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Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | Part 1 | Summary


Jazz is divided into 10 parts that are neither numbered nor titled. The plot is not linear. Morrison acknowledges, in a discussion of Paradise, the third novel in the trilogy, that movies and television shows have trained people to expect linear plots with a few flashbacks or flash-forwards. However, she notes, people "experience life as the present moment, the anticipation of the future, and a lot of slices of the past." Jazz's structure reflects this experience.


An unnamed narrator plunges into the story's climax with, "Sth, I know that woman." That woman, Violet, barged into a funeral to cut the face of her rival, who lay in the coffin, and then rushed home to release her pet birds "to freeze or fly." Violet takes a lover to punish Joe Trace, her husband and the girl's murderer, but his grief is punishment enough. A "poisoned silence" deadens Joe and Violet's Lenox Avenue apartment, driving Violet to find out who Joe's lover was. She interrogates her neighbor Malvonne Edwards, who let Joe use her room for trysts. Violet studies the girl's hairstyle and haunts her school. She troubles the girl's aunt until the woman lets Violet take a framed photo home. Violet and Joe's home becomes "mighty bleak," and the narrator predicts further violence.

The narrator praises the City, meaning Harlem, where African Americans can set aside past "bad stuff" and reinvent their lives. The City provides the "frame" for the actions it makes possible.

Violet and Joe's rooms are like "empty birdcages wrapped in cloth." They wake in the night, independently, to watch the dead girl's picture, the "only living presence" in their home. Joe perceives a "generous and sweet" face, but Violet sees a "greedy, haughty" thief's face. They whisper her name, Dorcas, in the dark, neatly kept rooms.

While cutting a client's hair, Violet complains that women "wear me down." An affair requires two participants, the client notes, but a dead lover is trouble: "Can't rival the dead for love."

Violet has a history of odd behavior. She once lay down in the street, insensible, until a policeman carried her gently to the sidewalk. More troubling was the time a girl asked Violet to hold her baby brother while she ran to the store to buy a record. "Comfort settled itself" in Violet's body as she fantasized about taking the baby home. By the time the sister returned, Violet had carried the baby down the street—just to bounce him, she laughed. No one could prove otherwise, but many think that Violet was stealing the baby. Joe seems unaware of the "cracks" in Violet's mind. One day as they stand near a pretty girl in the drugstore, Violet feels a premonition—"Something slight, but terrible."


The novel begins with two verses from the Nag Hammadi, a collection of ancient gnostic manuscripts. Gnostic thinkers attempted to know themselves and the divine, in part by understanding where they had come from and where they were going. The text from which these lines come, according to scholar Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels, is an "extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of a feminine divine power." The reader can keep these lines in mind and revisit them after finishing the novel.

The lines may refer to the novel's enigmatic narrator, who dominates Jazz. All other voices are channeled through this narrator, whom Morrison has left unidentified. This study guide will refer to the narrator as she, but not all critics agree on the narrator's gender or even whether the narrator is human. The narrator speaks in two voices. One is a first-person voice full of commentary and fond of gossip. In her third-person account, the narrator relays other characters' thoughts or simply reports on events. Throughout the novel these voices intermingle, shifting without warning, sometimes multiple times in a single part. In addition, some stories are told from the first-person perspective of characters, with the narrator's help. This shifting of perspective, like the shifting of setting, is part of the novel's improvisational, jazzy approach.

The reader quickly realizes that the narrator is not wholly reliable. For example, she says that Joe and Violet both regard the girl's picture with "bewilderment" but later corrects herself to say that Joe sees forgiveness while Violet sees the thief who stole her husband's love. The reader must keep up with the narrator's shifting perspective and question when the narrator is more or less objective.

The opening part of Jazz focuses on Violet, revealing something of her personality and past and laying out her current crisis. Violet is a silent, anxious woman who keeps busy with housekeeping and work and fears rest because "a space of nothing pressing to do would knock [her] down." Such spaces allow "the seep of rage" and grief, and Violet has plenty of both. Locals have nicknamed her "Violent" because of her eccentric actions, the worst of which is her attack on the dead girl's body. Yet readers see quickly that Violet is intelligent and capable. She intends to get to the bottom of the mystery that plagues her: why her husband, whom she chose long ago, has suddenly "unchosen" her.

The first part of the novel also introduces the City, which is half backdrop and half a living thing itself. It offers "anything the strong can think of and the weak will admire" and is "mindful" of where people need to go. The narrator is in love with her City. The author's discussion and description of the City reflect the recurring theme of City versus Country throughout the book.

Jazz begins with its climax—the disfiguring of a dead girl's face. Everything that follows teases out the connections among the climax, the events that led up to it, and the events that follow it.

Questions for Part 1

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Respond: Part 1: In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe critiques Conrad’s representation of Africa and European imperialism. Discuss Achebe’s ow
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