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Jazz | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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What explanations do Joe and Violet give Felice for their violent actions in Jazz? What do their explanations suggest about how they have changed since October 1925?

Violet says she attacked Dorcas's corpse because she "lost the lady" and had to look hard for her again. The lost lady is the "snappy" girl she had been, the lively wife whose hips vibrated to the train wheels as she rode north, and the woman that Rose Dear would have been glad to know. Perhaps Violet has accepted her childlessness or found surrogates in the children in her neighborhood; perhaps she has merged "Violent" and "that Violet" with the girl True Belle rescued and sent into the world and has balanced their strengths. Joe says he killed Dorcas because he was "scared." He didn't know how to love and still doesn't, but he now knows what not to do, at least. Dorcas's death and Wild's mystery will continue to haunt him in night shadows, but he has developed more compassion for himself and others, as he demonstrates when Violet complains that people are "plain mean" and he replies, "No. Comic is what they are."

What makes the narrator feel "uneasy" and "a bit false" in Part 10 of Jazz? How might her admission affect the way readers look back on the novel?

The narrator confesses that she has "an affection" for pain, for "bolts of lightning" and even for the "mourning" of trees struck by the storm—because it's "my storm, isn't it?" She wonders who she would be "without a few brilliant spots of blood to ponder." Many readers may ask the same questions. Stories abound with blood and storms, mourning and loss, and intrigue, yet the story of Joe and Violet and Dorcas, which began so violently, has ended almost as a comedy—not in more death but in reconciliation and restoration. They went about figuring out how to heal, quietly but defiantly, while the narrator "invented stories about them." Because she admits to being not just an unreliable, limited narrator but one who purposefully deceived readers in the quest for a more dramatic story, readers now must wonder: Which narratives were real? Which did she invent?

In Jazz, Part 10, what mood do the last scenes with Joe and Violet create? Consider how imagery reinforces this mood.

A mood of peaceful, charitable companionship permeates Joe and Violet's last scenes. They have each other's measure at last, and rather than carping on each other's flaws or deluding themselves that some perfect person exists in the City with whom they could achieve ideal love and passion, they embrace their own flaws and each other's. They are helpful, companionable, and content. Merely sharing the bed—soon, they hope, under a new wool blanket "with a satin hem"—comforts them. Joe and Violet understand that they failed terribly during the affair and that a girl died. But they have weathered the storm. And they have a new bird, whose health they bolster by exposing it to fresh air, sunlight, and the music of the City until it becomes "a pleasure to itself and to them."

The last pages of Jazz offer the narrator's look at "young loving" and mature love. What is sweet about each kind? Does the narrator prefer one kind?

Young love, or perhaps merely lust, is captured in the comings and goings of the City and especially in its clubs, places fathers warn their children about and "mothers shudder to think of." A "snapping" or "clicking" pervades the City. Sometimes it "seems to lurk," other times to "hover kindly." Young love is physical attraction, women's "daring short skirts" and men's "graceful slouch." It is exciting and desirable but risky and sometimes, as Dorcas discovered with Acton, costly. Mature love, by contrast, lacks some of the spark of newness. When mature couples make love, their "ecstasy is more leaf-sigh than bray," but it is sweetly satisfying because each person is "inward toward the other." They express love quietly, in small gestures rather than flamboyant music and dangerous dancing. Both loves have their place, but the narrator sounds a little world-weary when she says that she has been "waiting ... all my life" for the love that Joe and Violet have finally achieved.

What does the epigraph in Jazz—the lines from the Nag Hammadi that precede Part 1—add to readers' understanding of the theme of identity?

The repetition of the words "I am" suggests that the speaker is confident in his or her identity. Several applications to the novel suggest themselves; here are a few readers might agree with. The lines refer to the narrator's power to control the story; the narrator decides whose thoughts to reveal and when to reveal them, whether to let the character speak or to speak for the character; the narrator "designates" the novel's divisions, thus guiding readers' experience of the novel. The lines refer to the challenge each character faces in seeking his or her identity so that he or she can, as Alice Manfred puts it, "make" life as they like it. Each character must discover "the sound of the name." The lines conflate sound—the music of the City, the murmurs of the Virginia woods—with the words the narrator and characters use to explain themselves and understand themselves. This conflation underlies the novel's improvisational structure as story lines interweave like jazz melodies and different instruments take turns to solo.

Consider the symbolism of seasons in the sections of Jazz that tell about Joe Trace's affair.

Seasons have culturally common symbolic values. Spring is a time of new growth and rebirth, summer of continued growth and maturation, autumn of fullness and harvest, and winter of death and stillness. Joe first notices Dorcas in the candy shop in October. The silence of his house and his sorrow over his "inside nothing" have been growing for a long time; Joe is ripe for change. Violet, who feels a premonition of something bad about which "nothing can be done," is about to reap the harvest of the months of treating her birds better than she treats Joe. The affair ends, violently, on a January day of "biting cold," and the funeral happens on a snowy, "windswept" day. Because winter represents death, this timing is symbolically appropriate. But winter also symbolizes dormancy, and by the first "sweetheart" days of March, signs of renewal show in many characters. Alice releases her anger, throws off her fear, and laughs. Felice decides the stolen ring is better off with Dorcas, in the ground, and grows into friendship with the Traces. Joe and Violet's love is reborn, metamorphosing into a quieter, kinder, more companionable love. Spring is the time of renewal, and these events match its arrival. In fact, the moment that Violet accepts "that Violet" as herself and steps out of the drugstore is the exact moment that spring begins in the City.

