Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage Books, 2004.
Summary of Work
A complex tale that goes over the relationships between Violet, Dorcas, and Joe while they are living in Harlem. The story starts out with Violet, the wife of Joe Trace, going to Dorcas’s funeral. Her husband had fallen in love with the 18-year-old girl and in his passion shot her. When Violet gets to the coffin, she slashes Dorcas’s face and has to be pulled down to the Church floor. That same evening, she lets all the birds in the house free, including the Parrot that says “I love you.” Joe had never been prosecuted for the murder because Dorcas’s aunt knew that it wouldn’t do any good to hire the cops when Joe was already grief stricken and Violet was too. The local women’s committee determine that after the scene Violet made at the funeral and her current attempt to get revenge on her husband by having a boyfriend, they will not give her financial aid.
Violet sees that the tactic isn’t working so she goes about trying to win her husband’s love again. But since Joe remains absolutely silent, Violet decides she needs to do something different. She tries to find out more about Dorcas, asking her teachers and friends about her, and learning how to dance her favorite dances. She even obtains a photo of Dorcas, and both her and her husband often stare at the photo.
It had been eight years since the WWI Armistice, when soldiers came home and the women’s group were always out making sure that people in the community had all they needed. It was a cold winter when Dorcas died, and despite the cold, Joe and Violet take turns staying up in the night to just stare at the photo of Dorcas. Joe does not have a job, and Violet keeps them afloat as a hairdresser. She goes to individual homes to do hair, and keeps her days as busy as possible so she doesn’t have to feel miserable. The community knows that Violet has tendencies to do crazy things, including when she sat in the middle of the street and wouldn’t move, when she kidnapped a baby she had been asked to watch for a minute, and when she would speak nonsense when she was a child. This current change in her has Joe annoyed and depressed.
Joe and Dorcas met in October and had a three month affair, and even after her death he can still remember all the love and sadness that came with that affair. He tries to think of Violet after the death, but he does not love her and cannot do anything but remember dates for the significant, loving events in their relationship. Joe had seen Dorcas before in a candy store, but sees her again as he is going to sell makeup to some women, and he whispered to her then. He met Violet working the fields in Virginia and moving to NYC together in the early 1900s, twenty years before Dorcas’s death. After twenty years of trying to make this marriage work, he decides to give up, and he rents another room for six hours a week so he can sleep with Dorcas and talk to her about his life. Dorcas understands him, particularly his stories about his mother and not knowing her: she had a violent relationship with her mother, constantly fighting. She also talks about her apartment catching on fire and losing her dolls, and about wanting to go to Mexico with Joe to dance and live a good life. Joe always gives Dorcas presents before they part.
Malvonne is the woman who rents the room to Joe for his affair. She is a woman who loves gossip, and she cleans offices of white businessmen every night. She has a grocery bag full of unsent letters from her neighbors that her nephew stashed away, and she reads them, taking action only when the information in the letters is urgent or has important information for the recipient. She had taken care of her nephew, Sweetness (AKA Little Caesar or William Younger), but when he moves out, his room is empty. Joe wants to rent it for a couple bucks a month and free repair work, but she at first refuses, not wanting to take part in an affair in any way, even though she dislikes Violet. Joe convinces her that he will just use the space for conversation, and that Violet won’t know because she’s always too busy with work, and so she allows them to use the space, but will not pass any messages.
Dorcas’s aunt Alice Manfred took care of her after her parents died in the East St. Louis riots. Alice took Dorcas to the Silent March protest over the riots, remembering how Dorcas’s father was trampled to death and her mother, in agony, ran home and her home was set ablaze, killing her. Dorcas, rather than deal with the grief of losing her parents, focused on her lost wooden dolls. Alice believes that jazz music was sinful and a cause of the violent riots, but Dorcas loves the sounds. Alice works as a seamstress, and Dorcas goes to the neighbors, the Millers, to be cared for. They are good friends with Alice and spend a lot of time talking about fashion and music. When she became a teenager, Dorcas started to rebel against her Aunt, and she goes to a dance party with her friend and they dress up to look older. They enjoy watching brothers who can dance well, and when the music goes from fast to slow pieces, Dorcas approaches the men to dance, but is deterred when she sees them whisper and their smiles disappear. However, when Dorcas meets Joe a year later at her home, Alice has a premonition that something bad is going to happen.
