Study Guide

Jazz Versions of Reality

By Toni Morrison

Versions of Reality

She wakes up in the morning and sees with perfect clarity a string of small, well-lit scenes. In each one something specific is being done: food things, work things, customers and acquaintances and encountered, places entered. But she does not see herself doing these things. She sees them being done. (1.52)

Uh-oh… Violet's losing it a wee bit. In what would clinically be called disassociation, Violet is imagining her life as existing independent of herself. Stuff is so routine, and she feels so divorced from her reality, that she imagines that her life would go on just the same without her in it.

Sometimes when Violet isn't paying attention she stumbled onto these cracks, like the time when, instead of putting her left heel forward, she stepped back and folded her legs in order to sit in the street. (1.52)

Man, sometimes you just sit in the street, right? No? Oh, well that's what Violet does, because she feels that doing one (normal) thing, like walking forward across the street, is basically just as easy as doing another (abnormal) thing, like sitting down in the road. And she has a point: We do what we do because it's societally acceptable, not because we have to. So really, old Violet is living life to the fullest and looking into each possibility. Hmm… Maybe we'll have a sandwich for dinner, or maybe we'll just eat a huge bowl of pudding.

Long before Joe stood in the drugstore watching a girl buy candy, Violet had stumbled into a crack or two. Words connected only to themselves pieced an otherwise normal comment. (1.53)

Okay, so on the surface, Violet is acting nuttier than trail mix, but under the surface of this comment? Uh, she's acting kind of like jazz music. She's riffing, she's improvising—you never know what she's going to say. That's a little crazy and disorienting, but you know what? Jazz is also kind of crazy and disorienting. It's a new way of storytelling, a new way of expressing truth.

She means nothing can be done about it, but it was something. Something slight, but troublesome. Like the time Miss Haywood asked her what time she could do her granddaughter's hair and Violet said "Two o'clock if the hearse is out of the way."(1.55)

Another Grade A Prime example of Violet acting like a nutso, but also acting a whole lot like a jazz riff. She starts with something sensible—"Two o'clock" is a perfectly reasonable answer to the question—but ends up with something a little askew, a little morbid, a little shocking. She starts out in familiar territory, but lands someplace else.

Whenever she thought about that Violet, and what that Violet saw through her own eyes, she knew there was no shame there, no disgust. (4.9)

If you're going to have split personalities, make sure that one of them is shameless and hard to disgust, right? Especially if you live in a world where (as we've seen) so much of what women do is labeled shameful or disgusting. You know, like wearing silk stockings. Violet has a pretty sensible kind of crazy sometimes.

And that's why it took so much wrestling to get me down, keep me down and out of the coffin where she was the heifer who took what was mine, what I chose, picked out and determined to have and hold on to, NO! that Violet is not somebody walking round town, up and down the streets wearing my skin and using my eyes s*** no that Violet is me! (4.9)

Existential crises are much harder when you have various personalities to keep track of, unless, like Violet, you come to the grand epiphany that actually, you're all one big happy self. Who doesn't think of themselves as in someway split? There's a reason that the whole angel-and-devil-sitting-on-the-shoulder-thing is a thing. They represent two sides of yourself, the good Shmooper who is going to eat salad for dinner and the bad Shmooper who is going to eat tater tots.

Violet just phrases real-life in a way that sounds unsettling—it's still true. Kind of like a little musical genre called jazz.

I got quiet because the things I couldn't say were coming out of my mouth anyhow. (4.10)

Here's another Violet-as-jazz gem. This quote sounds seriously spooky, right? Violet sounds like the kind of woman that you would cross the street to avoid because she might be having an argument with a streetlamp. But, thought of in a different light, what she's saying makes tons of sense: Keep stuff bottled up and it's bound to come out in an unpleasant, unsettling manner.

It had rocked him when he heard who and what his father was. Made him loose, lost. He had first fingered and then torn some of his mother's clothes and sat in the grass looking at the things scattered on the lawn as well as in his mind. (6.48)

Violet is not the only person who loses it a bit. Golden Gray kind of breaks when he finds out that his father is black because, you know, his entire identity has been a lie. When confronted with a crazy situation, acting crazy makes sense. And what could be crazier than realizing (1) that you could have been born a slave, and (2) the idea of slavery itself?

"But I understood what she meant. About having another you inside of you that isn't anything like you." (9.42)

Felice knows what Violet is talking about—she's had the experience of feeling like there are disparate parts of her personality battling inside of her. And you know what this feeling is kind of like? The conversation between various instruments within a single jazz composition.

"How did you get rid of her?"

"Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her."

"Who's left?"

"Me." (9.43)

Sure, on the surface this sounds like an existential version of the logic puzzle where you have to move a tiger, a goat, and a bunch of grain across a river using one boat. The initial takeaway is huh? But all Violet is talking about, in her signature Violet style, is the sensation of realizing that her various personalities or public faces—wife, hairdresser, woman who tried to cut a dead girl, bird-lover—are part of the same woman.

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