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Jazz | Symbols

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Morrison uses symbolism throughout the book to support central themes, reveal character, and develop ideas.

Birds

Birds appear repeatedly and symbolically in Jazz.

  • The redwings appear when Wild is nearby, according to local lore, and Joe finds this be to correct when he tries to speak to Wild. The redwings are no one's pets or possessions and represent Wild's freedom. Few would choose to live as Wild does, but Henry asserts that, though she may be "crazy," she has her "reasons." Yet she is not completely detached from the community; brides put out food for her, and she thieves small items from people's homes. The image of the redwings comes to Joe's mind, too, when he shoots Dorcas. He expects the crowd of dancers to "scatter" like the flock does when he tracks Wild, and yet they remain tightly clustered around Dorcas, cutting Joe off from her.
  • The pet birds represent domestic contentment. Violet and Joe get pet birds when they move to Lenox Avenue, and, as their marriage slowly recovers from the affair, Joe decides that the house needs birds again. The birds are caged and unused to flight; the poor parrot especially seems content in its cage before Violet throws it out. "I love you," the parrot says day in and day out. When Violet gets rid of her birds, she is perhaps saying that love is too painful or love has abandoned her home, and yet she misses their role in daily domestic routines. Alternatively, the freeing of the birds from their cage could symbolize Joe and Violet's wish to be freed from their marriage. However, neither can handle the freedom in the way the birds, who have the power of flight despite being unaccustomed to it, can handle theirs. Only when Joe and Violet tacitly agree to be husband and wife again is there room for the pet birds in their cages, almost as if some constraint is necessary for long-term happiness.
  • The author refers to the young men in the City as "young roosters who stood without waiting for the chicks who were waiting—for them." The image of a young rooster in the book represents a man's pride in his appearance. It could also symbolize the virility, frivolity, and vanity of youth. The young men living in the City are more interested in their appearance than in their character. Acton is one of these roosters, a young man with panache whom Dorcas falls for, much to Joe's dismay.

Clothing

Clothing has several symbolic uses in Jazz.

  • Clothing expresses desire and desirability. Joe's hat provides an example. He wears it with "a definite slant," jauntily, and it sells him with his female clients. The unattractive clothes Dorcas wears are Alice's attempt to hide Dorcas's desirable body, and Felice and Dorcas do their best to eliminate "the hard hand of warning" in Dorcas's clothing before going to the dance party. The very presence of the "roosters" who dress flashily to catch women's eyes causes Joe envy because the young men are desirable, while he, in his buttoned sweater, feels old and passé.
  • Clothing signals connections. Vera Louise's green-as-grass dress is an example. First it belongs to a wealthy young woman; her lover then keeps it for years in his small home, where it is put to use by their son, on the day they first meet, to cover Wild, Joe's mother. Later, when Joe seeks out Wild, he sees the dress in her hovel. Green often represents life, and the dress ties these characters together as family, even when they don't know it. Another example is Alice's repairs to Violet's clothes. At first Alice rejects and resents Violet's presence, but each day that they talk while Alice mends tears in Violet's clothes with stitches "invisible to the eye," they stitch their unlikely friendship together as well.
  • Clothing represents social rank. The clearest example is Golden Gray's elegant wardrobe, which he carts to Virginia just to show off to his father. Golden worries about getting his clothes muddy when he carries Wild; he changes into utterly inappropriate clothing, including "boots that had never walked country roads," before Henry arrives. Wild, who is naked each time she appears in the novel, holds the lowest social rank of any character. Ironically, Golden chooses to shed his finery and live in the woods with Wild. He must wriggle out of his fancy clothing to achieve the metamorphosis that allows him to stay with her.

Questions for Symbols

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