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Jazz | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Jazz | Themes


Violence and Race

Cultural violence and race are woven into Jazz's historical setting. Race riots erupt as African American workers crowd into Northern industrial cities to work in factories; veterans who fought in the war come home to endure racist treatment; and systemic racism by whites threatens African American men with violence and women with sexual violence. The novel is packed with examples: Alice's brother is "stomped to death." Joe survives a beating only because a white man decides he should. Young men are lynched or beaten. The narrator maintains, usually, a strangely neutral tone when she reports violence, perhaps to let readers make of this madness what they may.

Friends, families, enemies—all are susceptible to interpersonal violence or the urge toward it in Jazz. Dorcas's last memories of her mother are of the "pop and sting" of a slap to the face. Alice imagines a horrific death for her rival: she would ride "four iron hooves" over the woman until nothing was left but a "twitchy, pulpy body." The novel's central act of interpersonal violence seems to happen of its own accord. Joe doesn't actively intend to harm the "easy prey," yet the trail "finds" him and leads him to Dorcas. Violence seeps from generation to generation, as Vera Louise's pregnancy is revealed. Colonel Gray's "rage seeped into the room, clouding the crystal," while Mrs. Gray provided the "final cut"—a look of disgust. Vera Louise, though not physically harmed, is sent away to "die ... elsewhere."

Even the language of the novel resonates with violence. The narrator describes light that "slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half," and the drugstore illuminates customers in a "thin sharp light," for example. Violent music rings with "complicated anger" and hostility. And yet set against this permeating violence, like balm spread over burned skin, are many acts of gentleness, compassion, and restraint.

History underpins Jazz's realistic depiction of the effects of slavery and racism on families. True Belle, for example, has been Vera Louise's slave for years when Vera Louise goes to Baltimore to have her baby. Vera Louise simply assumes that True Belle will leave her husband and two young daughters, and she does. True Belle redirects her love for her daughters to Golden until she comes home, free and with wages to spend. Meanwhile, Rose Dear loses a competent, caring mother, marries a wandering man, and hardly attends to her children. The consequences ring down two generations, filling Violet with a terror of losing the only person she has, Joe.

Post-slavery, racism still destroys families. When Felice complains that her parents' jobs keep her from seeing them often, Dorcas reminds her that she has no parents—only a picture. Fearful, racist beliefs—that whites were losing their jobs to new workers from the South, being crowded out of "their" homes, "their" city—shatter Dorcas's family. The friend who was keeping Dorcas that day can't or won't speak of what she saw.

Many characters attempt to flee Southern racism and seek opportunities by migrating north. Geography determines what African Americans can do. When Joe and Violet take the train north, an attendant announces breakfast in the dining car—but only once the train clears Delaware. This attendant longed to see every person get up and walk to the dining car because no longer does the "green-as-poison curtain" separate them from the white dining area. Of course, Northern cities are not free from racism. Alice Manfred experiences it on Fifth Avenue, where "whitemen" reach for her from the cars, money in hand, and white women won't sit by her because "you never know what they have." And the riots are proof that the violence of the South can happen anywhere. But in the City, where many African Americans have congregated, art and music flourish, and families raise their children in relative security.

Identity and Motherhood

Individuals such as Joe and Golden seek to create and maintain identity in Jazz. Joe's "inside nothing" stems not from a lack of love—his foster family embraces him. He does not know who he is because he does not know to whom he belongs. His misunderstanding of "without a trace" makes the point. The name Joe chooses is a case of mistaken identity. The "proud-making" decision Henry made in training Joe provides him with identity as a hunter and woodsman, but these skills are of little use to a salesman. Joe has identity, too, as Violet's husband, but this falls away when she becomes silent; his affair with Dorcas is an attempt to become another "new" man.

