Study Guide

Alice in Jazz

By Toni Morrison

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Alice is the prude to Dorcas's wild-child, the button up blouse to Dorcas's knee-baring skirts. And boy, oh boy, does she have reasons to be. Her parents were super strict. Like, super:

They spoke to her firmly but carefully about her body: sitting nasty (legs open); sitting womanish (legs crossed); breathing through her mouth; hands on hips; slumping at table; switching when you walked. (3.61)

Alice is the old guard, the kind of woman to whom the idea of jazz is insane and crude. Her parents raised her with a set of now-antiquated rules concerning how women should behave: If you behave like a lady, everything in your life will be good and you'll get respect.

And what happened? Uh, not the happy-life thing—instead, her husband left her for another woman and her sister and brother-in-law with murdered in a series of riots. So she tells Dorcas in no uncertain terms that sex is bad, jazz is bad, and dressing in a super-modest burlap sack is the only way to salvation. This is weird, right? After a life that has derailed, even though her parents assured her that if she was a good girl everything would be peachy-keen, she decides to pass on these antiquated rules to her niece.

So Alice exists as a character to propel Dorcas toward a love of jazz and vice. Because nothing makes Dorcas want to do something more than if she is told not to do it.

Alice also exists as a character in order to expose the angry side of jazz: "[…] Alice Manfred swore she heard a complicated anger in (the music); something hostile that disguised itself as flourish and roaring seduction" (3.13). And why is jazz so angry? Uh, because of slavery, Jim Crow laws, riots that end with more than two hundred black people dead, and a whole slew of other examples of oppression and prejudice. This is super-important: Jazz music isn't just about sexytimes and food metaphors.

The third reason Alice is important to Jazz is because she helps Violet heal. Violet shows up on Alice's doorstep as kind of a shell of a woman, mourning and angry and a little insane. Alice's no-nonsense reaction to Violet is the equivalent of slapping Violet across the face and saying "Snap out of it!" Which is exactly what Violet does. It helps that Alice's demeanor is similar to True Belle's, and Violet feels as though she is in the presence of her level-headed grandma once again. She may not be a good time, but, you know, good on ya' anyway, Alice.

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