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So much of Joe's character can be summed up in his last name. When he is in school, he's asked to supply a last name for himself and he comes up with Trace because, when his adoptive mother tells him "O honey (your parents) disappeared without a trace," he "understood her to mean the 'trace' they disappeared without was (him)." Sadness.
Trace is also super-appropriate for him to two other reasons, though. One is that trace can be understood to mean outline or silhouette. Joe Trace is a man whose exterior doesn't change much—he's as handsome at fifty as he was as young man—but he talks about going through multiple interior changes or rebirths. His outline may be constant, but it's his insides that shift. Also, he traces the paths that he knows Dorcas follows around New York City when he wants to find and kill her.
Now let's check out these traces a little more closely.
Poor Joe never knew his parents. This is hard, and it's only made harder by the fact that Joe's mama is a pretty wild woman named, well, Wild. She is rumored to live around the town of Vienna, Virginia, and Joe spends a good part of his childhood, and then adulthood, searching for her. He finds a path she may have followed—often signaled by the presence of red-winged blackbirds—and traces it. That's right: He traces it. The narrator tells us:
I imagine him as one of those men who stop somewhere around sixteen. Inside.
Even the narrator is clued in to how little and forlorn Joe is in his heart of hearts. He's an adolescent inside, still searching for his mom and for reassurance. This is partially why, when Violet stops talking to him and nurturing him and starts carrying a doll around instead, Joe flips out and looks for loving elsewhere. That's right: When Violet becomes girlish, no longer like a capable mother, he finds another woman to take her place.
And whom does he land on? Dorcas, the wild child. He finds a young woman who is equally wild (though more mentally stable) than his own mother. Freud would have a field day with this one, guys.
But the real Mommy/Dorcas intersection comes when he is stalking Dorcas around New York and keeps thinking about his mommy dearest. The narrator admits that s/he was mistaken when "All the while he was running through the streets in bad weather I thought he was looking for (Dorcas), not Wild's chamber of gold." Yup, Dorcas and Wild are practically one in the same when it comes to Joe and his needs.
Luckily for both Violet and Joe, Violet turns back into a mother figure supreme when Felice comes to visit. After this, Joe and Violet are back in love and their marriage is smooth sailing once again—after all, Joe finally has his mama back.
Joe admits to having shed his skin in a snakelike manner a whole bunch of times. Jeez, this makes Violet's multiple personalities look totally sane.
Let's outline what Joe understands as his multiple births:
This gets to the heart of the trace in Joe Trace being a kind of outline or form—the center, the real Joe, keeps mutating and being reborn.
In a novel that is as preoccupied with the lasting effects of history as Jazz is, this is kind of weird. Joe can't actually keep being reborn, as much as he would like to; he's trapped in his own history, though it's not until Felice shows up that he realizes this. What makes him realize this?
Felice tells him that Dorcas's last words were "There's only one apple." This apple is none other than the apple from the tree of knowledge that Adam and Eve eat before getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden. And just like Adam and Eve don't get a chance to go back and not eat the apple, Joe doesn't get a chance to get a do-over. There are actually no second chances, no rebirths.
Joe's third "birth" comes when Hunter's Hunter teaches him to be an independent man's man: the kind of guy who goes out, finds an animal, kills it, and eats it. Rawr. You better believe that this sticks with Joe.
However, most of Joe's actions in life come as the result of other people's choice. Violet chooses Joe; all Joe does is fall out of his tree-house bed. Violet chooses moving to the City. And Violet has a career, while Joe has a series of odd jobs rather than leading a self-possessed life that involves spending his time doing something like, oh, say, going out and shooting his dinner.
This pattern of letting other people choose for him certainly helps Joe feel safe and cozy and like his mama is watching over him. What it doesn't help with is his desire to be a manly, assertive, stereotypical Man. (This was 1926, guys—gender roles were pretty narrowly defined back then.)
But then Joe chooses Dorcas. He displays "randy aggressiveness" and gets his girl—and he feels like a big strong man. He says:
"I chose you. Nobody gave you to me. Nobody said that's the one for you. I picked you out."
And then, of course, Dorcas leaves Joe behind, giving him the old heave-ho. And Joe is both a crushed little boy whose security blanket has sprouted legs and walked off and a manly hunter-dude whose prey has evaded him. This makes him go insane-o. So he shoots a man in Reno just to watch him die, er, shoots his ex-girlfriend at a party because if he can't have her, no one can.
In the end, Joe comes to terms with himself a little bit. He feels secure in his masculinity because he shot his prey (a.k.a. Dorcas). Yuck, right? But at least he and Violet have a good relationship after. Or something like that.