After the funeral, the community has renamed Violet “Violent,” but Alice is no longer surprised to see Violet show up at her home. Alice mistrusted cops and so never dealt with the law, and she grew withdrawn, becoming overly focused on newspaper stories about rape and murder and assaults of women. She feels that these women weren’t defenseless, and yet also feels betrayed over Joe’s corruption of her niece. Alice first received a note from Violet under her door a week after the funeral, and Alice was upset, scared, and confused. But Violet is looking for a place to rest, and Alice provides it. She can’t stop staring at the photo of Dorcas at Alice’s home. Alice asks if Joe was violent, and Violet said no, he’d never beaten her, and after that Alice feels the need to get to understand Joe and Violet. But as she learns more, she becomes uncomfortable, which is why she gives Violet the photo of her niece. But Violet keeps coming back every day, so Alice starts mending the woman’s clothing and Violet continues to wonder about Joe. After at first feeling exasperated about the visits, Alice comes to enjoy them, and the two women are able to speak honestly to one another. When Violet asks if Alice would ever fight for a man, she remembers back to when her husband was unfaithful and she was enraged for months, but didn’t do anything before he died, and his mistress came to the funeral dressed in white; she connects with Violet and realized she’d have done the same thing Violet did to her husband’s mistress if she’d have gotten the chance.
Violet thinks back first to her slashing Dorcas’s face and then to releasing the birds, and then to her life in Virginia with Joe. She remembers he family being robbed and losing everything, and how her mother, Rose Dear, stopped talking. True Belle, her grandmother, moved from Baltimore to help out, but Rose still committed suicide. Her husband came into town just days later with money and gifts. When Violet was a late teenager, True Belle sent her and her sisters to go pick cotton for a few weeks, and when she was sleeping under a tree, Joe fell out of it while he was sleeping. They talked all night, and by the end of the three weeks, she sent the money she earned with her sisters and moved to stay close to Joe. They determine to move to NYC together about a decade later. They didn’t want children, and Violet was plagued with miscarriages, but when Violet gets older she feels she wanted children and mourns her last child she miscarried. After all these musings, she asks Alice if she should stay with Joe, but Alice doesn’t give her a clear answer.
Joe was born at the end of the 19th century and grew up with an adoptive family, where he had a friend and brother in Victory Williams. Joe grew up helping hunters and he loved the woods. When he met Violet and married her and worked as a sharecropper to find himself in more and more debt, he changed his attitude and then decided to buy land, but found that he was being asked for too much money, so he moved with her to New York and they found a place in Harlem. He worked at hotels and sold cosmetics, and after the riots, he danced down the street with the soldiers returning from war. But all of a sudden, he loses Violet, who starts sleeping with a doll hugged to her at night, and he becomes lonely. He meets Dorcas, with long hair, bad skin, and all sorts of marks on her face from the blemishes. They remind him of the trails in the woods he used to walk on as he searched for Wild, his mother. He remembers the end of their relationship, with him following her to a dance, and then continuing looking for her in places each day. He finds her one last time, where she says awful things to him and he realizes that he’s not a young man, and that he is chasing a woman when young men don’t have to chase; women come their way. He continues to remember how Dorcas looked, with her worn shoes and the marks on her cheeks and the presents he bought her. He remembers taking Dorcas’s virginity.
True Belle had been a slave in Virginia before she left to Baltimore, although she returns to Virginia a free woman. Her family is in squalor because the state repossessed everything when Rose’s husband disappeared. True Belle was on an estate of a white man whose daughter got pregnant by a black man and was disowned, and True Belle moved with her after being disowned. She was forced to leave her daughters on the plantation. The daughter, Vera Louise, names her bastard child Golden Gray because of his golden curls. True and Vera spoil him, but when Vera reveals to him on his eighteenth birthday that his father is black, he wants to know more but Vera refuses to speak, leaving True to tell the story. When she tells him that his father is Henry LesTroy, Golden goes to meet his father, intending to kill him, and sees a naked black woman on the road in the rain and when she is falls unconscious, Golden is so revolted by her color that he considers leaving her, but because she is pregnant he decides to take her in the carriage. He worries that she will get his clothing dirty. Despite these feelings, he did love True because she took care of him, but he still can’t deal with having a black father because it changes his entire identity. When he comes upon a home he thinks is his father’s, he leaves the pregnant woman in it, waiting for Henry to return. He gets drunk waiting, and when someone comes in, it is a black boy. The boy mistakes Golden for a white man who is there to talk to Henry, and Golden has him first look after his horses and then he looks after the unconscious woman as Golden remembers his rage at realizing his father is black and True telling him that rather than destroy his mother’s clothing he should go see his father.
When Henry comes home and learns Golden is his son, he comes to realize why Vera left, but before they can start talking the pregnant woman on the table goes into labor. The woman bites Henry so he names her “Wild,” and she rejects the child. The black boy, Honor, is told to get his mother to come take the child. Wild never leaves the area, but haunts the fields. This child is Joe Trace. Joe always feels Wild is his mother, though he is never told so. He tries to find Wild three times, and the last time she says something to him to answer his question, but he cannot understand because he cannot see her with the fading daylight. After this, he works all the time to stop thinking about it, and that’s where he met Violet. After the fields are set afire, he never learns about what happened to Henry (AKA Hunter’s Hunter).
