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Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Jazz, Part 5, Joe recalls a time when he and Violet encountered racism from City residents. What does this event suggest about how racism threatens African American identity?

When Joe and Violet moved into the nicer apartment on Lenox Avenue, they were thrilled to leave behind the "stink" and "flesh-eating rats" of poorer sections of the City. The homes on Lenox Avenue, Joe says, are in buildings "like castles in pictures," and he and Violet were proud to be able to afford to live there. But "light-skinned renters" didn't want Joe and Violet, whose skin is relatively darker, in their neighborhood; Joe and Violet had to fight them, "just like they was whites." Joe and Violet "won" that fight, but the incident demonstrates how biases against people of color seep out of white culture, influencing the way other City residents think and perpetuating levels of segregation that fracture African American cultural identity.

Dorcas means "gazelle." Consider Joe's descriptions of Dorcas's face in Jazz, Part 5, and his Virginia background. How does her name fit the role she plays in his life?

Here and elsewhere in Jazz, Joe describes marks, probably from acne, on Dorcas's forehead and cheeks. The marks are like "faint hoofmarks" marking a trail. Because Joe believes that "the best thing, the only thing" is to "find the trail and stick to it," these marks reassure him of Dorcas's value. He insists that Dorcas is "not prey," and yet he tracks her scars when they make love. After she leaves him, he tracks her as a predator would a gazelle and as he tracked Wild in Virginia. Tracks send Joe "signs so strong" that, armed with Henry's training, he hardly has to think to follow them. Joe is at heart still a hunter.

In Jazz, Part 6, whenever Golden asks about his father, Vera Louise retreats. Consider the possible reasons for her behavior that Golden may not take into account.

Golden carries his anger to Virginia and imagines the hostile words he will say to his father. His anger suggests the conclusions he might draw from his mother's behavior. He might think that his father raped her, and so the mere mention of him causes her pain and shame. He might think that she only dallied with him and now regrets it deeply or that she considers him the cause of the loss of her family. What Golden apparently does not consider is that his mother and father, impossibly for that time, loved each other. Readers learn, after all, that Henry has kept the green dress for 18 years.

Describe the relationship between Golden Gray and True Belle in Jazz. What questions of race complicate Golden's sense of identity?

Golden Gray, the son of a white mother and a black father, believes he is white until he is 18. True Belle, the woman who helps raise him, adores and spoils Golden for 18 years. She sends food to him at boarding school every week, throws out his shirts when they are frayed, and cares for his every need. But, after she tells him who his father is, he decides that, whenever she had smiled at him, she was mocking him. He uses a slur to categorize her and throws away years of affection in his confusion. He had thought that "there was only one kind" of African American: "black and nothing." Now he knows that "another kind" exists, for which he doesn't even have a name except "himself."

Golden's upbringing has left him with some skills deficits. How are these revealed in Part 6 of Jazz, and how do they make him different from his father, Henry LesTroy?

Golden, a well-raised Southern gentleman, is a competent horseman and knows how to dress. Beyond that he is utterly at sea. Golden has trouble getting the fire started in Henry's house because "other people have always lit the fires in his life." He's hungry, but all the food in the house requires cooking. Other than laying Wild on a cot and covering her, he never thinks to do what 13-year-old Honor does right away—to wash the blood from her eyes. Henry is a "hunter's hunter," a respected man well able to care for himself and others. No wonder Golden invents stories of his heroic actions on the road: Even before he meets his father, he knows he doesn't measure up.

Discuss Morrison's use of clothing, and the lack of it, to symbolize status in Part 6 of Jazz.

Golden's wardrobe is extensive and fine. Snobbishly, he intends to peacock it in front of his father, both to suggest his superior status and to denigrate Henry's. Golden assigns so much value to his clothing that he gets his trunk out of the rain before he carries the injured woman in. Golden's fine clothes act as a barrier between him and Wild; he can hardly touch her for fear of spoiling his coat but is willing to ruin a pretty green dress that is not his. Wild's nakedness contrasts sharply with Golden's gussied-up style. Mud and her own hair provide the only covering for a woman who has, for mysterious reasons, chosen to live as animals do. Her "deer eyes" and panicked flight at the sight of Golden also suggest that she is more animal than human.

Describe the narrator's opinion of Golden as she recounts his journey to Virginia, a journey presented several times throughout Jazz.

In the first telling, the narrator focuses on Golden's nervous pride in his horse and his possessions, which he hopes will communicate his worth to his father. She also stresses his reluctance to respond to Wild as he tries to persuade himself that he had seen a "vision," not a real woman, and then feels "relieved" that he can't help her. The narrator describes Golden as intensely curious and engaged during the drive. He sits straight, attuned to the sounds of his environment, and breathes in the fresh air deeply. Still, he inspects the carriage's harnesses before he checks Wild's breathing. The narrator gives the heroic version of events that Golden invents to fight his fears. With "no qualms," he "saved this wild black girl," even touching her "with my bare hands" (to spare his good gloves, the narrator notes). Golden worries the narrator. Self-centered and hypocritical, he hides his fear under fancy clothes and liquor. But she forgives him because "he is a boy after all," untrained to handle even a small crisis.

How does the narrator establish the character of True Belle in Part 6 of Jazz?

The narrator establishes True Belle's competence and pragmatism by reporting her deeds and her attitudes. In the 11 years that True Belle cares for her grandchildren, she has time to "make six quilts, thirteen shifts" and tell many stories about Golden Gray. With the wages she earned in Baltimore, she buys a house and stove to shelter and feed her family. When True Belle buries Rose Dear, she accepts her daughter's fragile nature. She is a practical woman who doesn't dwell on the past or hide the truth. She tells Golden about his father and then lets him go, never seeing him again or, as far as readers know, worrying about the child she cosseted, separated from her own daughters, for 18 years. True Belle makes the best of things.

What superstitions surround Wild, and how do they affect other characters in Jazz?

The people in Vienna believe that certain things—a rope, a snakeskin—can cause harmful "fascinations," but worse is a "wild woman." Joe may suffer from such a fascination, because Wild is one of the first things his newborn eyes saw. So people try to avoid the sight, sound, and even smell of her. Young men cutting cane feel her gaze and make mistakes; the mere thought of her "could mess up a whole morning's work." Wild arouses odd feelings in people's blood; her "babygirl laugh" makes their legs "trembly." People believe that her presence causes dementia and that redwings follow her. Henry, however, is not alarmed when he comes across Wild while hunting. He feels sad that she is not at peace but instead is "hungry still."

How does Henry establish his dominance over the stranger he discovers in his house in Jazz?

With his keen hunter's eyes, Henry swiftly and expertly assesses the stranger's potential to harm him and sees that he has no gun, soft hands, and impractical boots with thin soles that "had never walked country roads." Henry's motions as he puts down his gear and kills are swift and efficient, and he keeps his rifle in his arm and his hat on, showing that he is ready to act. When Henry finally addresses the stranger, who as a white man has precedence in their culture, he chooses to leave the word "sir" out of his question. Its absence is "as loud as a bang." This is Henry's house, and Henry is in charge.

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