Study Guide

Jazz Themes

  • Violence

    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.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What are some of the different manifestations of violence in Jazz?
    2. How does the violence Joe and Violet commit echo the violence they encountered during their childhoods?
    3. What is the effect of the unemotional tone in which violence is described?
    4. How does violence impact the lives of each of the characters in Jazz?

    Chew on This

    Jazz portrays violence as a cycle that is doomed to repeat.

    Joe's murder of Dorcas is an unpremeditated crime of passion.

  • Art and Culture: Jazz Music

    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.

    Questions About Art and Culture: Jazz Music

    1. How do the characters in Jazz act like instruments in a jazz composition?
    2. Jazz music is heavily based on improvisation. Although you can't really improvise a novel, what elements of Jazz seem improvisational? Why?
    3. Within the novel Jazz, is jazz music portrayed as a force for good or a sinful force? Does this influence your reading of the book overall?
    4. How does jazz music impact the lives of the main characters in Jazz?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Women And Femininity

    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.

    Questions About Women And Femininity

    1. What are some of the guidelines to being a "good woman" in Jazz?
    2. How does the absence of a mother affect the lives of the characters in Jazz?
    3. Why does Violet decide not to have children, and why does she change her mind later?
    4. How does Joe's search for Wild mirror his search for Dorcas?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Race

    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.

    Questions About Race

    1. What periods of black history does Jazz cover?
    2. Why is the character of Golden Gray important?
    3. How does racial prejudice impact the characters in Jazz?
    4. What symbols in Jazz reinforce the theme of race and migration?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Contrasting Regions

    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.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. How do the portrayals of the City and the country differ in Jazz?
    2. What do people miss about the country once they move to the City?
    3. How does the City change the characters in Jazz?
    4. How does the language used to describe the City differ from the language used to describe the country?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Memory and 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.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. Which memories are based in reality for the characters in Jazz, and which are made up?
    2. How does someone's death preserve their memory for others in Jazz?
    3. How do the characters in Jazz's relationships to the past differ?
    4. What, if anything, is best left forgotten for the characters in Jazz?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Versions of Reality

    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.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What are the "cracks" in Violet's reality?
    2. How do the realities of the characters differ from one another?
    3. How does Wild's insanity manifest itself?
    4. How are the "craziness" of jazz music and the "craziness" of Jazz similar?

    Chew on This

    Wild's actions, given her biographical and historical context, are sane.

    Violet isn't crazy; she just articulates thoughts that most people keep hidden.

  • Innocence

    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.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. Who is the most innocent character in Jazz?
    2. What are some of the opinions concerning Dorcas's innocence? Does Dorcas have an opinion about innocence?
    3. What are some of the ways that jazz music is supposed to act as a corrupting force in Jazz?
    4. Do any of the characters in Jazz lose their innocence in the course of the novel? How do they deal with this loss of innocence?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Lust

    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.

    Questions About Lust

    1. How does lust motivate the characters in Jazz?
    2. What is Alice's opinion of lust, and how is she hypocritical in her opinion?
    3. Does lust ever manifest itself as a force for good in Jazz, or is it only corrupting?
    4. How does Jazz's portrayal of lust and love differ? How are they portrayed as the same?

    Chew on This

    Joe lusts after Dorcas, but he does not love her.

    In Jazz, lust is portrayed as dangerous, but love is portrayed as virtuous.