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Jazz | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In Jazz, how does Henry explain to Golden why he did not try to find out where Vera Louise went?

Golden either feels or feigns anger that his father didn't try to find out about Vera Louise's sudden departure. However, Henry points out, practically, that Colonel Gray would hardly have entertained questions about his daughter from an African American boy. As Henry imagines asking the colonel to send Vera Louise to meet him in their usual place, he adds, "Tell her to wear that green dress" that "make it hard to see her in the grass." That they had a "place" where they often met suggests that their relationship was ongoing, not a one-time fling. And Henry's reference to the green dress, now covering Wild's bloody body, suggests that he remembers his lover's beauty: green like the natural world Henry knows so well.

In Jazz, why does Joe think he's better for Dorcas than one of the men he calls a "rooster"?

Rooster is one term Joe uses for fashionable young City men who dress in fine clothes and stand on corners to watch the "chickens ... pick over them." Roosters are proud of their looks, covetous of attention, and selfish. Because actual roosters often have a harem of hens, the term also suggests that these young men won't be faithful to one woman but will exploit as many as they can. Joe, on the other hand, treats Dorcas well and for many years treated Violet well too. Roosters would force a woman "to live like a dog in a cave." Joe doesn't grasp, however, that his treatment of Dorcas, while kind and generous, is also somewhat paternal. She's his child-lover, petulant but malleable. He's her patron-lover, safe but ultimately boring.

Describe Wild's dwelling place, which Joe recalls finding in Part 7 of Jazz. What does it suggest about this wild woman whom so many people fear?

The stone enclosure is "private," its opening hidden, and it makes Joe feel peaceful. Light reflects off the stone walls, first gold and then "fish-gill blue," giving it a changing but mysterious feel. Inside are Wild's possessions, mostly pilfered from people's homes (earrings, baskets, a spindle), things both practical and ornamental. Vera Louise's green dress is there too—Joe doesn't know its history—as are Golden's silver brushes and a "creamy" silk shirt, carefully mended on the seams with "sunny yellow thread." The fascinating wild woman, driven to the woods by unknown events, appreciates beauty and cares for Golden, though readers don't know the nature of their relationship.

In Part 8 of Jazz, the narrator describes the party as a battlefield. Review her descriptions. What is at stake on this battlefield? Is Dorcas equipped for this combat?

The event is not a fun dance like the one Dorcas and Felice attended when they were 16; it is an "adult party," and the adults "play for keeps." The narrator describes the people as shining, as if their carefully chosen party clothes serve as armor and weapons. They think about "other people's blood," a metaphor for the lust they feel but also a violent image. People launch "wily" plans and promote and oppose "alliances" and "pairings." Dorcas, not quite an adult but trying on the role, is "knock[ed] out" on this battlefield. Though the idea of a battlefield is metaphorical, Dorcas becomes a casualty when Joe finds and kills her as she dances in his rival's arms.

What did Dorcas want from Joe in Jazz? In what ways do they work at cross purposes?

Joe thinks that he's an attentive lover, and many readers likely agree. He serves Dorcas, brings her gifts, learns her preferences, and refines his behavior accordingly. Unlike Acton, who nearly scorns her and makes her work for his attention, Joe devotes himself to Dorcas. But Dorcas is a teenager trying to find her adult identity, and Joe's conformity to her pleasure displeases her. She says that Joe "didn't care what kind of woman I was." In contrast, Acton has a mental checklist, and Dorcas likes the challenge of meeting it. In addition, Joe wants their love to be private and to belong only to him, while Dorcas wants her girlfriends to see Acton's preference for her and to talk about "where we went and what he did." Their goals are incompatible.

In Jazz, two sets of characters react to blood: Golden and Henry react to Wild's blood, and the hostess and Acton to Dorcas's. Compare and contrast these reactions.

When Golden lays Wild on Henry's cot, he worries that her blood will ruin his gloves and coat; he hardly spares a thought for the damage to Henry's cot or for Wild's injury. But Golden can afford to replace his garments, while Henry's loss is significant. Henry, though, thinks first of Wild, not of the mess. A hunter who has tended to births and, likely, serious injuries, Henry is not put off by blood. The hostess and Acton are more like Golden than Henry. Dorcas's murder inconveniences them. Dorcas realizes that she has "ruined" an elegant party, for which the hostess went to the expense of buying oranges in winter and hiring musicians. Acton is worried about the blood on his coat. He is not by Dorcas's side but "way out there by the foot of the bed," as far from the mess of death as he can get without abandoning her altogether.

In Jazz, Part 8, Dorcas thinks of "Rochelle and Bernadine and Faye" in Joe's sample case as she dies. To whom does she refer? Why is she concerned about them?

Rochelle, Bernadine, and Faye were Dorcas's clothespin dolls when she was a child in East St. Louis. They burned in the fire that killed her mother, and she has thought graphically about how the fire consumed them. She thinks of the 1917 protest march as a funeral parade for her parents and regrets that there was no funeral for her precious dolls, which may represent the trauma of her loss. Now she imagines them to be in Joe's sample case. If she says Joe's name, he could be arrested and imprisoned; then what would happen to her dolls? The narrator doesn't step in to explain Dorcas's confused thoughts. They may suggest that Dorcas thinks of Joe not only as a lover but also as a protective father who will care for her orphaned dolls.

How does "sweetheart weather" change the City's music? Describe the weather's effect on the musicians and on Violet in Part 9 of Jazz.

The music that Alice Manfred describes earlier as angry and hungry gives way, during sweetheart weather, to music that is "high and fine" and evokes the voice of a "young girl singing by a creek" as she cools her feet in the water—something the musicians have likely never seen. The musicians feel "sure of themselves," even "holy" as their music mingles with the spring sunlight, "pure and steady and kind of kind." The sultry clarinets that have hogged the spotlight for much of the novel yield to ringing brass. As for Violet she appreciates the way the music can penetrate Joe's crying, which is quieter now that Dorcas's photograph is back in Alice's apartment. Violet even stops worrying, as she soaks in the music, about how skinny she is.

What experiences of racism has Felice already had in her short life in Jazz, Part 9? How do they shape her relationships with family and friends?

Felice cries when she learns from her father's newspapers that white police officers sometimes kill African Americans with impunity; her grandmother and mother comfort her, scold her father, and try to protect her from these realities. Felice also sees how racism hurts her mother, a scrupulously honest woman, goading her into stealing the opal ring "out of spite" in response to a white salesman's poor treatment of her. Felice loves the ring all the more for her mother's refusal to passively accept the treatment. Most of all racist attitudes throw Felice and Dorcas together because they are darker skinned than many of their classmates, who tease them relentlessly; they even fight their bullies together when necessary.

How do Felice and Joe ease each other's grief over Dorcas in Jazz? Consider the importance of community and companionship in the novel.

Felice knows Dorcas's "hard part," and Joe knows her softness. By trading their knowledge, as Golden imagines trading his missing arm for Henry's missing part so that both bodies become sound, Joe and Felice achieve a sounder understanding of Dorcas. This allows Felice to let go of her anger over Dorcas's stubborn decision to refuse help and Joe to grasp the importance of his short time in her life. Earlier the narrator asks whether the affair would have ended differently had Joe talked to friends about it, and Alice and Violet's friendship allows them finally to collapse into laughter and rise up renewed. Companions help each other bear the unbearable.

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