Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | Part 5 | Summary



Joe sits at his window, weeping openly, as Violet washes his handkerchiefs, though the narrator suspects she'd rather "light his hair with a matchstick." A blues singer plays guitar on the sidewalk; Joe "probably thinks the song is about him." Joe jealously watches the "sweetbacks," stylish young men who attract women's gazes. Perhaps he regrets cheating on Violet, or perhaps he mourns what all people who live long enough must lose: "young loving." Dorcas was Joe's "personal sweet—like candy," but that's no excuse for what the "Rat" did. If he were to confide in someone, the narrator wonders, "who knows how it would go?"

The narrative shifts to Joe's point of view. He had, he says, no one to tell. Gistan would've laughed, and Stuck would've told him to drink it off. And how could Joe explain what he didn't understand himself?

Joe breaks his life up into the seven times that he became "new":

  1. Joe takes the name "Trace" when he misunderstands the idea that his parents left "without a trace."
  2. Henry LesTroy chooses Joe to teach to hunt.
  3. In 1893 the Ku Klux Klan burns African American homes in Vienna. Joe and Victory travel, seeking work. Joe marries Violet.
  4. Joe earns enough money to buy a little land. He and Violet leave for the North in 1906 when they are evicted by "two slips of paper I never saw nor signed."
  5. After they move to the nicer apartment on Lenox Avenue, Violet and Joe are doing well at last.
  6. During violent rioting in 1917, white men beat Joe severely with a pipe.
  7. After the war Joe marches with the 369, proud of what the African American soldiers achieved. Still, shortly after, Violet starts to withdraw and to hold a doll while she sleeps.

With Dorcas Joe has a chance to feel "fresh" again. He absolves Violet of blame for their faltering marriage; he tried to change "one time too many." When Dorcas leaves him, Joe draws on his hunting skills to track her until he finds himself taking aim at her heart, "never mind it's the heart you can't live without." After he fires he wants to rush to Dorcas to catch her and tell her that "it was my hand I wanted to touch you with." He wants her to know that he chose her.


This part focuses on Joe and gives both an account of his personal development and an argument to justify, or at least rationalize, his affair. Joe struggles with his identity throughout his life. The roots of the struggle are in his mother's abandonment of him, and the "inside nothing" her actions carved out in him haunts him. What little Joe knows about his mother ties in with his attraction to Dorcas. When the Klan burned the cane fields in Vienna, the air was full of their sweet smell, and Wild was likely watching from her hiding place. Similarly Joe associates Dorcas with the scent of "sugar in the air." Wild hides among hibiscus bushes by the river; Dorcas seems to be accompanied by "blue water and white flowers."

Joe, the woodsman, is lonely in the City, but he is as surprised as anyone by his reaction to Dorcas: "How did I know," he asks, what she might "instigate in a grown man" whose wife sleeps with a baby doll and ignores him? The contrast between City and Country is once again revealed in Joe's character. He feels lonely in a city brimming with life but feels at home in the woods.

The identity crisis that began with Joe's birth has never been resolved, but he hopes that Dorcas will help him find his next "fresh" self. The breakup means little to her. Joe is kind and sweet, but he's not marriageable. When Joe loses Dorcas, he loses his newly formed, still fragile identity. The loss is unsupportable, but Joe's need is also unrealistic. He is middle-aged now; an affair with a teenager won't make him young again. This is as difficult a fact for him to accept as Violet's inability to have children, now that she craves them, is for her to come to terms with.

As Joe tracks Dorcas, using the skills that his second layer of self learned from Henry LesTroy, he rehearses what he wants and needs to tell her: that he forgives her unkind remarks; that he understands why she is drawn to the "roosters," with their fine feathers; and that these young men will take it as their right to treat her badly. He wants to remind her of how deep his love is, like the love that drove Adam to eat "the apple and its core" and leave Eden "a rich man." Joe uses striking imagery to describe how Adam tasted "the first apple in the world" and never forgot its sweetness, the sensation of biting it, and the "red peeling" that broke his heart. Eden is in Dorcas's arms. Joe alludes to the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, likening himself to Adam, who was tempted by Eve and bit the apple. Similarly Alice brings into play her own religious upbringing to "preach" to Dorcas about the dangers in the City.

The relationship between Joe and Dorcas is very lopsided, and both partners are struggling with their identities, Joe for the reasons he details in this part and Dorcas because she is so young. If the narrator were using her gossipy voice, she would likely predict that their affair cannot end well.

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