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Kelly Lin B931020048 Professor Shuli Chang English Writing III 19 January 2007 The Silent Scream of Belated

Memories in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” “Recitatif,” published in 1983, is the only short story Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate of 1993, has ever written. However, the story does not attract as much scholarly attention as it shall deserve. There are discussions on Morrison’s deliberate elimination of racial codes from the narrative as well as on the ambiguity of the characters’ racial identity, both of which seem to have set into motion readers’ unsettling, ambivalent, and conflicting interpretation of and identification with the two protagonists in the story (Goldstein-Shirley; Seshadri-Crooks). As the story unfolds, Morrison reveals immediately that her two main characters look like “salt and pepper” (Morrison 2254) together, but I do not, as a reader, read the story trying to figure out which character is black and which is white. And it seems that Morrison does not intend to disclose the secret, either, although it is a story in which the racial identity is crucial for the characters (Morrison xiii). Despite my first and foremost inclination of interpreting the story in terms of race and class issues, what strikes me the most is Morrison’s exploration of the mysterious working of memory. That is, why and how the two protagonists—Twyla, the narrator, in particular—are “caught up in the desire” to remember and forget, “to reveal and conceal, to tell and not tell” (Bouson 19), as traumatic events confront them “with extremities of helplessness and terror” (qtd. in Bouson 7). “Recitatif” is a story constituted by a series of flashbacks which eventually “enables and embodies the return,” the coming into consciousness, or the recovery of the “repressed” (Hilfer 226) traumatic memories of the two girls. Central to their flashbacks is one ambiguous figure whose skin color is undetermined, whose voice is mute, and yet whose

Lin 2 existence is undeniably critical. In the end. Throughout the story. the story invites open interpretation with spaces for the readers to fill in with their intellectual thinking and literary imagination. then. by confessing their desire to hurt Maggie or to see the gar girls hurt her. emphasis original). But later as further details regarding that memory are revealed. Roberta insists that Maggie is black and is pushed down by the gar girls and that Twyla participated in shaming Maggie whereas Twyla remembers otherwise. Therefore. how and why Maggie becomes the repository of the girls’ personal pains? What has been projected onto Maggie under the mask of the violent emotions of anger. 1 . my purpose is trying to provide According to psychiatrist Judith Herman. pain. This figure who haunts the girls’ “unspeakable1” memories of the past is Maggie. pain and hatred” onto the body of this “mute woman… who has no recourse to spoken resistance” (Burrow 162). Bonny’s. In writing this paper. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable” (Bouson 6. Morrison seems to purposefully avoid giving any definite answer to these questions. Why do Twyla and Roberta’s memories about the “Maggie thing” differ? If denying or altering certain details of the traumatic memories regarding Maggie is “a defence mechanism” (Burrow 152) as many trauma theorists assert. “the ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. and hatred? In leaving readers an ambiguous ending. this mute woman continues to fascinate Twyla and Roberta. The two girls’ only memory about Maggie concentrates on the incident that happened in the orchard of the shelter. denying and recognizing their memory of Maggie as they strive to recall what has befallen on her. leaving them in pendulous. it is not surprising that it takes them four meetings to finally admit their vulnerability in the epiphanic moment of coming to terms with the “difficult knowledge” (Burrow 171) of “[w]hat the hell happened to Maggie?” (Morrison 2266). the protagonists seem to admit that they have been projecting “all the anger. The question is. the mute servant woman in the kitchen of St. conflicting state between avoiding and searching for. Both of them remember that Maggie fell down there once. contradictions start to emerge.

