In Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," does it matter when the story took place, or where?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The setting of Toni Morrison's short story, "Recitatif" is particularly important, especially in that—over time—it changes, reflecting the way the world changes around the two main characters.

The "movement" of the story comes from its "episodic nature"—from the time Twyla and Roberta meet in the orphanage, until the end of the story, which is the fifth of five "vignettes" or short scenes. As children, the lives of the two characters fall into a rhythm which is lost on occasion, but then returns.

The girls, Twyla and Roberta, are both left at St. "Bonny's." Neither of them are orphans. Twyla's mother is a dancer and does not take good care of Twyla. Roberta's mother is "sick." Being thrown together at St. Bonny's (St. Bonaventure) enables the two eight-year olds to form an unusual alliance between a black and white child when society still did not accept such things. At St. Bonny's, however, the girls are generally able to avoid these problems. One thing bothers Twyla: Maggie, the kitchen helper once fell in the orchard. They didn't help her, and it bothers Twyla. Some time later, the girls both leave St. Bonny's.

The next time they meet, the girls are likely in their late teens or early twenties. Twyla works at a Howard Johnson's restaurant/rest stop. The setting has changed, and it seems Roberta has as well. She is insulting and dismissive toward her black friend.

However, when they meet again, both have married and become parents. They run into each other at the grocery store and the "old" Roberta is back. They stop to have coffee and it is as if no time has passed: Twyla and Roberta share memories and many laughs. The rhythm of their relationship has been restored.

When Twyla and Roberta cross paths next, they are on opposite sides of a picket line, where Roberta and other mothers are protesting "busing." Here the two women are on opposite sides of segregation. When they finally speak, the racial lines have been drawn and they seem to have lost their connection again. Ironically, the very change of setting and circumstances that alters the motion of their relationship creates a new movement as they try to learn to maneuver around the racial divide. It is at this time that Roberta recalls memories of their days at St. Bonny's. Maggie was the brunt of abuse by others, and Roberta tells Twyla that she was black and that they were both abusive to her. Twyla does not remember this and struggles to come to terms with the information.

Their last meeting is at Christmas. The women stop to chat and Roberta corrects the details of their previous conversation. Maggie wasn't black—but by now, the theme of racism is put to rest here—for that doesn't matter to the old friends now, showing how they've "grown." Twyla still wonders why they never stood up for Maggie and is ashamed of their behavior. They admit that Maggie was someone they were too young to help then. Over the years, we have seen them come to terms with things they could change, and how they were able to finally find peace between them.

The changes of the setting mirror the transformation in the women—their struggles to adjust their relationship with the changing times. This struggle alters and even mimics the motion of change in life, especially at this time in history. Where the story takes place, and when, is the very backbone of this tale. Twyla and Roberta represent many other whites and blacks, looking for balance as the face of America was transformed.