Golden suffers, too, unaware of his father until he has imbibed the cultural hate of the South. The loss feels like a missing arm; he'll never know what life would have been with the arm, though he gets along well enough without it. No father "helped me over the stile" or "fed me food." Golden's father-longing is a hunger. He both despises his African American heritage and wants to tell his father about the "missing part of him" so that they are "free, arm-tangled and whole." But reconciliation is difficult; Henry is not what Golden expects. Henry challenges Golden to choose his identity. "If you choose black, you got to act black"—like a competent man responsible to himself and his community. Either way Henry won't take Golden's "whiteboy sass." Fascinated by Wild, however, Golden finds a third choice. He walks away from his white privilege and from Henry's model of manhood, finding his identity in the woods. Golden will not be parted from Wild; the sight of them together—her very dark skin and hair by his pale skin and golden curls—amazes people and suggests an identity that supersedes race.

Motherhood occupies an important place in Jazz. Mothers—good, absent, incompetent, or surrogate—pepper the novel. Joe wants his mother to acknowledge him, but there is no substitute for Wild's touch. If Joe can't convince himself that he felt it, in the twilight of the woods, he can't complete his identity. Violet's identity, on the other hand, is mostly wrapped up in her marriage to Joe. She felt complete with him at the beginning of their marriage. Her unfulfilled longing to become a mother, however, created a rift between them. When Joe has an affair with Dorcas, Violet almost believes she could have loved Dorcas the way she would have loved her own daughter, but this was not meant to be. Violet's desire to be a mother is perhaps related to the absence of her own mother, Rose Dear, who committed suicide, an act that had a profound effect on young Violet. True Belle becomes Violet's surrogate mother, but as an adult Violet wants to experience the motherly love that Rose Dear did not provide. Conversely Alice treats her niece, Dorcas, like her own child and tries to shield her from the wicked ways of the City. Alice's strict religious upbringing causes her to see the City in a negative light, full of perversity and danger. Dorcas feels loved by Alice but also stifled. Golden experienced motherly love growing up from both his mother, Vera Louise Gray, and her slave, True Belle. However, this is not enough for him, and he seeks out his father, Henry, as a means to understand his true identity.

City versus Country

The City is Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. The City is a place for reinvention; the people who move there are free to be "their stronger, riskier selves" in a place relatively sheltered from racist behaviors. The City acts almost as a conspiratorial character; it "makes people think they can do what they want" and lays out paths before their feet. But the City also tempts, "looking raunchy" and "sending secret messages" that lead to opportunities for sex. "Seeping music," it calls, "Come and do wrong." When Joe tracks Dorcas down, the City doesn't "object." Not even the narrator is safe from the City's influence; it "distracted" her when she tried to "speak its loud voice," causing her to miss clues to Joe and Violet's future.

In stark contrast to the City, the country represents a kind of purity, untainted by human civilization. The woods become a refuge for Wild, a place where she can escape and live a life of solitude "where wild women grow." To Henry and Joe, the woods are home. As hunters and trackers, they are attuned to its sights and sounds and have learned to "read" the woods. They can also appreciate its beauty and serenity. Despite the bustling activity of the City, Joe feels lonely and longs for the woods. He uses the skills he acquired in the woods to track down Dorcas in the City.


Marriage is an important theme of Morrison's novel. Joe and Violet's marriage is riddled with problems, mainly stemming from the fact that they are unable to produce children. The ensuing emotional separation causes Joe to seek companionship elsewhere. Violet's view of marriage is affected by her mother's failed marriage, and thus she clings to Joe, a man very different from her own absent father. Violet takes her revenge on Dorcas for threatening her marriage by cutting the dead woman's face.

Alice's failed marriage has distorted her view of men. Her late husband's affair devastated her, and she convinces Dorcas that men are dangerous and not to be trusted. Learning about Dorcas's affair with Joe brings back painful memories of her own marriage. Marital problems and infidelity are recurring issues in Jazz, and they mostly affect women, Violet and Alice in particular.

Questions for Themes

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