The story tells the lives of Twyla and Roberta. and to neglect each other’s “unspeakable” memories (Bouson 6). But it is apparent that they are both traumatized by the inexplicable experience of being uprooted from their mothers and “stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race” (2253). they are not real orphans who have no alternative in the matter of being taken to the shelter because their “beautiful dead parents [are] in the sky” (2254). to refuse curiosity” (Seshadri-Crooks 149) . The incident has thus unfortunately added despair to their distress. Roberta. Bonny’s when they both are eight years old. they quickly cement their most important. they come to St. Bozo’s mockery wakes them up from their hope of being taken home by their mothers because it unmasks the vanity of such expectation. to provide justifiable interpretation of what kind of “recitative” Morrison intends to write. who have spent four months together in an orphanage called St. lifelong friendship on the basis of their mutual “willingness to maintain silence. In spite of their internalized prejudice against the opposite race. Whatever the causes are or however the circumstances differ. According to Twyla. Bonny’s because both of their mothers are sick—Roberta’s mother is physically sick and Twyla’s “likes to dance all night” (2254). What happened to their mothers and whether the two girls are forced to be taken away from or deliberately abandoned by their mothers remain ambiguous for the duration of the story.Lin 3 answers to the aforementioned questions and.” Furthermore. Not only Twyla but Roberta are again reminded of their state of being “dumped. their perception of the unexpected displacement is obsessed by the possible yet not necessarily consequential inference that they were “dumped” (2254) by their mothers. This sense of being deserted is reinforced when Bozo retorts the sarcasm on Twyla—who has shown her discontent—by saying that “maybe then she’ll come and take you home” (2253). two girls of different races. who narrates the story. finally. “walked over to the window and stood with her back” to Twyla and . As far as the two girls are concerned. upon hearing Bozo’s scorn.

for instance. Twyla comments in retrospect with utter indifference that “it really wasn’t bad. Twyla. . “reluctance and generosity” (2260) of knowing how not to ask questions. St. In the meantime. Twyla and Roberta have devised their own effective defense mechanism. and denying their vulnerability as well as traumatic feelings. nevertheless they do feel slighted and a sense of not belonging. As a first person narrator. But neither of them wants the other to know it. they shout back “a good list of dirty names” (2254) to conceal their helplessness and fear and to probably assert their competence through the use of invectives or violent language. avoidance. the two’s sense of incompetence and displacement is reinforced over and over again. St. Roberta temporarily flees from dealing with the unbearable knowledge of her plight. By appearing indifferent. the aforementioned understatement. Bonny’s” (2254). by mildly complaining about being left-handed and how the scissors never work for her. which is never a friendly place. Twyla often exploits the use of understatement as the main narrative strategy to purposefully distance herself as well as the readers from the excruciating feelings incident to the unsettling dramas and/or traumas they undergo. denial. indicates that she finds it hard to adapt herself to the ways that things work in the shelter. “Nothing really happened there. Twyla and Roberta are scared of the gar girls who will pull their hair or twist their arms when catching them in the orchard. In the same light. their friendship has quickly cemented on basis of their mutual “politeness”. resorting to a degree of violence. While the girls disclose no evidence of experiencing loneliness and helplessness. However. rather than weaving the narrative into a highly emotional and introspective one. so when they run away from the gar girls. Bonny’s. Being constantly bullied and shamed by the gar girls.Lin 4 Bozo (2253).” Twyla recalls. By exhibiting no signs of being injured and turning her back on other people. and/or distancing is a sign of repression symptomatically acted out in a series of dissociated vignettes of the orchard in Twyla’s dreams.

Twyla is seriously perturbed because Roberta has “messed up [her] past somehow with that business about Maggie” (2262). When the strife between them is at its height. Twyla remembers that Maggie fell down in the orchard and the gar girls laughed at her while Roberta recalls that the girls pushed Maggie down and tore her clothes. unpleasant note. Their third reunion comes during the hubbub of the “racial strife” (2262). Roberta then proceeds to accuse Twyla of blocking the memory. Maggie fell down there once” (2254). Contrary to the first one. a verbal irony that typifies the deliberate repression or displacement of certain agonizing memories. I mean. Their unconscious obsession with the Maggie thing thus suggests the importance of the memories that have been kept quiet and understated as well as their insidious impact on one’s unconsciousness. They recall anecdotes happened in the shelter and both giggle. insisting that what she said really happened (2261). As the narrative proliferates and threads through Twyla’s four brief encounters with Roberta later in different phases of their respective lives. is an understatement or. Roberta and me watching. Roberta accuses Twyla of kicking “a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground” (2264) in a gust of fury. even. Their reunion thus ends in a cold. reluctance. Roberta deliberately brings up the Maggie thing again. they are very glad to see each other and are “behaving like sisters separated for much too long” (2260). and . invariably in each of the girls’ reunions their conversations will circle back to the Maggie thing as if they were haunted by a nightmare. What makes them close friends—their mutual politeness. The social context further intensifies the two’s deadlocked relationship.Lin 5 “Nothing all that important. Just the big girls dancing and playing the radio. The two girls’ second reunion takes place after the two have parted for twenty years. Twyla’s remark on the incident happened in the orchard. Yet conflicts start to occur due to the confrontation of their disagreeing memories of the Maggie thing. the Maggie thing. Knowing that Twyla will be disturbed when being reminded of this repressed memory.

