Study Guide

Jazz Memory and The Past

By Toni Morrison

Memory and The Past

"You in trouble," she says, yawning. "Deep, deep trouble. Can't rival the dead for love. Lose every time." (1.30)

Violet gets some wise words here: Those that are dead or those that are missing get obsession, whereas those who have stuck around merely get some affection. Dorcas will live on as young and beautiful, at least in the mind of Joe. She's just the first person in this novel whose presence in absence is stronger than her presence.

For Violet, who never knew the girl, only her picture and the personality she invented for her based on careful investigations, the girl's memory is a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere. (2.2)

The only thing worse than a New York City roach infestation is a ghost infestation, and Violet and Joe's apartment is haunted. Maybe it's a bad idea to put the picture of a dead girl your husband had an affair with and then shot on the mantelpiece. Maybe? Unless it brings you closer to your husband somehow, which, in the screwy dynamic that is Violet and Joe's marriage, totally happens.

He remembers his memories of her; how thinking about her as he lay in bed next to Violet was the way he entered sleep. He minds her death, is so sorry for it, but minded more the possibility of his memory failing to conjure up the dearness. (2.3)

Aw, dang. Memories are one thing, but memories of memories? Joe is getting a little memory-melodramatic (memodramatic?) here. He also sounds a little psychopathic when he laments the possibility of conjuring her more than, you know, he does killing her. But in a book where life is fleeting and so many people disappear in a puff of smoke, the memory of a person can be as dear as the person themselves.

Now he lies in bed remembering every detail of that October afternoon when he first met her, from start to finish, and over and over. Not just because it is tasty, but because he is trying to sear her into his mind, brand her there against future wear. (2.4)

First of all, we should all agree that memories should be described as "tasty" from here on out. Good adjective for memories, or best adjective for memories? You decide. This is an instance of the memories of Dorcas being more precious (and tastier) than Dorcas herself. When Dorcas died she was Joe's ex, but in his memory of her she can be his for eternity.

In no time at all he forgets little pebbly creeks and apple trees so old they lay their branches along the ground and you have to reach down or stoop to pick the fruit. He forgets a sun that used to slide up like the yolk of a good country egg, thick and red-orange and the bottom of the sky, and he doesn't miss it, doesn't look up to see what happened to it or to stars made irrelevant by the light of thrilling, wasteful street lamps. (2.15)

The allure of the city is so powerful, so all-absorbing, that it makes you forget everything that came before. The city signals a kind of loss-of-innocence, where you can't even remember what it was before the loss happened. And in the world of Jazz, the loss of memory is either the best thing that can happen to you (forgetting all the terrible things that you've gone through, starting fresh) or the worst (forgetting loved ones that have gone, forgetting happiness).

Whatever happens, whether you get rich or poor, you always end up back where you started: hungry for the one thing everybody loses—young loving. (5.7)

De-pressing. But also why Ponce de Leon went looking for the fountain of youth, why anti-aging creams exist, and why old people say stuff like youth is wasted on the young while shaking a finger at you. Everyone wants to be young, healthy, and in love. This is also the stuff of approximately 99% of all front-porch, old-person reminiscences.

"See? You were the last thing on her mind." (9.53)

Maybe Joe was the last thing on Dorcas's mind because, well, he shot her. Just maybe. But Felice tells Joe that Dorcas was thinking about him until the very end in a great act of charity: She knows this will make Joe feel peace and help preserve his memories of Dorcas as ever-loving.

It never occurred to me that they were thinking other thoughts, feeling other feelings, putting their lives together in ways I never dreamed of. Like Joe. To this moment I'm not sure what his tears were really for, but I do know they were for more than Dorcas. (10.5)

Dorcas was Joe's version of hitting fifty and buying a red convertible. The narrator/Felice realizes at the end of the novel, when all good epiphanies must occur, that Dorcas was more than a pretty face for Joe. She was a great number of things: a chance at renewed youth, a younger and saner version of Violet, a daughter never born, and a mother never connected with. Man. Maybe Joe should have just gotten a convertible.

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… (10.12)

In perhaps the most surprising plot twist of the novel, Joe and Violet end up fairly happily ever after. These two weirdoes were meant for each other. One of the ways in which they are compatible is their love of remembering, and in repeating their memories to each other. Sure, everyone likes to look backward, but Violet and Joe have it elevated to an art.

When I see them now they are not sepia, still, losing their edges to the light of a future afternoon. Caught midway between was and must be. For me they are real. (10.17)

The narrator/Felice is now looking back at her time with Violet and Joe, and she's remembering them remembering. Sheesh. Can't anyone in this novel be content with just straight-up memory? But what Felice/the narrator understands about Violet and Joe is that they are most content existing in perpetual partial memory. They want to remember even as they forge their future. It's kind of sweet.

They are remembering while they whisper the carnival dolls they won and the Baltimore boats they never sailed on. (10.20)

Here's where we get just why exactly Joe and Violet belong together: They remember both that which did and that which did not happen. They're a little cracked, right? So they can make stuff up and process it as a memory. It's why they're both unreliable narrators, why they're such fascinating characters, and why they're totally meant for each other.

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