In "Recitatif" by Toni Morrison, what is the relevance of Maggie to the text?  How does she define Twyla & Roberta?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Recitatif," Maggie represents the "outsider." The way she is treated by both the big kids and by Twyla and Roberta represents the individual whose voice is marginalized. Maggie is on the outside and does not experience solidarity with anyone. When she falls down in the orchard, Maggie is the recipient of others' scorn and abuse.  She experiences the same from Twyla and Roberta, something that Twyla clearly remembers:

I think we were wrong. I think she could hear and didn't let on. And it shames me even now to think there was somebody in there after all who heard us call her those names and couldn't tell on us.

This is one way how Maggie unifies the narratives of Twyla and Roberta.  She represents an instant in which Twyla and Roberta assume the role of the insider targeting the outsider.  Maggie represents the unheard cries of suffering. While Maggie and Twyla themselves experience this pain and hurt, they are able to turn to one another or turn to the solidarity found in their respective social settings to numb it. Maggie has no one. The fact that Maggie suffers and no one is there to help her reflects how social settings are constructed.

Morrison is mindful of the condition that race and class play in the worlds that Twyla and Roberta inhabit.  She defined the story as "an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial."  Within this valence is another level in which the victimization of individuals is still part of the social order.  Maggie represents how this victimization is intrinsic to social organization. The big girls torment Twyla and Roberta, who in turn victimize Maggie through not helping her when she fell and in how they treat her themselves.  Maggie is relevant because she helps to define Twyla and Maggie as individuals who experience both the pain of victimization and how they serve to victimize others as well as each other.

This pattern of targeting one another is critical to the encounters that the women share throughout the narrative. The Howard Johnson encounter is one where Roberta is able to victimize Twyla.  Twyla works as a waitress.  Roberta is popular and well to do.  They each recognize the difference between them and seek to hurt the other with the passing comments about their mothers.  As they become older, Twyla takes sanctuary in her marriage to James, while Roberta's marriage to an IBM man gives her a source of strength.  Through their own solidarity with other forces, they are able to inflict pain on others and take solace in their communities with the pain inflicted upon them.  Yet, the lingering memory of Maggie serves to haunt both to an extent because she has no community, no source of solidarity. The shifting in narrative as to what happened to Maggie reflects the idea that the exertion of power and strength of community might not always apply to anyone.  Maggie's presence throughout the narrative defines both women because she embodies the result of the unbalanced equation.  She is where pain and suffering exists.  As the women's lives progress, Maggie's condition lingers as a reminder that while they might have moved far from St. Bonny's the condition of silencing the pain of another has never left them.  The removal of "racial codes" does not eliminate the pain of isolation and marginalization.  Accordingly, the ending leaves both women wondering about what happened to Maggie, helping to define them.

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