start shouting at each other.” Henceforth. Later. she is “puzzled” by Roberta telling her “Maggie [is] black” (2265) because when she tries to reassure herself about the race thing. The world seems so forgetful. and. In her remembrance. Twyla strives to think the Maggie thing over on her own.Lin 6 generosity of knowing how not to ask questions—now in its opposite is used as a weapon to hurt each other and endangers their friendship. after they find themselves on opposite sides of a picket line. Similarly. Twyla attempts to hurt Roberta back by bringing a sign that says “IS YOUR MOTHER WELL?” (2264).” (2265) but it has been silenced. and/or displaced for other easier and more acceptable versions of truth fabricated by herself. After several confrontations of contradictory memories regarding the Maggie thing. start using their “screaming posters” (2264) to continue their fight. Pricked by the imperative to restore her peace of mind. After “a nasty six weeks” (2264) of strife over children’s schooling. While she actually is uncertain about Maggie’s skin color. That Roberta symbolically breaks the long last silence initiates “the return of the repressed. a “mute woman… who has no recourse to spoken resistance” (Burrow 162) was pushed down and roughhoused. but she and Roberta were too scared of the gar girls to do so. being a black lady. yet Roberta is nowhere to be found. all of a sudden “the kids settled down like nothing in the world had happened” (2265). Therefore. she actually can’t be certain (2265). Nevertheless. Twyla starts to question the reliability of her memory. she and Twyla. she invents a non-black figure of Maggie in her memory because she thinks Maggie shouldn’t be “pitch-black” (2265). Many years have elapsed. she is convinced that she “didn’t” kick Maggie—she “couldn’t” have done that (2265) because it is morally incorrect. Only Twyla is still disturbed and haunted by what Roberta said to her. Finally. She succeeds in avenging the injury on Roberta by unmasking her vulnerability and Roberta never returns to the picket line again. as if they have just recovered their lost voices. she knows she “should have helped” (2254) Maggie up when she. it “dawn[s] on” her that “the truth [is] already there. she also has been . repressed.

Maggie is depicted as an old woman with legs like parentheses by Twyla. pushed back to the dark recesses of their memories. it incurs Twyla and Roberta’s conflicting memories of the “Maggie thing. When “the imperative to speak out” (Burrow 16) and the fact that it is too painful to be uttered aloud clash. It implies that the meaning of . who is Maggie that the girls have been avoiding speaking about yet inevitably attracted to? She definitely is the most important character in “Recitatif.” Her existence has a compelling impact on the two protagonists. Now she cannot be certain about anything related to the Maggie thing —neither the race nor the kicking thing. She substitutes the made up memory for the real one in order to persuade herself that she “didn’t” do it while all that is definite is that she “shouldn’t” do it. The complex impact Maggie has on the two protagonists results in their contradictory desire to avoid and to approach. What she has been denying is the fact that she “did want to” (2265) hurt Maggie. but upon further scrutiny.Lin 7 repressing the memory concerning the kicking part.. The presence of Maggie who has legs like “parentheses” (Morrison 2255) thus marks paradoxically the “void”.. to deny and to disclose the hidden truth about their own past. nor does it matter if she kicked Maggie or not. Then. now they are forced to come to terms with it since Roberta has initiated the breaking of the silence for the repressed to return. a secret that is being kept from us” (Bouson 18). for years.” which they have. It does not matter whether Maggie is black or white. At last. she does not seem to possess any determined characteristics because throughout the story her characterization is only based on the girls’ disagreeing remembrance of her. silenced center of the text (Bouson 28) . the reason is not that they were scared of the gar girls—it is that they both wanted to hurt her or to see the gar girls hurt her. Twyla comes to the understanding that it is not “the kicking part” (2265) that has been troubling her. in the same way the emptiness marked by parentheses is “conspiratorial and implies that there is. After they have silenced the Maggie thing for so long. When they “watched and never tried to help her and never called for help” (2265).

