt when Roberta rejects her as an adult and her shock when Roberta contradicts her memory of their time at the orphanage to say that they once joined the older girls in kicking Maggie. We also see Roberta only as characterized through Twyla, so she remains a bit of a mystery: we never know her thoughts.
The story's pain and pathos is reinforced by the settings, such as the grim orphanage where the two girls bond out of need, and the gritty Howard Johnson's where Twyla works and is treated dismissively by Roberta when the two meet there many years later. The pathos is also reinforced by having the story told from the point of view of Twyla, the more disadvantaged of the two, who seemingly wants more than Roberta to keep their bond going.
In the end, their friendship, despite its many rocky moments, transcends the racial and class differences between the two women: both women share a bond of suffering that can't be broken and which draws them together. Despite her facade, Roberta feels the pain of the past, and both girls share as well an identification with the outcast, abused Maggie, who becomes a surrogate for their own needs and their own questions about what happened to them. Roberta shows her kinship with Twyla at the end of the story as she shows real emotion:
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?"
Setting, plot, point of view, and characterization work to together to show how lasting and important early friendships can be.