Sympathy and Indeterminacy in Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”*

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  • ABSTRACT

    Toni Morrison’s sole short story, “Recitatif,” is, in her own words, “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” The challenge intended for the reader provides an opportunity to examine the moral self-reflective movement in sympathy, which is the main theme of the work as well as a drive for the reader’s engagement with the work. The argument of this paper starts from the view that morality is not reducible to rules of abstract universality or norms of prescriptive social value and that the subject inaugurates its reflexivity and ethical agency in the context of an enabling and limiting field of constraints in relation to a set of imposed norms and in relation to other subjects. Morality involves an acting subject, and the movement, act, or change takes place in self-reflection. As Adam Smith and Judith Butler argue, our self-reflection in ethical deliberation is facilitated in the interlocutory scene in which we are engaged in a dialogue with another whether internalized or existing. Morrison in this work shows that the desire or willingness to be engaged in a dialogue with another becomes the structural conditions for calling into question the truth of myself and my ability to tell the truth about myself and that such self-reflection is driven in the emotional closeness and mutual understanding between the two parties. While the two main characters build such a relationship, it also leads to their sympathy with a distant other. With its indeterminacy and ambiguity, Morrison also places this work in the social space or interlocutory situation created between her text and the reader. The feelings of sympathy that Morrison evokes in “Recitatif” serve as a call for moral self-reflection and inspire action not merely in matters of race. Sympathy, with its potential rooted in reciprocity and imagination, provides room for reflecting on and calling into question the truth of oneself, and the creative impulse in imagination activated in the communicative situation can propel a movement toward unknown others and indeterminate future.


  • KEYWORD

    Sympathy , Indeterminacy , Identification , Race , Disability , Toni Morrison , “Recitatif”

  • I

    Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif” requires its readers to engage with the text by embracing its indeterminacies. The principle indeterminacy of the story involves the racial identities of the two protagonists. Twyla, the narrator, begins the story when she was eight years old and met Roberta, a girl “from a whole other race,” in St. Bonaventure, a shelter for orphans and wards of the state (2253). The plot follows a series of meetings between Twyla and Roberta during their adulthood. Early in the narration, the details show that one of the two girls is black and the other is white, but the exact racial identity of each is never revealed. In Playing in the Dark Morrison states that “Recitatif” is “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial” (xi). In this sense, this experiment is a challenge intended for the reader because the difference in race as well in class works as the main cause for the two characters’ estrangement from each other and conflict in their later lives. Twyla and Roberta, after living in the shelter as roommates for four months, have brief encounters during the course of their adult lives. Their conflict and differences are integrated into the context of racial strife. Readers can sense the tension between the two, and follow the changes in their relationship against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. The story shows how race affects, permeates, and marks the interracial friendship. However, readers cannot assign a definite racial identity to Twyla or Roberta. Instead, they come to questio