If there's one thing we want you to take away from this learning guide about Jazz, it's that this book contains some serious multitudes. And when there are as many narrative perspectives and voices floating around as there are in Jazz, you just know there are going to be a bunch of tones.
A piece of jazz music doesn't contain just one tone (that would be a really boring song) and neither does Jazz. Depending on what is being described, and who is doing the describing, the tone switches around like an angry cat's tail.
One of the most notable tones is the matter-of-fact tone used to describe the violence in Jazz. It's stated as simply as changes in the weather might be noted. We've totally heard people get more riled up about incoming rainstorms than the narrators in Jazz get about shootings, stabbings, beatings, and arson.
Here are some notable quotes about violence:
"He was pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death, and Alice's sister had just got the news and gone back home to try and forget the color of his entrails, when her house was torched and she burned crispy in flames."
"When the woman, her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead face they threw her to the floor and out of the church."
These quotes aren't exactly panic-stricken, are they? The first quote gives us two acts of horrific violence—a freaking stomping and a freaking burning-to-death—and the only adjective we get is "crispy." Like bacon. That's not an adjective that conveys a lot of emotion. Why is this? Because the characters that populate Jazz have gotten altogether too used to disgusting racially motivated violence. They're numb.
The second quote gives us the whoa-now-hey-there-what-just-happened part of the sentence—"tried to cut her dead face"—as a clause in the middle of a sentence about a woman getting thrown out of church. Violence is something that is so commonplace as to be buried in the middle of a sentence. If we saw this happen, you can bet we'd write about it in all caps with fifteen exclamation marks tacked to the end of the sentence. Heck, we might even just put it as a stand-alone fragment.
There's also a serious strain of sensuality in Jazz that's hard to ignore. This novel tackles two pretty sexy things: jazz and New York City. And it definitely doesn't hold back its, er, emotion, when discussing them.
To be fair, a lot of the euphemisms used to describe jazz were a little racy to begin with. But when you collect them all, as in the following quote, you get a tone that is pretty dang raunchy:
Dorcas lay on a chenille bedspread, tickled and happy knowing that there was no place to be where somewhere, close by, somebody was not licking his licorice stick, tickling the ivories, beating his skins, blowing off his horn while a knowing woman sang ain't nobody going to keep me down you got the right key baby but the wrong keyhole you got to get it bring it and put it right here, or else.
Excuse us while we fan ourselves. The same tone is used to describe the City itself. In this quote, both a beautiful woman and architecture are described in the same yearning, lustful tone:
But if she is clipping quickly down the big-city street in heels, swinging her purse, or sitting on a stoop with a cool beer in her hand, dangling her shoes from the toes of her foot, the man, reacting to her posture, to soft skin on stone, the weight of the building stressing the delicate, dangling shoes is captured.
What is sexy in this quote is not just the woman, but also the very buildings of New York.
Lastly, for all of its depressing-as-Thanksgiving-alone-eating-gas-station-hotdogs content, the ending of Jazz is pretty dang hopeful. Violet and Joe are back together, and the tone lets us know just how content they are. Check it out:
A lot of the time, though, they stay at home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear again and again…
This quote is pretty spare as far as description goes, but the choice of adjectives is tender. The stories they like to hear are "little" and "personal," and the repetition of "again" gives us the feeling that Violet and Joe aren't getting sick of their stories, and they're not getting sick of each other. Aw.
Jazz bucks convention in the genre department. It's a little bit historical fiction, a little bit family drama, a little bit postmodern head-trip, and a lot bit awesome.
We're putting it in the historical fiction category because—no head scratching here—it takes place in various historical contexts. You have all the hallmarks of historical fiction in that the narrative is shaped by its history. The parts of Jazz that are set in Harlem, 1926 are super-preoccupied with the issues facing Harlem in 1926. Jazz music corrupting the youths? Yup, Jazz addresses that. Racism still simmering under the surface on 5th Avenue? Jazz deals with that, too. Those scandalous hemlines? Oh yes indeed.
Jazz also takes us into post-Civil War Virginia, where newly freed enslaved people are suddenly up against burgeoning Jim Crow laws, and racially-motivated violence is at a terrifying full boil. We're taken inside a train car heading North: Jazz shows us the Great Migration in action.