Joe thinks back to his hunt for Dorcas, and remembers he never meant to kill her, but didn’t expect to find her with a young slick man, either. He also thinks of his mother at this time and how it felt similar to hunt for her with no success.
Dorcas is dancing with a coveted man in a packed apartment, and she feels incandescently happy. She’s worried Joe will be looking for her, and that he’ll come to the party. She feels bad about her cruel words, but needed to get away from him. She had told him he made her sick even though she’d meant to talk about being uncomfortable with the affair. She didn’t mention about the young man, Acton. She remembers Felice frowning at her when she had mentioned Joe. The differences between Joe and Acton are stark, with Joe accepting her no matter what and Acton asking for her to look and be specific ways, and she loves that and loves dancing with him and how jealous it makes other women. She knows that Joe will see her with Acton and realize she is with him now. Dorcas narrates her death, talking about dancing with Acton and seeing Joe, getting shot, and falling into Acton’s arms and being put on a table. Acton is upset that her blood got on his coat. Everyone is asking who shot her, and Dorcas believes she tells Felice it was Joe. As she dies, she can only make out music and oranges on the dining room table.
Felice comes to Violet and Joe’s home one afternoon with sweetmeats and music. Felice was raised by her grandmother because her parents could only come home once every few weeks from work, and then her father liked to read and her mother liked to go out dancing and to church. When Dorcas started seeing Joe, she figured it out despite Dorcas trying to hide it. Felice doesn’t think Violet is crazy because when she went to visit her while looking for a missing opal ring after she had let Dorcas borrow it to impress Acton. Felice didn’t attend Dorcas’s funeral out of anger, but also wanted to see if she could find the opal ring, and so started going to Violet and Joe’s to see if she could get it and to talk about Dorcas to Joe. She says that Dorcas let herself die rather than get medical help, so it was her fault she died from the bullet wound. She cries as she talks about it, and Joe and Violet invite her to dinner and Violet says the ring was on Dorcas’s hand when she was buried. When Felice visits for dinner again, she gets to talk to Joe alone, and when music starts playing, Violet comes in and she and Joe start dancing while Felice watches, and before she leaves, she promises Violet she will come let her do her hair.
Discussion of Work
This narrative is structured much like a jazz song, with the main plot being the driving beat, but each person’s story being its own riff or solo in the song and the narrative, expanding upon the original story and adding unique information and tune to the narrative. Time is not linear in this narrative, with Dorcas sometimes being dead, sometimes alive, sometimes not even born as the narrative of Violet and Joe’s families are told. The story weaves a tale of tragedy and love through matriarchal lines across generations, showing how female love can heal, and irresponsible men often destroy what the women have built in their families. Infidelity destroys families, but it isn’t a death sentence to the family unit: with proper communication and time to grieve, the family can be rebuilt, showing a resiliency of these black women as they deal with trauma.
Miscegenation also makes a brief appearance, bringing front and center the issues of race and racism within their own family histories. Discovering his blackness completely rips Golden apart, who has been raised with a sense of racial superiority that, when turned upon him, he cannot deal with. The only way to deal with it for Golden is to destroy his own father, to commit patricide to erase evidence of his black heritage and make him white again. Readers never learn if, after the birth of Joe, Golden ever really speaks with his father or comes to terms with his blackness; Golden merely disappears from the narrative into the space of whiteness, away from the struggles that his black family faces.
Regarding my dissertation topic, dance plays a distinct role in this story, with faster jazz dances and slower blues idiom dances like the Slow Drag featuring. The dances, like the musical structure of the story, have a sense of temporality about them. The faster jazz dances are at first indicative of Dorcas’s age and inexperience: she is not invited to dance even the slower dances because it is apparent that the complexity of the fast dances is too much for her, and she doesn’t fully understand what she sees as men dance before her, even though she can appreciate it. With age and regular attendance at house parties, she becomes a better dancer. She is able to fully embrace her youth through dancing, as it arouses both her sensual feelings for young men and her excitement about her own body. For Joe, these dances allow him to relive a part of his life that he thought he had lost; it allows him to forget his loneliness for a time and feel young again, almost turning back time, or if not turning back time, then at least extending the moments he has. His affair with a woman half his age is another way of turning back time, and much as the new music confuses the older generation, his relationship confuses his understanding of his life, turning it to pieces as he tries to participate in a relationship with a woman from a different generation with different wants and trends. It is not until after Dorcas’s death and the introduction of Felice that he is again able to connect with and dance with Violet, representing a healed relationship. Felice fills a hole for both Violet and Joe: Felice can be Violet’s daughter she never had, and Joe can be a father figure rather than a lover to the girl, showing her that there is happiness amid all the sorrow.