Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"What the Hell Happened to Maggie?" Stereotype, Sympathy, and Disability in Toni Morrison's "Recitatif"

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

"What the Hell Happened to Maggie?" Stereotype, Sympathy, and Disability in Toni Morrison's "Recitatif"

Article excerpt

The article shows that, while the "no pity" position justifiably opposes representations of the disabled that reinforce the perceived weaknesses of the disabled population, there are alternative ways of looking at the role played by sympathy in response to disabled characters in fiction, as is emphasized by an examination of Toni Morrison's short story "Recitatif." While the narrative's dependence on the implicitly disabled character Maggie for its effects suggests that she serves a "prosthetic" role in the development of the protagonists' (and readers') sympathy, the article argues that "Recitatif" makes a significant move in guiding readers toward a more complex view of Maggie's identity, as well as a level of sympathetic engagement that effectively transcends her apparently prosthetic function. Thus, it is demonstrated that a rigid rejection of sympathetic responses to disabled characters denies readers an important opportunity to develop "a cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion at whatever unnecessarily divides them" (Dewey, 121).

Disability activists have long argued that the expression of pity toward the disabled frequently serves to reinforce the "tend[ency] to divide the world between the lucky and unlucky, between us and them" (Shapiro, 24). Initially, this critique was directed against appeals made ostensibly on behalf of the disabled, through campaigns such as the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethons. Over time, though, the rejection of pity-as well as sympathy, with which pity frequently is conflated1-has been embraced as something of a guiding principle by the disability rights movement generally, and this has naturally had implications for the treatment of sympathy in fictional narratives involving disabled characters. In the first part of this article, I examine the prevailing stance on this issue within the disability rights movement. I hope to show that, although the "no pity" position justifiably opposes representations of the disabled that reinforce the perceived weaknesses of the disabled population, or, equally debilitating, rely largely on sentimentalized notions of disability, there are nonetheless alternative ways of looking at the role played by sympathy in response to disabled characters in fiction.

In this light, Toni Morrison's only short story, "Recitatif," provides an intriguing case study. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison claimed that the story "was an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial" (Morrison, Playing, xi). Yet, as David Goldstein-Shirley has suggested (103), rather than actually removing such "racial codes," Morrison in fact uses racial stereotype and suggestion but carefully avoids attaching them to either of the story's two protagonists, Twyla and Roberta, thus leaving readers uncertain of their racial identities. At the same time, and more importantly for the present discussion, this strategy of employing stereotype in representing the story's characters extends, as well, to the apparently disabled character Maggie, whose disability and condition, I claim, play significant roles in the development of readers' sympathy for all three characters. Indeed, in much the same way that Morrison plays with readers' often stereotypical perceptions of the racial identities of her characters, she presents Maggie in ways that rely on stereotype and suggestion: the undersized hat, the large head, the awkward gait-all suggest disability of some sort, and especially of cognitive impairment, since Maggie seems unable to respond to the taunts that the girls remember her receiving while they were at the orphanage. I argue that readers' perceptions and feelings about all the characters depend significantly on the intermittently revealed character Maggie, whose implied disability renders her an elusive presence that haunts the women as they reflect on their past. …

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