But it's not just history lessons in Jazz. The heart and soul of the story is preoccupied with infidelity and the lasting repercussions of being orphaned. That's right: It's also very much a family drama. We're given insight into not one, not two, but three generations on Violet's side, and we see Joe's mother for longer than Joe ever gets to. The emotional concerns of this novel are very domestic: whether marital love can last, whether children are important, how families can overcome tragedy.
Last but not least, Jazz is a postmodern fun-house mirror. What the Dickens is postmodernism? Hint: It's the opposite of Charles Dickens. For a quick n' dirty definition of Postmodernism think "experimentation." Jazz has a bunch of the hallmarks of postmodernism: shifts in narrative, shifts in tone, shifts in perspective, shifts in time. In short, it's shifty—but not in an untrustworthy sense, because like all good postmodernist literature, Jazz stays truthful, even when it's questioning the very nature of truth.
Make sure you're sitting down for this one, Shmoopers: Jazz is called Jazz because it's structured on a little musical form called… jazz.
This is a novel that has alternating character voices that act like solos, repeating refrains that keep it flowing in one general direction, a feeling of dissonance and harmony at the same dang time—all of which are attributes of a musical form called jazz. Basically, Morrison set out to write a book whose structure mimicked the musical structure of jazz. Ambitious much, Morrison? Good thing she has the immense literary talent to pull it off.
The last two lines of the book are "Look where your hands are. Now." Whoa.
Let's start by remembering Jazz's preoccupation with history. Violet and Joe are two individuals that are under siege by their own histories: Joe is perpetually a lost boy hunting his mama, and Violet is so terrified of becoming crazy like her own mom that she decides against having any babies. They're also part of the Great Migration, a huge historical event that saw thousands of black people move out of the post-Civil War South and into less hostile Northern cities. Except, of course, they couldn't completely flee racism or the past.
At the end of the novel, Joe and Violet have decided to let the past be the past and forgive each other for their bad choices and craziness—they've decided to stop living in the past and concentrate on the now. And where are Joe and Violet's hands at the end of the novel? Touching each other with the tender love of a long marriage. Aw… Joe and Violet 4 Ever.
So the last lines of the novel are both a reminder of where Joe and Violet are by the end and a warning to the reader: Remember the past but don't let it haunt you. Much as our hands have always been with us—much as we can all carry the past forward—so, too, are they with us now.
The narrator spends the last four paragraphs of the book talking about how nice lasting marriage is, and how s/he (who is this narrator, anyway?) wishes s/he had somebody to love. At the end (literally), Jazz is about all sorts of love: romantic, familial, maternal, paternal, friendship. All relationships are complicated, but they're also all worth it.
For a novel called Jazz, you can't get more jazz-tastic than Harlem in 1926 during the Harlem Renaissance. All the action in the present-day of the novel takes place in Harlem, and we're treated to descriptions par excellence of the sights, smells, and (of course) sounds of the city. The new fashions, music, and sexual freedoms of the 1920s were exciting and terrifying, and they kicked off in big cities like New York.
The central conflict (you know, when Joe has an affair and then kills his girlfriend) is also totally tied up in place: Dorcas wants to go out and enjoy all the fun and excitement the City has to offer, and Joe, though he's happy to oblige her, basically wants to lie in bed with her all evening. She's the youthful side of the City and he's the older generation who's come in from the country.
This brings us to the other setting in the novel: rural Virginia. South of the infamous Mason-Dixon line everything in is rife with violence and oppression for black people, as well as the memory of recently abolished slavery.
Both Virginia and Joe live in Virginia until their thirties, and their childhood memories (which would be pretty dang complicated and horrific regardless of place) are tied up in geography. Their memories are haunted by the ghosts of slavery: Would Rose Dear have committed suicide if slavery hadn't been a formidable part of her existence? Would Wild have run off if she hadn't been raised as a slave? Slavery in the South echoes through Jazz as surely as the memory of slavery echoes through early jazz music tracks.
I am the name of the sound/and the sound of a name. I am the sign of the letter/and the designation of the division.
"Thunder, Perfect Mind,"
The Nag Hammadi
Okay, so this is an excerpt from a Gnostic poem discovered in 1945. What is Gnosticism, you ask? It's an early Christian practice that stated that, in order to obtain spiritual freedom, you needed to shun the material world and embrace the spiritual world. This sounds like something Alice would like, if you ask us.
