The Good Mother
In comparing and contrasting the two main characters in Recitatif by Toni Morrison, it is clear that while it appears to be a story about a fragmented friendship, I would adapt this to be a story about motherhood, specifically how the traumatic experience of childhood abandonment manifests in adulthood, as reflected in Roberta and Twyla’s parenting philosophies. Let’s compare and contrast the characters' relationship with their mothers and each other and the jealousy borne from the feeling of maternal inadequacy.
Toni Morrison makes three unique choices in Recitatif that serve as the foundation for the narrative while allowing the audience to connect to the story without inserting their inherent biases. Presenting the story as a first-person account calls into question the veracity of the story. The second choice is allowing the reader to fill in the blanks of the characters' lives with time jumps; this gives the reader room to sympathize with the two women who reunite through the decades while experiencing the contrasts of their lives from the perspective of the narrator— specifically Twyla’s growing resentment. Finally, there’s the perceived vagueness of their racial identity. In the journal article “The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Analysis of Toni Morrison's ‘Recitatif,’” Shanna Greene Benjamin writes:
Toni Morrison probes how a dark or "Africanist" presence "ignite[s] critical moments of discovery or change in literature" written by those who are not black. If, as Morrison suggests, the presence of a black body signals a moment of psychological or spiritual awakening for nonblack characters in texts crafted by nonblack writers, what sort of awakening occurs when Morrison maintains racial codes but refuses to identify to whom blackness is ascribed? (Benjamin 2013)
While it may be easy for some writers to stay within the racial lines to connect the audience to their characters, Morrison demonstrates her genius by intentionally keeping the racial identities obscure. This action could invoke a spiritual or psychological awakening to realize that the story is a human experience.
In her manipulation of time, space, and identity, we can connect with the narrator, Twyla, and her story without prejudice while objectively observing her rivalry with Roberta.
Although understated, Twyla's account of the circumstances that encompass her first encounter with Roberta is, without a doubt, traumatic. Both her and Roberta’s mother left them to be cared for by the state with children who are permanently orphaned. This experience can have an emotional impact on children as it affects their ability to feel securely attached to their relationships with others. In the graduate thesis titled, “What happens in childhood, does not stay in childhood: Exploring the relationship between attachment, childhood adversity, and post-traumatic stress,”  (Lindon 2022), Emmilie Lindon surmises:
Bowlby observed common symptoms among young children who were separated from their mothers. He found that the children demonstrated both yearning and searching for their mothers, experiences of sadness, increased protest and anger at their absence, increased anxiety upon reunifying with their mothers, and increased fear of future separation.
Twyla’s relationship with her mother is best described as hostile and insecure, and her observation of Roberta’s relationship was preferable by comparison. Morrison left a hint of Roberta’s privilege compared to Twyla’s in the description of the daily meals they would eat at St. Bonny’s:
The food was good, though. At least I thought so. Roberta hated it and left whole pieces of things on her plate: Spam, Salisbury steak-even jello with fruit cocktail in it, and she didn't care if I ate what she wouldn't. Mary's idea of supper was popcorn and a can of Yoo-Hoo. Hot mashed potatoes and two weenies was like Thanksgiving for me.
Twyla’s appreciation for the St. Bonny meals demonstrates shades of poverty and lack of refinement regarding her meal choice. During the mothers’ visit, we learn why Roberta’s tastes are more discerning:
We were supposed to have lunch in the teachers' lounge, but Mary didn't bring anything, so we picked fur and cellophane grass off the mashed jelly beans and ate them. I could have killed her. I sneaked a look at Roberta. Her mother had brought chicken legs and ham sandwiches and oranges and a whole box of chocolate-covered grahams. Roberta drank milk from a thermos while her mother read the Bible to her.
We see the seeds of Twyla’s resentment toward Roberta begin to grow as she witnesses a child whose mother makes an effort to be an active presence in her child’s life. Morrison has Roberta refer to her mother as “momma,” by contrast, Twyla calls her mother by her first name, “Mary,” further demonstrating their detached relationship.
Roberta and Twyla’s relationship began in a shroud of uncertainty. While the pair found a sisterhood through simple connections— living parents, and academic struggles— they also leaned on each other in times of stress, which solidified their relationship. It’s in the fond memories that Twyla finds herself when she reunites with Roberta in the Howard-Johnson.