when Twyla says that. she functions as a blank screen for the girls to project anything on: she is mute. Maggie.Lin 8 Maggie’s existence is yet to be completed by others in the same way that people fill information into the parentheses. Nobody who could tell you anything important that you could use” (2265) . Therefore. Maggie is her “dancing mother. Being such an empty character with ambiguous characteristics or appearance. or Twyla and Roberta. and Twyla says that her mother is Maggie. so she can be both white and black to be identified with respectively Roberta and Twyla. Therefore. the parentheses imagery marks Maggie as a concrete yet somehow empty character. Twyla’s mother. Maggie’s presence becomes very interesting and paradoxical. like Maggie. The syllogism works in this way: We have proved that Maggie is somewhat an empty character—nobody is inside. Hence. It also accounts for the two protagonists’ complex identifications with Maggie. Like Maggie or the empty parentheses. Nor was she there when Twyla needed her to teach her important things she could use. Therefore. she was not there when Twyla cried in the night. Nobody inside” (2265). Twyla’s dancing mother has never been there for her. the person she describes unwittingly shifts from Maggie to her mother. “Nobody who would hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody has ever been there. Twyla’s conflicting feelings for her mother are manifested here: she . It marks that her mother is also the void and the silenced center of her memory. Her characterization enables her to be both one thing and another but at the same time neither one thing nor the other. Twyla projects her need to be loved and taken care of onto the body of Nobody. Deaf… and dumb. her skin color is undetermined. so the girls can give her any voice. It is very crucial to the reasoning of how they come to project their personal pangs and traumas caused by the desertion of their mothers and their own sense of inability onto the body of Maggie. and that is what has been there—the image invented by her needs. is an empty character and nobody is inside. her dancing mother. Except for the brief visit. For Twyla.

She is always subordinate to her mother because her needs of maternal love gives her mother power over her emotions and welfare while her mother seems to be unaware of and unaffected by her torments. It indicates that how her . incompetent. more like should or should not. “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (Asimov). She knows that she “didn’t” kick her—did or did not is a matter of fact—but she adds that she “couldn’t” kick her—could or could not is not a matter of competence but of moral judgment.Lin 9 needs to be loved and taken care of. In this light. anyhow. But her longings are fruitless: things are not for her to decide. the substitution of Twyla’s dancing mother. The ambivalence between wanting to hate and being unable to hate is clearly reflected in Twyla’s repressed yearning to hurt Maggie. she wants to deny such need because admitting it forces her to recognize her vulnerability—how she actually wanted her mother to be there for her and how she hoped that her mother would take her home when she was thrown to the shelter. to a certain degree Maggie lends Twyla a sense of superiority. On the contrary. Maggie. she projects the hatred onto Maggie. On the other hand. Her inability concerning the need for maternal love and the irretrievable desertion by her mother makes her feel much more helpless. By pampering the violent wish to hurt Maggie. and angry. hating her mother helps Twyla to reassert her autonomy in the same way she used to call dirty names while running away from the gar girls —Twyla needs to use violence to assert her competency when she feels extremely helpless and incompetent. While she wants to but cannot hate her mother. dumped. she was still left alone. who is almost but ultimately not her mother. She is thus torn between the imperative to love as well as to hate her mother. seems to be the mediating object to help her resolve such contradictory and tangling feelings. Twyla unconsciously identifies herself with the gar girls who were also “poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough…and mean” (2254) to her and Roberta. Because Maggie is the projection of her real mother and is mute.