In this poem, an unnamed narrator speaks in a series of paradoxical statements that shift between statements of identity and addresses to the reader. Hmm, does that sound like Jazz to you, too? An unnamed narrator? The paradoxical nature of identity? Various narrative techniques? A text that is confusing and beautiful and interested in spiritual renewal? Yeah, we think this makes a pretty spot-on epigraph.
We're going to be honest with you: Listening to jazz isn't easy, and reading Jazz isn't a whole lot easier. Why? Well, remember that jazz is a musical form that basically took a sledgehammer to what music before it was supposed to be. It took all those simple melodies and that sing-along style and predictability and blew them to smithereens.
It also combined stuff from the European musical tradition with African musical traditions (think: improvisation and blue notes). In other words, it basically put different musical traditions in a blender, pushed 'puree,' and out came something really awesome and different.
And because Morrison was inspired by jazz composition in her writing, this novel is similarly awesome and different. We have different characters speaking at different times, a weird anonymous narrator who seems to know everything about everyone, passages that border on stream-of-consciousness, and a plot that jumps back and forth over decades without giving you a heads-up.
But you're never lost for long, and the plot is so rich with sex, violence, music, intrigue, and Morrison's amazing language, that any occasional re-readings of chapters or "Hey, who's talking now?" thoughts are well worth it.
And hey—it's no harder than listening to most John Coltrane. And just as brilliant.
When you're writing a novel based on a musical form, you bet your novel is going to end up being musical. What ever do we mean by this, though? Well, one of the main reasons prose is ever called musical is because of the way it sounds poetic through its use of repetition and rhythm. Take a gander at the following quote:
Here comes the new. Look out. There goes the sad stuff. The bad stuff. The things-nobody-could-help-stuff.
It's a short quote, but holy cow is it musical. Repetition? Yup. We count three stuffs in three sentences. Rhythm? Absolutely. Say it out loud, and feel the way you chant those last three sentences like the lines from a nursery rhyme. This musical language punctuates Jazz like a snare drum.
Sensuousness is also seriously huge in Jazz. We're not talking sexiness (although that shows up a ton in Jazz, too); we're talking about the senses. You really use all freaking five of your senses when Morrison is at the helm. Check it out:
And the city, in its own way, gets down for you, cooperates, smoothing its sidewalks, correcting its curbstones, offering you melons and green apples on the corners. Racks of yellow headscarves, strings of Egyptian beads. Kansas fried chicken and something with raisins call attention to an open window where the aroma seems to lurk. And if that's not enough, doors and speakeasies stand ajar and in that cool dark place a clarinet coughs and clears its throat…
Let's just break this beauty apart by the numbers. We count two colors, two smells, four tastes, a myriad of touch-related words, and two sounds. That's one-third of a paragraph, folks. One-third of a paragraph describing one-one-thousandth of New York City, and you have a feast for the senses.
Nothing complex; you'd have to fight your own self to miss, but he isn't going to miss because he isn't going to aim. Not at that insulted skin. Never. Never hurt the young: nest eggs, roe, fledglings, fry… A wind rips up from the mouth of the tunnel and blows his cap off.
We're right there in Joe's head. His thoughts are thrown at us as he thinks them, and given without context. He moves from a thought about the quality of the gun in his pocket, to the possibility of killing Dorcas, to the hunting lessons Hunter's Hunter gave him to the wind kicked up by an oncoming train—and we're expected to keep up.
We do, of course, because Morrison knows what she's doing, but we're not led along as Joe's thoughts proceed. Stream-of-consciousness is arguably the best way to get close, maybe too close for comfort, to a character and the inner workings of their mind.
We can't get enough of our feathered friends, and neither can Jazz. Jeepers. Birdies in cages, birdies flying free, birdies that say "I love you"…
Let's start with the caged birds. We know why they sing, and it's because Violet, with all her maternal hunger, has made them a pretty little home complete with mirrors. But then, she "set them out the windows to freeze or fly, including the parrot that said 'I love you'" (1.1). Looks like somebody's had a change of heart.
You know whenever a bird and a cage shows up that it's going to be so symbolic. A bird is a creature that is supposed to fly—you know, the ultimate expression of freedom. So while they're taken care of when you put them in cages, they're also reduced to something flightless, they lose their freedom.
