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Jazz | Plot Summary

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Summary

Morrison said in an interview that she "put the whole plot on the first page" of Jazz. Various characters then address events of the plot, turn them over and over, and explore them to make sense of them. This plot summary is arranged chronologically for reference.

The earliest events in Jazz happen in the 1850s, before the Civil War and emancipation. In Vienna, Virginia, Vera Louise Gray, the daughter of a wealthy white man, has an affair with Henry LesTroy, an African American man, and becomes pregnant. Her father, Colonel Wordsworth Gray, disowns her but gives her enough money to live in Baltimore. True Belle, Vera Louise's 27-year-old slave, goes with her to help raise the child, an adored son called Golden Gray because of his pretty blonde curls. When Golden Gray turns 18, True Belle tells him who his father is. Angry and confused, he travels to Virginia to meet him. On his way he encounters a naked, heavily pregnant woman in the woods by the road. The woman tries to flee but hits her head and collapses, so Golden Gray reluctantly takes her into his carriage, though he is put off by her dark skin and her bloody head. He arrives at a small house that he believes to be his father's and waits with the unconscious woman until Honor, a young teen, arrives.

Honor confirms that the house belongs to Henry LesTroy, who is away hunting but will return soon. Honor looks after Henry's livestock while he's gone. He tends to the pregnant woman, cleaning her wounded head. When Henry arrives and realizes that he has a son, he understands why Vera Louise left. Just as father and son are meeting, however, the injured woman goes into labor. Honor and Henry help her, but in her pain she bites Henry's cheek, which leads him to name her "Wild." Wild does not want her baby boy, but she is never far from him, hiding in the woods. The boy, Joe Trace, grows up with a foster brother, Victory, but they leave Vienna to find work when the African Americans in the area are stripped of their land. Henry implies that Wild is Joe's mother, so Joe seeks out Wild several times and attempts to speak to her. Unable to interpret her gestures because of her inability to speak, he remains unsure.

Violet, too, is growing up in the South at this time. Her mother, Rose Dear, is True Belle's daughter. Married to an irresponsible man who is absent for long periods and then shows up with gifts only to leave again, Rose Dear collapses under the strain. True Belle, no longer a slave, returns from Baltimore to care for Violet and her siblings, but Rose Dear kills herself by jumping into a well. When Violet is 17, True Belle sends her to work a cotton harvest; there Violet meets and falls in love with Joe Trace. They marry and live for several years in Virginia, but when Joe is evicted from the land he bought, they join the Great Migration north and arrive in Harlem in 1906. There Joe works as a door-to-door cosmetics salesman, and Violet cuts and styles hair. She has several miscarriages, and gradually they grow apart as Violet becomes largely silent.

Alice Manfred has also made her way to the City by this time. In 1917 her seven-year-old niece, Dorcas, is orphaned during riots in East St. Louis and comes to live with her aunt. A fearful widow, Alice tries to protect her niece from the City's temptations, but Dorcas and Joe meet when he comes to Alice's apartment to sell cosmetics, and they begin a short but intense affair. Dorcas soon tires of Joe, despite his attention and gifts; she loves to dance, listen to jazz, and be among people her own age. Dorcas begins to date a young man, Acton, and avoid Joe, despite her suspicion that Joe will react badly. When he hunts her down at a party and sees her dancing with Acton, she is not surprised. Joe shoots Dorcas and flees. She refuses to send for help and bleeds to death during the night.

Rumors of their affair spread and reach the ears of Violet around the time of Dorcas's funeral. She pushes her way to the open coffin and slashes Dorcas's face with a knife before the men throw her out of the church. In the months that follow, Violet visits Alice repeatedly, and they become close as they grieve and try to understand their losses. Joe, too, grieves the loss of energy and happiness that Dorcas brought to his life. He and Violet rebuild their relationship with the help of Felice, Dorcas's young friend, who answers their questions about Dorcas's hopes and dreams.

Jazz Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 True Belle helps raise Golden Gray, leaves daughters behind.

Rising Action

2 Golden Gray seeks his father, encounters Wild.

3 Foster family raises Joe; True Belle helps raise Violet.

4 Joe and Violet meet under the walnut tree, court, and marry.

5 Joe and Violet leave Virginia, move to Harlem.

6 Violet acts oddly, accused of trying to steal a baby.

7 Joe and Dorcas begin their affair; he dotes on her.

8 Dorcas rejects Joe, begins to date Acton.

Climax

9 Joe kills Dorcas; Violet cuts Dorcas's face at the funeral.

Falling Action

10 Violet and Alice begin uneasy friendship, grieve together.

11 Felice helps Joe and Violet understand Dorcas better.

Resolution

12 Joe and Violet begin to renew their marriage.

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