Study Guide

Jazz Innocence

By Toni Morrison

Innocence

The young are not so young here, and there is no such thing as midlife. (1.20)

The quintessential live-fast-die-young-in-the-City quote. Life moves so fast, and there is no much scandalous sin everywhere, that the young people get wise beyond their years. In the same way, life is so nonstop and exhausting that you just get old after a certain point. No midlife crisis for the City-dweller. No innocence, either.

From then on she hid the girl's hair in braids tucked under, lest whitemen see it raining round her shoulders and push dollar-wrapped fingers towards her. Much of this she could effect with her dress but as the girl grew older, more elaborate specifications had to be put in place. High-heeled shoes with the graceful strap across the arc, the vampy hats closed on the head with saucy brims framing the face, makeup of any kind—all of that way outlawed in Alice Manfred's house. (3.4)

Alice is the gatekeeper of innocence, and is working with the backward understanding that loss of innocence is something that comes from the outside. Her logic goes: As long as a man doesn't see Dorcas as sexual, she won't be sexual. Hmm… We know how well that works out.

When Alice Manfred collected the little girl from the Miller sisters, on those evenings following the days her fine stitching was solicited, the three women sat down in the kitchen to hum and sigh over cups of Postum at the signs of Imminent Demise: such as not just ankles but knees in full view, lip rouge as red as hellfire, burnt matchsticks rubbed on eyebrows, fingernails tipped with blood: you couldn't tell the streetwalkers from the mothers. (3.6)

Giving Alice the full historical benefit of the doubt, we guess she has a right to be shocked. The 1920s were super-shocking. Women were wearing dresses down to the floor a decade prior, and now they were showing off their scandalous knees. Lipstick was, prior to the 1920s, essentially stage makeup, it was the cosmetics equivalent of wearing a Vegas-style feathered headdress. No wonder it looked like innocence was gone for good for old women like Alice.

I always believed that girl was a pack of lies. I could tell by her walk her underclothes were beyond her years, even if her dress wasn't. (3.50)

Felice knew that Dorcas was playing the oldest game in book: going out with parent-approved clothes on and then making a switcheroo to something sexier. But Dorcas didn't just swap a sweater for a crop top. She swapped out weird 1920s girl-underwear for weird 1920s woman-underwear. Seriously, those things look like torture devices. But hey, proof positive that loss-of-innocence doesn't start with the first application of lipstick. Hear that, Alice?

What did she see, young girl like that, barely out of high school, with unbraided hair, lip rouge for the first time and high-heeled shoes? (4.9)

What does Dorcas see in Joe? Well, we know that a couple of mean boys at a party didn't want to dance with Dorcas, so by the time Joe comes around she is super-happy to have someone drooling over her. But from all accounts, Joe is a silver fox. He might be fifty, but he's aged gracefully.

But Joe had been in the City twenty years and isn't young anymore. I imagine him as one of those men who stop somewhere around sixteen. Inside. (5.8)

Yeah, this answers—partially—the question about why Joe wants to date an eighteen-year-old so badly. Because he's sixteen inside. He wants a girl around his own age—he's not being an old perv, he's just a teenaged boy trapped in a fifty-year-old body. Proving that innocence can be lost at any age, and it can also persist to any age.

He was sure he was tending a sweet but abused young girl at first, but when she bit him he said, Oh, she's wild. (7.3)

If you take away one thing from Jazz (besides an appreciation of jazz music) remember not to make snap judgments about girls. Not all young girls are sweet and innocent, and neither are all young girls scandalous and after older men. The characters in this book keep learning this over and over again, with women tending to view girls as sinful and men tending to view them as innocent.

"I taught you both you all never kill the tender and nothing female if you can help it." (7.27)

The laws of hunting, folks: Don't kill babies, don't kill women. This is one of those things that is totally sound when it's kept to sphere of hunting, but starts getting angry-making when it becomes metaphorical. Because it lumps women and babies together as innocent, defenseless, kind of unformed entities, and that's kind of messed up when you think about it.

The girls have red lips and their legs whisper to each other through silk stockings. The red lips and the silk flash power. A power they will exchange for the right to be overcome, penetrated. (7.44)

This is Joe's point-of-view, and you can tell a whole lot about Joe from this statement. This highlights both his feelings toward young women and his feelings toward young men: that both are more powerful than he is, and that both are equally lacking in innocence.

"But he must not have known about her. How she liked to push people, men." (9.28)

This line underlines in neon yellow the thesis statement Dorcas is not innocent. She likes to provoke, she's of her time, the provocative 1920s. Dorcas's lack of innocence isn't a form of shaming in the context of Jazz; it's a testament to her agency as a character. She's a victim of murder, absolutely, but she isn't manipulated and used by Joe. Her lack of innocence is full of power.

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