Huh. Might this have anything to do with slavery? Sure does. What better symbol for enslavement than trapped birds? When Violet lets her birds out, she's sending them into peril, but she's also giving them the power of flight. When the enslaved people were freed at the end of the Civil War they were allowed to go free—but the post-war South was as hostile an environment as they come. Hence the Great Migration, when thousands of black people went north in search of a less racist climate.
But birds don't only symbolize enslavement and freedom. They're also beloved pets to be nurtured—some of them even say, "I love you." So when Violet lets hers loose after Dorcas dies, we can see just how unhinged she is. She is rejecting what she holds dear, both in terms of the birds and in terms of her relationship with Joe. Her brain has also flown free of reason. Just as the birds scatter, so, too, does Violet's mind.
On the flip side, we know that all's well again between Joe and Violet when they get a new birdie. Violet is ready to care for something again, something that acts, for the childless Joe and Violet, like a child.
The bird that Violet gets at the end of the novel "wasn't well [… until] they took the cage to the roof one Saturday, where the wind blew and so did the musicians in shirts billowing out behind them. From then on the bird was a pleasure to itself and to them" (10.11). So this bird gets the best of both worlds: nurturing care and a sense of the outdoors. That sounds like good parenting, er, bird-keeping, to us. The kind someone who's completely sane would be able to pull off which, of course, is exactly how Violet is at the end.
Think of this as the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, except the pants is a dress, the sisterhood includes a dude, and the travelling we're talking about is time travel.
Vera Louise, Golden Gray's mom, was once a pretty young thing with a secret black boyfriend. This is a big no-no in the antebellum South. And when she gets together with her man, she wears a green dress so she can be disguised in the grass. When she has to leave town quickly, her boyfriend keeps her dress.
When the boyfriend—now called Hunter's Hunter—is all grown up, he's visited by his illegitimate son, who brings an unconscious pregnant girl into his house and covers her with a… green dress. Why does a hunter have a woman's dress in his house? It's the same dress his girlfriend wore oh so long ago.
The pregnant woman ends up stealing the green dress and keeping it for years, at least until her adult son comes and discovers it in her cave-house.
So does this dress just symbolize the passage of time? Nope, not that easy. It also symbolizes the lasting impact of history (the dress lasts) and the power of memory. Check out Hunter's Hunter's quote:
"Tell (Vera Louise) I'm waiting for her and to come on out. She'll know the place we meet at. And tell her to wear that green dress. The one make it hard to see her in the grass." (7.16)
Hunter still remembers his boyhood love, and he still remembers their meeting spot. He also remembers her green dress—of course he does, because he's held onto it for more than eighteen years. Other characters may not have mementos from the past, but they also hold onto memories for decades, and the dress is here to draw our attention to this pervasive practice in Jazz.
You know what's sexy? Barbeque. And popcorn. And candy. No, we're not being freaky over here, we're teaching you about jazz-age innuendo.
No really: When you hear a food reference in an old jazz song, you better believe that it's talking about knockin' boots. Alice knows this, and Alice is about the prudiest prude we can imagine. Check it out:
Wondering at this totally silent night, she can go back to bed, but as soon as she turns the pillow to the smoother, cooler side a melody line she doesn't remember where from sings itself, loud and unsolicited, in her head. "When I was young and in my prime, I could get my barbeque any old time." (3.15)
The last time we checked, anyone could get barbeque at any age… unless of course barbeque means male attention.
Don't believe us? We're not the only ones who are equating references to tasty treats with, um, other sorts of tasty treats. Check this out.
So when you hear a reference to food in Jazz that sounds like it might maybe be about something other than just food, remember that Jazz is based on jazz music. And jazz music was all about food representing sexytimes.
Whoa there, Jazz—way to hog all of the narrative techniques.
Jazz, like the music it's a shout-out to, doesn't play by the rules. There's the presence of a shadowy narrator in Jazz who pops up occasionally to speak in the manner of a first person peripheral narrator, telling us what s/he sees the other characters do and what, exactly, s/he thinks about them. We don't know much about this shadowy mystery narrator, other than that s/he is looking for love in all the wrong places. And we don't find that out until the very end of the novel.
