Yeah, a novel that starts with the shooting of an ex-girlfriend and a woman who tries to slice open a dead girl's face is going to be a little bloody. Leave your squeamishness at the door for this one, Shmoopers.
Jazz isn't just about two violent lunatics, though. It's about the violence that has impacted Violet and Joe since their childhoods: the suicides, the beatings, the horrific racist violence of turn-of-the-century America, and the violence inherent of slavery. There's so much violence in Jazz that the characters speak about it with chilling matter-of-factness. "He was pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death," is spoken with the kind of Yep, that happened attitude we might use to comment on yesterday's rain.
Jazz portrays violence as a cycle that is doomed to repeat.
Joe's murder of Dorcas is an unpremeditated crime of passion.
It's no shocker that the art form in a novel called Jazz is jazz music. The novel's structure borrows heavily from jazz music, including different character solos, a preoccupation with lust and violence, and (not going to lie to you) a tendency to get confusing. It's also set during the Harlem Renaissance, when jazz music was becoming A Thing and either seducing people with its sexiness and daring—like Dorcas—or making old women clutch their pearls, like Alice.
Jazz, like jazz, doesn't play by the established rules. It swoops around in time and slows down, speeds up, and changes direction. It's also, like jazz, totally unique and mesmerizing. Enjoy the ride.
The older generation in Jazz fears that jazz music is a corrupting force, and Dorcas is a realization of these fears.
Violet is the character that most fully personifies jazz music.
Mommy issues alert: Everyone has beef with motherhood in Jazz. And we don't blame them—most of the mamas in this novel are nowhere to be found. This makes us want to call our mothers right now. It's not just Mommy that's missing in Jazz, it's the comfort and security of a mother-figure. Harlem in 1926 is exciting, yes, but hardly comforting.
But mamahood isn't the only femininity-themed arrow in Jazz's quiver. There's also preoccupation with what it means to be a lady, a good girl, or an attractive woman. From Joe selling Cleopatra beauty products to Dorcas slipping on silk stockings in secret, the question of what it means to be a good woman in Jazz is ever-present. Having babies is only part of the (super-difficult) equation.
Joe's relationship to Dorcas mirrors his relationship to his mother, and Violet's relationship to Dorcas mirrors her relationship to motherhood.
The absence of fathers impact the lives of the characters in Jazz more than the absence of mothers.
Let us count the ways in which the racial identity impacts the characters in Jazz. No, let's not, because if we started we'd be here well into next week.
From jazz music to the Great Migration, from slavery to hate crimes, from Golden Gray's quest for identity to the comparison between Dorcas and Violet's skin, Jazz is immersed in the history and questions of black identity. These characters look for a sense of black community as well as for personal identity, and reflect on disturbing elements of American history.
Besides Vera Louise—who is a super-auxiliary character—everyone in Jazz is black and questions of race come up on, no joke, every page.
The theme of race in Jazz is its most important and pervasive theme.
All of the characters in Jazz experience the effects of racism in different ways.
You know the cute story about the city mouse and the country mouse? How the city mouse swears the city is just swell, so the country mouse visits, but isn't completely blown away? And then the city mouse goes to the country and is acting snooty, but ultimately comes to the conclusion that the country is way cooler than the city? Yeah, Jazz takes the opposite approach.
In Jazz the country is the past, and the past means enslavement, back-breaking labor, and super-evil racism. The City—a.k.a. New York—by comparison, offers money, dancing, and freedom from the kind of racism that existed south of the Mason-Dixon line at the turn of the century. The City also offers vice of all kinds, much to the horror of characters like Alice.
In Jazz, the City is a character in its own right, along with Violet, Joe, and other humans.
In Jazz the City represents the future while the country represents the past.
In a novel with two fifty-year-olds as main characters, it's no surprise that memory is a big dealio in Jazz. And in a novel as historic as Jazz, it's no surprise that memory is a huge theme. And since Jazz is super preoccupied with family, no one is shocked that memory comes up a ton.
Basically, the only thing shocking about the theme of memory and the past in Jazz is the weird, reality-morphing way that memory plays into the plot. Kill an ex-girlfriend so you can preserve her memory? Sure, why not? Lie in bed and remember things you didn't do with your husband? Totally fair game in this book. The sky's the limit when it comes to the way that memory is played with in Jazz—and like the sky, memory is ever-present.
The past is more important than the future for the characters in Jazz.
The characters in Jazz are unreliable because of their relationships to their past.
What's more unreliable than a second grader claiming the dog ate her homework? All of the characters in Jazz.
It's no secret that everyone's reality is a little different from everyone else's. Ask ten artists to draw you a tree, after all, and you'll find yourself staring at ten different trees in no time.
But the characters in Jazz take this whole multitudinous realities business into the stratosphere. They're not only unreliable, but some of them have a very different idea of what reality is than others. Violet is kind of a weirdo, and Joe is not the most stable fellow on the block, but in the context of Jazz, it makes sense.
Not only is jazz music (you know, the inspiration for this novel) notoriously unpredictable and, at times, crazy-sounding as it builds its sonic reality, but all of the characters in Jazz have been through things that would make anyone's reality seem askew. In other words, if we're only as sane as the world we live in, then the thoughts and actions of the characters in Jazz make perfect sense.
Wild's actions, given her biographical and historical context, are sane.
Violet isn't crazy; she just articulates thoughts that most people keep hidden.
And by innocence, we mean total lack of innocence. The Jazz Age was notorious for being a period when innocence was lost, specifically the presumed innocence of women. Behavior that was truly scandalous in the 1910s—drinking, smoking, showing your knees, wearing makeup, having sex—became much more acceptable in the 1920s, especially for the ladies.
All the characters in Jazz have an idea of what constitutes innocence and who should be innocent. A whole lot of these ideas about innocence are heaped on Dorcas: She should be innocent, but instead she's unwholesome, she's being manipulated, and she's too knowing. One of the huge conspiracy theories concerning innocence in Jazz is that jazz music, and the influence of Big Bad New York City, corrupts the young girls of 1926. So sit back, and watch Dorcas swoon.
Golden Gray is the only character in Jazz that experiences a loss of innocence.
In Jazz, a loss of innocence is a good thing: It means that the character is able to be fully present in the world.
There is a lot of sultry saxophone music in Jazz, both literally and metaphorically. Lust is one of the huge motivators for the characters in Jazz: It starts the action with a bang (that kills Dorcas) and is responsible for Alice's over-protectiveness, Violet's jealousy, Golden Gray's identity crisis, and basically everyone's sorrow. Poor form, lust—we trusted you.
None of this is surprising: Lust is one of the huge motivators (and culprits) in the real world, as well as in the world of literature. It's also one of the huge themes of jazz music, and the reason that people like Alice are so scandalized by jazz. Not everyone can handle the heat.
Joe lusts after Dorcas, but he does not love her.
In Jazz, lust is portrayed as dangerous, but love is portrayed as virtuous.