Twyla’s time in the shelter was limited compared to Roberta's repeated and extended stays. This experience likely shaped Roberta’s identity as she became a person who did not grow attached to relationships because of her mother's absence. Conversely, Twyla continued living with her mother after leaving St. Bonny. In their interaction at the Howard-Johnson, Twyla felt slighted by Roberta and intentionally pointedly attacked her by asking about her mother. Twyla wanted to let Roberta know that she remembers her mother’s strict religious beliefs and weaponized her insecurities surrounding them, specifically the shame Roberta’s mother would have in seeing her daughter unmarried, traveling with two men. Twyla wanted to knock her down by implying that Roberta was not her better.
Through the text, the reader can discern that Twyla’s relationship with food is such that she views it as an indicator of prosperity, wealth, or, at the very least, comfort; this is a product of her upbringing and the trauma of food scarcity that she experienced growing up. As a result, her critique of the Food Emporium was sharp in her description: “Gourmet food it said-and listed items the rich IBM crowd would want.” Along with her guilt about spending her husband's salary “foolishly,” she set the stage for her feelings toward the kind of people the reader can expect to see at the store. Upon seeing Roberta, she comments on her appearance, “…the woman leaning toward me was dressed to kill. Diamonds on her hand, a smart white summer dress.” Twyla’s envy and resentment are crystallized when she comments on how easy Roberta and her ilk have it.
Aside from her jealousy, Twyla believes she is a good person. In the text, her sense of right and wrong is the foundation that makes her less-than-extraordinary life feel purposeful. While Twyla does not have wealth, she prides herself in not seeing race and believes that she is incapable of watching or participating in the physical assault of a person; that is why the revelation that she harmed Maggie affects her profoundly. It is why she went on the defensive by raising what she perceives as a flaw in Roberta’s character— the Howard-Johnson snub. At the end of their second encounter as adults, Roberta inquires about Twyla’s mom, but, this time, the interaction is genuine as if they are questioning each other's deeper emotional state using an exchange that only the two of them would understand— as it was when they first met at the shelter.
The pair have completely different ethos when it comes to raising children: Roberta believes in doing as much as she can within her power to keep her children happy, and Twyla does what she believes is necessary without going above or beyond. This reflects their mothers’ approach to parenting, and Twyla felt inferior to Roberta— as she did in the Howard-Johnson and when they were having coffee.
The traumatic experience of Roberta and Twyla’s childhood comes to a head as they challenge each other's worthiness of being a mother. Instigated by Twyla’s insecurity, we witness her question Roberta’s choice to protest the bussing of her children, with her antagonism being born of maternal insecurity. Twyla was raised by a mother who did the bare minimum and—based on a meal on parent's day— internalized the narrative that Roberta’s mother was a superior provider. Twyla’s anxiety and fears bubbled to the surface because she was forced to confront the possibility that she was a reflection of her mother. This unfounded feeling of inadequacy grew because she believed that Roberta did not have anything to complain about. Twyla saw Roberta as beautiful, wealthy, and caring; therefore, didn’t have any right to protest as her life was easy. Since she didn’t have a hardline position on the issue of bussing, she did what she typically did when she felt insecure and attacked her attachment figure.
For Roberta, the moment that fractured their friendship was when Twyla referred to the other mothers as “bozos.” The label is a charged shorthand that only the two of them would understand as it is a direct reference to Big Bozo from the shelter of their childhood. Their less-than-favorable view of Big Bozo as a maternal figure is what caused Roberta to answer Twyla coldly. In essence, Twyla is subtly calling Roberta a controlling mother who is caring for kids that are not hers. It is an insult that was clear to Roberta—who is raising adopted children— and why she did not extend her hand when Twyla felt endangered; this was a symbolic gesture of Roberta relinquishing her attachment and connection to Twyla.
In reading Recitatif, we can see the bonds of a sisterhood fissure into a chasm. A pair of eight-year-old kids who, over the course of four months, found the best qualities of their mothers within themselves; for this reason, they were able to build a healthy attachment to one another. This attachment was a maternal instinct that worked as a foundation for their identity and became a point of contention when challenged. Toni Morrison crafted a story demonstrating that human experience lies on a spectrum and isn’t always black and white.

Work Cited
Benjamin, Shanna Greene. "The Space that Race Creates: An Interstitial Analysis of Toni
Morrison's "Recitatif"." Studies in American Fiction, vol. 40 no. 1, 2013, p.
87-106. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/saf.2013.0004.
Lindon, Emmilie. What happens in childhood, does not stay in childhood:
Exploring the relationship between attachment, childhood adversity, and
post traumatic stress. 2022. Trent University, Graduate Thesis

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