In other places, we get first person narration from a central narrator. Violet, Joe, Felice, and Dorcas all get a turn to speak into the "I" microphone, and they tell us everything about what they're thinking and feeling. The reader gets the impression that we have VIP access into their heads—and is that VIP room ever messy: Things get free-association-y and stream-of-consciousness-y fast.
Most of the book, however, is told by a disarmingly traditional third person narrator, who has an omniscient vantage point. Pages go by without a crack in the solid façade of third person omniscience, making the reader feel at ease and in control… and then boom, the narrative spirals into a bizarre first person party.
It's jarring, sure, but it's also interesting. You know, kind of like jazz music is can be jarring and interesting. Jazz music has no problem stringing the listener along with a basic melody for a while and then putting a spin on that melody that makes the listener smile with bewildered awe and pleasure.
Okay, so the hero and heroine aren't actually all that young. Joe and Violet are both fifty, and they both fall under the spell of a dark power called The Past. Although Jazz is nonlinear, and we don't actually see their torrid relationship or their own personal histories until well into the novel, they're both kind of drowning in everything that’s come before the book opens.
Violet's family has a history of mental illness. Her mother committed suicide, and this messed her up so badly that she doesn't have any kids. But, just to make things tough, she starts getting baby-crazy around forty and then she starts going actually crazy. Joe struggles with abandonment issues because his mother left him at birth. By age fifty, Violet's craziness activates Joe's scared-little-boy tendencies (Where's mama?) and the past starts to get oppressive.
Both Joe and Violet find pretty good bandaids for the psychological oppression of history. Violet starts carrying a doll (eek) and throws herself into hairdressing—she also goes mute to insure that she doesn't say anything nutso. Joe starts carrying on with Dorcas, reclaiming his youthful vitality and finding someone that will nurture him a little bit. It's not a perfect fix, but it does well for a few months.
Ugh, okay: Now all the terrible stuff happens. Dorcas leaves Joe, which makes his abandonment issues soar into the stratosphere. He stalks around New York with a gun, trying to find Dorcas but also thinking about trying to find his mother. When he does find Dorcas, he shoots her and she dies.
Violet loses it and bum-rushes Dorcas's open casket at the funeral, trying to slice up her face. Then she lets all of her pet birds out of their cages. Jeepers. The Trace household becomes a contender for Most Depressing Household Ever for a few months.
This is where the book starts: with the Trace apartment a grim spectacle of broken dreams and empty birdcages and a photograph of Dorcas on the mantelpiece. Joe and Violet take turns waking up in the middle of the night and going to stare at the picture and be super depressed.
To start this redemption-fest, Violet makes the weird move of going to see Dorcas's aunt Alice. She opens up to Alice and starts thinking of Dorcas as a daughter-figure rather than the trollop who stole her husband. Alice also reminds Violet of her grandmother True Belle, which helps her think fondly of her past—and with this, she starts to get her shattered psyche back into fighting form.
Then along comes Felice, Dorcas's bestie. She comes into the Trace household and talks about how bad Dorcas was to Joe. Joe is able to talk about Dorcas and free himself from his depression, while Violet is able to dote on Felice like a daughter and remember that young women aren't evil. To tie it up with a bow, some nice jazz music comes through the open window and they all dance together.
The Trace household is happy again, and Violet and Joe talk about the past to each other, signaling that they have decided to make friends with their histories rather than think of their histories as Boogeymen hiding under the bed.
So two big things contribute to the initial situation of Jazz. We have, on the one hand, the historical context of Jazz. No, don't yawn—we're not going to make you memorize dates here. We're just going to remind you that the setting is super integral to the exposition of Jazz.
It's Harlem, 1926, and our protagonists, Violet and Joe, have arrived from the South. They were both born quite soon after the abolition of slavery, and that old, horrific way of life for black Americans is very real to them. How real? Well, both of their mothers were a little nutso as a result of the hellish realities of slavery.
This brings us to the character-level exposition: mommy issues. Joe was abandoned by his mother. As a young man he went around making fun of the town crazy woman, saying he was going to kill her, until Hunter's Hunter let him know that said crazy woman was actually his mom. Yikes. From then on, Joe was kind of looking for some maternal caretaking goodness.