Morrison has said that Jazz is about the dangers of excessive love. Who loves excessively in Jazz and with what results?

Joe feels for Dorcas "one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy that he shot her just to keep the feeling going." Joe loves excessively because his need to fill the "inside nothing" and to deny his aging is also excessive. He looks to an 18-year-old, none-too-mature girl to meet his needs and is devastated when she can't. Joe admits to Felice that he "didn't know how to love" and so killed the thing he thought he needed most. Dorcas loves excessively, too, though her love object is neither Joe nor Acton. Hers is a kind of self-love, a desire to be seen, admired, and envied. Perhaps as she dies she realizes the sweetness of the giving love that Joe offered her; she asks Felice to tell Joe that there was only ever "one apple." But before this realization Dorcas is willing to subjugate her personal needs and preferences to Acton's cold demands—all for love of the crowd. Violet loves excessively in her "mother-hunger," becoming so attached to a phantom child, represented by the doll she sleeps with, that she forgets to nurture her marriage and comes close to kidnapping a baby. True Belle and Vera Louise love excessively, turning Golden into a shining idol so that he grows up useless, snobby, and unfit for the communal aspects of life.

Consider the importance of choice in Jazz. Discuss characters who choose how they work and whom they love.

The desire to choose one's path through life drove the Great Migration. In the South opportunities for African Americans were more limited and roles more rigidly defined, but in Northern cities they could choose to a greater extent. Alice Manfred is an example of a person who actively chooses her work. The narrator doesn't explain how Alice lives as well as she does; perhaps she has a widow's pension. But Alice, a disciplined and strict woman, seems to hate idleness and to take pride in her skills as a seamstress whose stitches are "invisible to the eye." She chooses to work. Joe, too, sets aside his sample case to choose work deliberately so that he will have more time with Violet. The freedom to choose one's living is perhaps all the more precious to people whose grandparents were enslaved. The most poignant example of choice, however, is choosing whom to love. A central conflict in the Traces' marriage occurs because Joe feels that he didn't choose Violet. She "claimed" him shortly after they met, but he doesn't know this and thinks that they married simply because circumstances threw them together. When Joe hunts Dorcas through the City, he rehearses how he will tell her that he "chose" her. He admits, "Wrong time," but "the picking out, the choosing"—that is what matters.

Discuss the ubiquity of jazz in the City. How does its inescapable presence affect characters?

Jazz floods the City. It's played in clubs, at private parties, on the street, in the drugstore. Open windows (in a time before air-conditioned homes) allow it to flow from one apartment to the next; musicians play on rooftops and in doorways. The City seems to host an ongoing jam session. Girls spend their scant funds at record stores, buying the latest hits. The music that saturates the City pleases many residents. Dorcas lies on her chenille bedspread, glad to feel the music in her hips, Violet appreciates how it camouflages Joe's crying at times, and even grieving Joe listens to the blues, because they are, of course, about him. But other characters, such as Alice Manfred and the Miller sisters, try to shut jazz out, even when doing so is uncomfortable. "Better to close the windows and the shutters," Alice thinks, and "sweat in the summer heat" than to let jazz insinuate its melodies into the mind. Despite her efforts and her conviction that listening to jazz is "like violating the law," Alice sometimes hears "unsolicited" melodies in her head. Their "greedy, reckless words, loose and infuriating," worm their way into her memory despite her precautions.

How do gifts and gift giving function in Jazz? Consider when and why gifts succeed and fail to achieve givers' goals.

Three characters in Jazz are gift givers, and each has different goals. Violet's unnamed father, who is away (and often making trouble) for most of her life, brings exotic gifts when he visits. The children get "ingots of gold," beautifully wrapped chocolate, and the women get silver coins. He gives improbable and impractical gifts such as an embroidered silk pillow fit for "a sofa nobody ever had." His gifts are ill-timed too. The pillow would have worked well under Rose Dear's head in her coffin, but her husband arrived too late. The father's gifts seem designed to placate the family, but for Violet these peace offerings "never blotted out" the despair to which her father's absence drove Rose Dear or the loss of their house. Dorcas gives Acton gifts, a behavior she may have learned from Joe, to win his favor. But Dorcas can't afford the quality things Acton wants and thinks he deserves, so he never wears "the ugly stickpin" or the silk handkerchief that Dorcas bought in the wrong color. Her gifts fail to earn his praise. Joe is the best gift giver in Jazz. He thinks hard about what will please Dorcas and keeps mental notes so that he can refine his choices, as when she wasn't happy with the flowers he gave her. "Anything just for you," he says, even a day's wage, in his boyhood terms, to spend as she likes. Despite his efforts Joe, too, fails as a gift giver, both because gifts are not really what Dorcas wants and because every gift he buys her, and every rent installment he pays Malvonne, costs Violet.

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