Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Course Hero. "Jazz Study Guide." July 28, 2016. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Jazz/.


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Jazz | Part 3 | Summary



In July 1917 Alice Manfred stands on Fifth Avenue as men march to a drumbeat to protest deadly race riots in East St. Louis. The marchers are "speechless and unblinking," unwilling to express their thoughts. Some people blame the riots on African American veterans; others blame whites fearful of African Americans "flooding the town" in search of work. Alice's brother-in-law was neither a veteran nor a newcomer, but he was beaten to death, and her sister was burned in her home. Alice blames the riots on jazz. Jazz inspires "unwise disorderly" behavior; listening to it is "like violating the law." She hears in jazz a "complicated anger" and "careless hunger" for violence and excess.

At 17 Dorcas feels as if she swallowed a fiery chip of her burning porch. It's still in her body, waiting for the right touch to call it forth. Alice raised Dorcas to be "ignorant of the hips," and the Miller sisters, who cared for Dorcas when she was young, told her cautionary tales of sin punished. Yet the romance of women who risked reputation and life, "all for Paradise," impressed Dorcas.

Dorcas's life is "unbearable," but the City "cooperates" with thrill-seekers, offering "pillows for two." Dorcas and her friend Felice sneak out to a party, hoping to dance with brothers who "outstepped everybody." Felice releases Dorcas's hair from its stern braids and tries to make her clothes sexier, but the brothers reject Dorcas as "unworthy," priming her gratitude for Joe's admiration.

When Violet first knocks at her door, weeks after the funeral, Alice refuses to let her in, but Violet slips notes under Alice's door, wearing her down. Violet just wants a place to rest from the "trouble with my head." They sit in bewildered grief until Alice lends Violet the picture of Dorcas so she'll leave. The next day Alice begins to mend Violet's worn clothes; later they will sit, sew, and discuss the affair neither can fathom. When Violet asks Alice, "You wouldn't fight for your man?" the question is like "the pop of a toy gun." Alice allows herself to think about the affair her husband had before he died. It left Alice "starving for blood," fantasizing gruesome ends for his lover.


Two women, one older and wiser and the other young and untested, clash in this part, which deals with sexuality and violence. Alice was raised in a strict household by parents who taught her the difference between "sitting nasty" (legs apart) and "sitting womanish" (legs crossed). They stressed the dangers of placing the hands on the hips and bound her breasts tightly, fearful of the shame of pregnancy. After she married, however, Alice was suddenly expected to perform sexually and bear children. This seems a sort of abuse to Alice as she recalls it, but she is nevertheless strict with Dorcas. The City is full of sexually charged people; Alice "couldn't tell the streetwalkers from the mothers." Music, which used to "start in the head and fill the heart," now concerns itself with "places below the sash."

Dorcas, meanwhile, thinks only of "life-below-the-sash" and resents her aunt's protective measures. She is awakening sexually and is glad to live in the City, where at all times someone not too far off was "licking his licorice stick" (playing jazz on clarinet) or "beating his skins" (playing drums). The phrases connect jazz and sex through innuendo, and Dorcas responds to both. She is, the narrator thinks, right to be discontent with her life, but she is also young and vulnerable.

When Alice thinks about Joe killing Dorcas, fury fills her over the "impunity" with which he did so. He decided to shoot; she died. Sexual violence, domestic violence—Alice reads and thinks about these topics. She connects the violence to jazz, which in the City flows from windows and doors, inescapable. Alice thinks of how African American women across the nation are arming themselves, refusing to be "defenseless ducks." Some have guns, others knives. Some have money or the church to protect them. Others improvise, taping glass shards to their hands or carrying packets of lye. Before Alice looked askance of these efforts, but now she feels differently because she can't grasp how gentlemanly Joe fooled her. The narrator suspects that Alice was "distracted" the day Joe came to sell cosmetics; she learned about the affair after its violent end.

This part opens with a protest against racial violence, but its primary theme is sexual violence against and abuse of women. Men are often the perpetrators; a man jilted Neola Miller, embittering her for decades, but women lash out at women too, as Violet did at the funeral, foolishly and pointlessly. Alice, a "dignified lady," is forced by Violet's presence to realize that even she, despite the years that have passed, has not exorcised the urge to attack her husband's "hussy" viciously.

Questions for Part 3

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