Violet's mom went off her rocker and killed herself. As a result, Violet decided never to have children. Everything was going fine and dandy until Violet realized, after it was too late to have babies, that she really wanted one.
Cue Violet cuddling a doll, trying to steal babies out of baby buggies, and going mute, as well as Joe's abandonment issues and need for caretaking kicking into overdrive.
Enter Dorcas. She's a wild child who's wise beyond her years, and Joe thinks she's super hot. Not only that, but she actually talks to Joe. She opens up to him as they lie in bed and Joe gets a little thrill of "Hey, my days of youthful loving have returned," and a little thrill of "Hey, I have a caretaking, nurturing presence who will speak to me." It's the little things.
They canoodle in a neighbor's apartment until—uh-oh—Dorcas decides to move on. Now Joe has been abandoned three times: by his biological mother, by Violet's muteness, and by Dorcas. Third time, as they say, is the charm.
There's no climax like a climax with a gun. Joe, crazy with loss and jealousy, stalks Dorcas through the wintery streets of New York City. As he stalks her he thinks about—what else?—when he stalked his biological mother through the woods of Virginia. He finds Dorcas, happy and dancing in the arms of another man, and shoots her. She bleeds to death.
Violet, holding up her end of the dysfunctional relationship, tries to cut Dorcas's face as she lies in her coffin at her open-casket funeral.
Literary climaxes don't have to be the most violent part of the story, but it sure is in this case.
Quiz time: What season symbolizes rebirth? If you answered spring, good job. You get a gold star and a flower.
The spring after the shooting/face slashing, things get super-bleak and then, as spring works its springy magic, they start to heal a bit. Violet strikes up a friendship with Dorcas's Aunt Alice. Alice reminds Violet of her grandmother, True Belle, and we know that surrogate grandmothers always bring about a sense of healing.
As Violet searches for the information about Dorcas, she also gets pretty introspective and comes to conclusions about her past, her personality, and her desire for children. She starts to think of Dorcas as a daughter. Joe mainly sits and cries out the window, but hey—cry it out, Joe.
When Dorcas's best friend, Felice, shows up, it doesn't look like this could possibly be a good thing. Another young woman thrown into the mix of this broken middle-aged marriage? Yikes.
But it is a good thing. By the time Felice shows up, Violet has buried her rage and is excited to give this young woman the maternal affection she desperately wants to share. Joe takes the opportunity to not repeat his mistakes: He neither sleeps with Felice nor shoots her. Good work, Joe. Instead, they all eat catfish dinners and joke around together; we see the trio dance to jazz that someone is playing on a nearby rooftop.
Violet and Joe's marriage is healed, Felice comes to appreciate her parents a little more, and the book ends on a way happier note than it begins.
Disclaimer: Jazz doesn't work in a linear fashion. What constitutes a first act—a.k.a. the beginning of the text to the point of no return—doesn't happen at the beginning of this book. Nope, history shows up in all sorts of flashbacks throughout.
But working in a linear fashion, our Act I is everything that happens prior to Joe seducing Dorcas. Think: Vera Louise getting knocked up and moving to Baltimore with True Belle, Golden Gray finding Wild and meeting his father, Rose Dear's suicide, and the lives of Violet and Joe up until October, 1925. This is all contained in the Act I of Jazz.
Again, Act II is shredded into confetti and strewn all over this non-linear narrative. But that facts that make up an Act II, from the point of no return through the bleakest of the bleak times, are the events from October 1925 to January 1926.
We see the entirety of Joe and Dorcas's affair, their breakup, Joe's breakdown, Dorcas getting together with Acton, Joe shooting Dorcas, and Violet attempting to slash dead Dorcas's face. All the really ugly stuff in the Joe/ Violet/ Dorcas triangle happens here, as do the first depressing weeks after the funeral when Violet is raging and Joe is comatose with grief.
Ah, the resolution. It's scattered like eggs at an Easter hunt, but it's all there for the finding. This act begins with Violet talking to Alice. Violet reconnects with the memory of her sweet grandmother True Belle, and starts to think of Dorcas as less of a man-eater and more of a daughter-figure. Felice shows up and spreads the verbal equivalent of Neosporin on everyone's emotional rashes—Joe is roused back to life and happiness, Violet has a daughter-figure, and eventually Joe and Violet's relationship is healed. Peace restored; curtain falls; the end.