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Jazz | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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Consider the connection between jazz and sexuality that worries Alice Manfred in Part 3 of Jazz.

Alice describes jazz as "lowdown" music that calls for a kind of dancing that is "beyond nasty." She's read "sermons and editorials" that call jazz harmful and embarrassing, and she agrees. The women who listen to it color their lips "red as hellfire," let their knees show, and have "fingernails tipped with blood." Its sounds and lyrics direct people's attention "down to places below the sash and the buckled belts." Even little children respond to jazz's sexiness, "swaying ridiculous, unformed hips" to its sounds, and mothers sing lusty lyrics while rocking their babies. Alice also responds negatively to the anger she hears in jazz music. Unlike the orderly drumbeat of the protest march, jazz, which insinuates itself into the memory, provokes disorderly actions.

Review the rules Alice teaches Dorcas about living in New York City in Jazz, Part 3. What do the rules suggest about threats to African American women at that time?

Alice has experienced sexual harassment in New York City from "whitemen" who push money at her, assuming that she is available for sex; she knows that any "whiteboy" older than 11 may be sexually aggressive toward African American girls. So she teaches Dorcas how to "disappear into doorways" and "crawl" near shadowy walls to hide from these predatory men with their sense of ownership of African American women's bodies. Alice teaches Dorcas to avoid suggestive clothing, too, such as unbuttoned coats that make a woman look "ready for bed." Alice envies women who wear such clothing but won't risk Dorcas wearing it. Even "makeup of any kind" is "outlawed." Readers later learn that Dorcas finds ways to sneak around these restrictions, but Alice's precautions acknowledge what Dorcas, at 16, doesn't comprehend: men, especially white men, may objectify and mistreat her.

What details from Jazz, Part 3, foreshadow Dorcas's choices and their consequences?

In Part 3 readers see that Dorcas has failed to internalize her aunt's sense of sexual vulnerability. She's "tickled and happy" to know that, nearby, men play hot jazz while "a knowing woman" sings sexy lyrics. She's fascinated by the possibilities of "life-below-the-sash" as her sexuality emerges. Alice, a widow, has set her sexuality aside; Dorcas feels hers as the "start of something she looked to complete." Alice braids Dorcas's hair restrictively and dresses her prudishly, but she can't hide "the boldness swaying under her cast-iron skirt." These details suggest that Dorcas will seize opportunities for sexual experience, which will end badly because she is naive.

Consider how fear and a desire for judgment against people she considers sinful drive Alice in Part 3 of Jazz.

Alice steams over the "impunity" with which Joe murdered Dorcas—that is, the absence of punishment. Joe's losses punish him, but he escapes without legal punishment because Alice understands the futility of appealing to white systems of justice. Alice's religious faith is judgment-based. She yearns for the "Imminent Demise" of Judgment Day, when the sinful and sex obsessed will be punished. Not until Violet pushes her to revisit her past does Alice realize that "fear had sprouted through her veins all her life," sown by her parents. Dorcas's murder drives Alice to think "war thoughts" that replace her fear with a desire to strike back in this life rather than to leave justice in divine hands.

Jazz reveals how their ancestors' long-ago actions shape the identities and attitudes of the characters. Consider how Violet's life bears out this idea.

In Part 1 the narrator says that Violet was once "a snappy, determined girl" and a "hardworking young woman" who enjoyed gossip, in the model of True Belle, her competent, high-spirited grandmother. In Part 4, far from her Virginia family and now middle-aged and childless, Violet now relies on Joe alone for connection. She fears abandonment deeply because she witnessed her mother's deterioration and eventual suicide after her father's repeated departures. Rose Dear, her mother, became apathetic. She detached herself from her five young children, escaping finally to the well where she drowned herself, a place "so narrow, so dark it was pure." Faced with Joe's betrayal, Violet must decide which model to follow—True Belle's or Rose Dear's.

In Jazz, Part 4, readers learn about Violet and Joe's courtship from her perspective. What do the details she recalls reveal about how she views her husband and her marriage?

Violet met Joe when "a man fell out of a tree and landed at her side." This unexpected event feels like fate to Violet, who happened to spread her blanket under the same big walnut tree that Joe had chosen to sleep in. They quickly fall into the easy banter of friends, and after that life changes for Violet. She stops dreaming of the enticing "narrow well"—that is, of the choice her mother made to escape her troubles in suicide. Joe makes Violet glad to be alive. She "claimed" all of Joe; his "jawline" and the "plane of his shoulders" give her life shape. From then on everything she does is "all for Joe Trace." She sees him as filling the void in her life created by having been orphaned.

How does Violet conflate her thoughts about Dorcas and about her last miscarriage in Part 4 of Jazz, and what is the result?

Violet imagines the child, "certainly a girl," that might have been born and who would be now close to Dorcas's age. She thinks of sweet ways she would have cared for her, like cooling her "babygirl's food" for her "tender mouth," singing together, and fixing her hair. Dorcas, whom Violet sees only in her photograph and in her coffin, merges somewhat with "the daughter who fled her womb." Violet thinks the City cruel for forcing on her "a crooked kind of mourning" for a rival young enough to have been like a beloved daughter. Under other circumstances, Violet realizes, she could have loved Dorcas.

Explain how Alice changes because of her unlikely friendship with Violet, considering especially the last six paragraphs of Part 4 of Jazz.

The deaths of Dorcas and, earlier, of her parents once drove Alice to fury; now they provoke her realization of "how ... quick this little bitty life is" and how much of it she has surrendered to fear and anger. Alice irons a shirt as a life-changing idea hits her: she doesn't have to "take" the world's pain any longer but instead can create a life she wants. The stunning thought distracts her, and she burns the shirt, cussing in an entirely uncharacteristic manner. The hole in the shirt and the breakthrough in her thinking result in riotous laughter that Violet thinks is "more complicated, more serious than tears."

Which of the narrator's voices opens Jazz, Part 5? What opinion of Joe does the narrator offer? In what way does Joe's story respond to the narrator's opinion?

The gossipy narrator speaks first, saying that spring in the City is wasted on Joe; she pities Violet as she endures his grief when she'd probably rather set fire to his hair. She isn't surprised that the affair ended violently, because Joe hid his involvement, cutting himself off from friends who might have helped him cope when it ended. But Joe responds that he had no one to tell: Gistan and Stuck, he guesses, would have laughed and suggested getting drunk. He wonders whether he could have told even his "tight friend," Victory—had Victory been in the City rather than in Virginia—what he himself didn't understand at the time.

Discuss the significance of how Joe chose his last name, which he explains in Jazz, Part 5. What clues does his explanation give about why he struggles with his identity?

Joe misunderstands when told that his parents "disappeared without a trace," thinking that he is the "Trace" they left behind. Not until he chooses the name, on the first day of school, does Joe think that his parents will eventually return for him and, from among his foster siblings, "pick me." Being chosen matters greatly to Joe. Wild turns away from him when he is born and apparently refuses to acknowledge him later (though she stays near him), leaving him with an "inside nothing" instead of a confident sense of self. He doesn't know that Violet actively "claimed" him after they met.

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