Therefore.Lin 10 desire to hurt another being confronts her with shame and guilt and thus forces her to flee from it. the identity she projects on or fills into Maggie. her identification with Maggie is perhaps less complicated than Twyla’s but is as intricate and intriguing. On the contrary. Bonny’s. the empty character. couldn’t—just like [her]” (2265). The reason why Maggie does not let out the silenced scream is because she has no capacity of screaming whereas Twyla’s scream is kept silenced because she has been deliberately repressing and concealing it from others. However. It illustrates why it takes her four encounters with Roberta to finally recognize how the absence or the desertion by her mother has traumatized her and how she has come to vent her anger and assert her competence by using violence against Maggie. when Twyla thinks about Maggie. she anxiously desires to distinguish herself from Maggie. she probably dreaded that she would be brought up there and go crazy. Due to the similarities they share. even when being bullied. the fact that Twyla was glad when she saw the gar girls push Maggie down and start roughhousing is not shocking. The desire makes her want to hurt Maggie . Twyla thinks that Maggie is like her because she also has been pushed around now and then by the gar girls. like her mother and Maggie. Roberta draws a connection between being brought up in a shelter and the inevitable mental illness resulted from growing up there. It is something she has always wanted to do. Therefore. It is why Twyla simultaneously hates Maggie and feels close to her as to identify herself with her. Twyla overlooks the slight difference between Maggie’s silence and hers and identifies herself with Maggie for the same reason she becomes good friends with Roberta—the mutual willingness to maintain silence. For Roberta. refusing to let on. changes subtly. “wouldn’t scream. The connection terrifies her because when she was suddenly thrown to St. the substitution of her dancing mother. She knows that Maggie has been “brought up in an institution like [her] mother was” (2266) and thinks that both Maggie and her mother are crazy.

to ask questions. It is why the Maggie thing has been the void center of their traumatic memory which induces them to utter the unspeakable and yet forces them to silence the scream. No sounds came out” (2255). Maggie. she is also asking what has happened to their mothers and to themselves. shit. hatred.Lin 11 because only then is she able to assure herself that she is not Maggie and that she is superior to her. and to admit that they are “scared” and “lonely” (2266). “But just tears. When they were in the shelter. . Twyla had asked if Maggie could cry. for Twyla and Roberta. They had the ability to cry in the night when the helplessness resulted from being roughhoused or missing their mothers became too unbearable. By admitting their desire to hurt Maggie and by recognizing what has been projected onto her. “Sure. she won’t grow up in the shelter and become crazy like Maggie and her mother. and pain. Roberta finally bursts out crying. Now the repressed has returned to make its claim to the repressors. Until Twyla and Roberta realize what has been kept smothered in their unconsciousness and what has been purposefully eliminated from their memory. And then she is able to convince herself that she will be fine. shouting “Oh shit. for the first time in the story.” to speak about their pains. For the first time in the story. Twyla. shit. being a mute and empty character like a blank screen or parentheses. Due to their multiple identifications with Maggie.” Roberta said. in Burrow 153). Roberta’s answer now seems very intriguing for it does not only describe Maggie’s incapacity of speaking but also allude to her and Twyla’s deliberate repression of their anguish. the defense mechanism fails. But they have kept the scream silenced for too long. What the hell happened to Maggie?” (2266). Shit. need. Twyla and Roberta’s traumatised memories are “moved from its recurring pattern of unconscious repetitions into the conscious mind” (Caruth qtd. Maggie is both themselves and their mothers but at the same time neither themselves nor their mothers. they are able to. When the repression. becomes the repository for all the repressed and ambivalent love. acknowledge their vulnerability. they are able to “scream. It is how.

it promises the possibility of the ultimate though belated healing for both Twyla and Roberta. It reveals wounds that have been concealed for too long. I would suggest that in the future you extend the insight you’ve offered here to expound on the ethnical implications that Morrison is groping for and hinting at. .Lin 12 The big question mark posed by Roberta through screaming out loud paradoxically and miraculously moves both of them as well as the readers beyond tears and trauma to a state of tranquility and understanding.” (Burrow 162) examines painstakingly the repression and the return of traumatic memories. This “stubborn” quality of yours yields compelling evidence not only to your literary sensitivity but also to your academic integrity. This is superb paper. It speaks the unspeakable. in the end closing with this epiphanic moment so beautifully written. “Recitatif. Whereas you have already touched upon the double jeopardy both Twyla and Roberta places themselves in when they respectively practice a defense mechanism to fend off embarrassing memories of their past.” Yours is a piece of academic writing that insists on a full engagement with Morrison’s story.” a “riff on the traumatic ambivalence of silence. beautifully written and wonderfully attentive to all the nuances of Morrison’s oblique characterization of the two girls in “Recitatif. Although painful.

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