Course Hero Logo

Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Jazz Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 July 2016. Web. 29 May 2023. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, July 28). Jazz Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "Jazz Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2023.


Course Hero, "Jazz Study Guide," July 28, 2016, accessed May 29, 2023,

Jazz | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What can and can't readers know about the narrator in Part 1 of Jazz? How does this affect the way readers approach the novel?

Right away the narrator establishes her strong personality. Her first utterance, Sth, is a sound, perhaps an indrawn breath, a hiss, or a clicking of the tongue, but readers can't tell whether the sound judges Violet or expresses some other thought. The narrator claims to "know that woman" and all the novel's characters; she reveals thoughts and feelings and reports past events involving the characters. What readers don't know is whether this narrator is male or female, biased or all-knowing. So readers can't trust the narrator fully and must carefully weigh what she says as they read.

Review the steps Violet takes in Part 1 of Jazz to fix her marriage. Why do the first two steps fail? What does their failure suggest about Violet and Joe?

First Violet takes a lover to punish Joe for the pain he caused her and perhaps also to provoke his jealousy. But Joe is too overwhelmed by grief to notice, even when Violet brings her lover to their home. Next Violet tries "to fall back in love" with Joe, but the best she can manage is to cook for him and keep clean handkerchiefs ready for his tears. Finally Violet decides that, to understand the affair, she must study Dorcas, the woman who inspired love in Joe. Violet is persistent and intelligent; she won't quit until she solves the mystery of her broken marriage. Joe's passive but profound grief suggests that something deeper than a brief affair troubles him.

What advice does the narrator offer in Part 1 of Jazz about how best to survive and thrive in the City? Consider how the City aids and hinders its residents.

"I'm crazy about this City," the narrator declares. It's a place where people can become what they dream. The City's residents thrive when they use the City's resources. The City supports any plan "the strong can think of" because it is "laid out for you, considerate" of where people want to go. However, people must play by the City's rules, learning "how to be welcoming and defensive" simultaneously, "when to love" and "when to quit." People who ignore these rules find themselves "out of control" or in the control of outside forces. The City is rife with opportunities for bold, thoughtful people, but it can be a trap for the weak and passive.

Explain how the baby Violet cares for in Jazz, Part 1, seems to be, but is not, the answer to her problems.

Violet feels happy as she gazes at the baby's "honor-sweet, butter-colored face" and feels a sense of well-being spread throughout her body. "Joe will love this," she thinks, already planning the baby's room in her imagination. Readers are told that "loose and loud" laughter fills her excited heart; already she feels that the baby somehow belongs to her and will renew her barren marriage. However, Violet doesn't know what truly grieves Joe yet, so she can't know that he'd be pleased to be a father, based only on her own "mother-hunger." More practically Violet seems to have forgotten in her happy fantasy that kidnapping a baby is a crime. She cannot simply walk away with someone else's baby.

How do birds, and especially the parrot, function in Jazz, Part 1, as symbols of the ways Joe and Violet's marriage has broken down?

The narrator identifies Violet as the woman who "used to live with a flock of birds." The birds represent the uneasy domestic calm of Violet and Joe's home; they give childless Violet little openings for affection, and yet she fails even to name the parrot. They may also symbolize how Joe feels trapped by Violet's withdrawn silence, which she draws around herself like a cloak, hiding her pain from Joe, just as she covers the birds' cages each night. The knife that Violet uses to slash Dorcas's face was in the parrot's cage, an odd detail the narrator doesn't explain. In a more clearly symbolic move, the parrot is evicted to "freeze or fly" in January's snows because its mindless "I love you" calls unbearable attention to Violet and Joe's wounded love.

Describe Joe's worries about his memories in Part 2 of Jazz. How do incomplete memories disturb his sense of self?

Joe spends hours trying to imprint details about Dorcas in his memory but realizes that he's already forgetting things like "the timbre of her voice" and how her eyelids moved during lovemaking. His memories of his early love for Violet have "fade[d]" and "scab[bed] over"; he fears the same end for his memories of Dorcas. Joe also worries that, while he can recall facts, he can't recapture the feelings that go with them. Memories of both lovemaking and murder are "drained" of what he felt when the events happened. This loss makes Joe feel detached from his younger, more vital self. It is significant that Dorcas is the name of a woman in the Bible who was raised from the dead (Acts 9:36–43). Only memory can allow Dorcas to continue living, so the fragmentation of Joe's memory is especially troubling to him.

In Part 2 of Jazz, the narrator details the behaviors of the cooks on the train. Describe these behaviors. How do they contribute to the ideas of race and racism?

Readers deduce that the cooks are African American. When they prepare plates of food for African American travelers, they "pile extra helpings," add an extra slice of lemon to tea, and otherwise contrive ways to get a bit more food to these travelers than white travelers get. The cooks do this in solidarity with the African American travelers and as a subtle protest against segregated dining areas. They hope to "take the sting" out of the presence of the "green-as-poison curtain" that separates blacks and whites when the train traverses Southern states. This is why the attendant, when he urges African American travelers to come to the dining car once the train is out of the South, is disappointed that the travelers don't rush to the dining car. "If only they would," the narrator comments, now that they can.

Consider the significance of the City in Part 2 of Jazz. How does moving to the City immediately affect the way African American migrants perceive themselves and their culture?

From "the minute the leather of their soles" touches the City's streets, the migrants perceive their strength and unity. Even life in a room "smaller than the heifer's stall" is better than the best home in the South because the City lets them love themselves as they are. The newly arrived residents observe "their number" and see that they're walking with people who "moved the way they did" and who enjoy language, as they do—as a "malleable toy." Having fled "want and violence" in the South, the people discover their "stronger, riskier selves" when they reach the City. The historical backdrop of Jazz captures the growth of racial and cultural pride that nurtured the creative achievements of the Harlem Renaissance and helped to birth the jazz form.

What does Joe mean when he speaks of his "inside nothing" in Jazz, Part 2? What does he think can fill the nothingness?

Joe tells Dorcas about things that he's never told his wife in their decades together, including the pain that an "inside nothing" causes him. The pain is a legacy of his birth mother's rejection of him. Wild, readers later learn, is a woman who lives alone in the Virginia woods in a primitive fashion. Joe tracked her but couldn't get her to acknowledge him, by word or touch. Joe thinks Dorcas's love will make him "fresh" and heal the pain of being abandoned, but it cannot, not only because Dorcas too is orphaned but because she is too young to meet or even fully grasp his needs.

How does the situation in which Winsome Clark finds herself, described in her letter in Jazz, Part 2, represent struggles that Malvonne and many women in the City understand well?

Winsome's letter is one that Malvonne dwells on for some time, worrying about what will happen to the writer if the letter doesn't reach its intended recipient. Winsome writes to her husband, who is working far away in Barbados but sending home inadequate funds to support her and their children. Malvonne's experience makes it easy for her to "feel the wall of life pressed" against Winsome's hands, which are "bashed tender from pounding it" as her children cling to her. Winsome reports that she is "miserable" and "drowning," so she might as well drown at home in Barbados, near her mother and the "big trees" she misses. Despite the City's promises, survival can be tough for those who reach it poor and without the support of family and friends.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Jazz? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!