Study Guide

Violet Trace in Jazz

By Toni Morrison

Violet Trace

Violet, Violet, Violet. No—we're not muttering under our breath; we're addressing each of the three Violets that populate this novel.

Yes, you read that right. Though to be clear, there is physically only one Violet: Violet Trace. She's a fifty-year-old hairdresser living in Harlem with her hubby Joe, and she has a touch of the old multiple personalities. It's not a seriously debilitating condition, because Violet can still hold down a job and cook meals that are designed to help build her up to her pre-menopausal weight and curviness. But she still suffers from the feeling that there are (at least) three Violets hanging out in her head. Let's take a look at what makes these Violets tick.

Young Violet: Strong, Strong-Willed, and Smokin' Hot

Young Violet is the woman that Present-Day Violet tries to conjure up when she drinks those milkshakes, when she cooks fattening, delicious dinners, and when she stews about the past. Who is young Violet?

Well, Young Violet is a woman with very few regrets and a ton of plans. Young Violet reacts to her mother committing suicide with the decision to stop the mental illness gene in its track by not having any babies, and sticks by her guns. Young Violet goes to get work on a cotton farm and is terrible at it, lagging behind with the twelve-year-olds. It's pretty humiliating.

But Young Violet perseveres and decides to give it her all, and ends up a "powerfully strong young woman who could handle mules, bale hay and chop wood as good as any man." Once Young Violet makes her mind up about something, she gets it.

You know, like she got Joe. It's not that Joe wasn't into Violet—he totally was—but "Violet claimed him." Her Young Violet reasoning is that he fell practically into her lap when he fell out of the tree, so therefore he is hers. Get it, girl. This assertiveness later helps drive Joe's infidelity, as we'll see in our discussion of Joe (read up on him elsewhere in this section), but for the majority of Violet's life it remains an awesome, positive characteristic.

It's Young Violet who has the idea to move to a big city. Her idea was Baltimore—the city that True Belle lived in, and the city that Golden Gray was born in—but because Joe knows some people that made it big in New York, they ultimately choose The Big Apple.

But back to Young Violet's Baltimore dreams, because the reason Young Violet wanted to go to Baltimore is super-important to her character: She wants to go there because her grandmother True Belle lived in Baltimore. True Belle is the woman who raised Violet, and Violet adores her because she supplied Young Violet with the sanity and nurturing that her own mother couldn't give her.

The combination of Violet's mom being a little nutso, and the siren song of the (expensive) City mean that Young Violet intentionally miscarries three times. This is all good and makes financial sense until years later, when the woman we'll call Crazy Violet, becomes unhinged partially because of a gnawing baby-hunger.

Crazy Violet: Stealing Babies and Talking Nonsense

Frankly, this is the Violet that is the most fun to read about, in our humble opinion. Crazy Violet does, well, crazy things. And we all know that acts of insanity make for awesomesauce reading material.

Let's start where we left off with Young Violet: Young Violet is sure that she never wants babies, and everything is cool until Young Violet hits forty, becomes not-so-Young Violet and starts wanting a baby. Like yesterday.

The desire to hold a baby is so strong it's described as a "skipping, running light" in her veins. Eventually, "(the) longing became heavier than sex: a panting, unmanageable craving. She was limp in its thrall or rigid in an effort to dismiss it." Okay, dang. That kind of "unmanageable craving" would make anyone a little loony-tunes. Violet is an addict, and a baby is her fix. Only she's too old to have a baby. Cue irrational behavior.

What irrational behavior? Well, Violet starts saying things accidently—things that don't make sense. She also sits down in the middle of the street for no good reason, and tries to steal a baby out of a baby carriage. Plus she starts hugging a doll.

What do these actions of Crazy Violet's have to do with the larger story? Thematically, we're getting a prime example of how history repeats itself either biologically (having kids) or mentally (going nuts, perpetuating violence). Plot-wise, it's Violet's instability that prompts Joe's eyes to start wandering and finally land on Dorcas.

This of course culminates with the ultimate act of Crazy Violet's: slashing dead Dorcas's face and letting all of her birds free. When we understand Crazy Violet's baby-hunger, we can see that these acts are very symbolic of letting go of the possibility of maternity. But more on this over in the "Symbols" section.

Present-Day Violet: All's Well That Ends Well

When someone talks about killing themselves—twice—it's usually not a good thing. However, when Violet talks about killing herself twice it's awesome and sane. This is because present-day Violet, after a couple of very thoughtful milkshakes and some conversations with Alice, does away with Young Violet and Crazy Violet.

"How did you get rid of her?"

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

"Who's left?"

"Me."

Yup. We're guessing that Young Violet (super strong-willed and resolute) killed Crazy Violet, and then present-day Violet did away with Young Violet. Besides reducing the number of Violets in Jazz down to a more manageable number, the murder of Crazy Violet and Young Violet does some nifty stuff thematically. Let's just list 'em all:

  • The murder of Young Violet can be seen as closing the door to the past.
  • The murder of Young Violet can also be accepting old age and childlessness.
  • The murder of Crazy Violet is a way to come to terms with Rose Dear's insanity.
  • The murder of Crazy Violet is a way to come to terms with Joe's infidelity and be charitable, once more, toward young women.

Also pretty cool is the fact that Violet, like Joe, is now a murderer of sorts. This helps them get back on good footing with each other. Whatever it takes to make a marriage work, we guess? And whatever it takes to feel sane again.

Present-Day Violet also retains the good things from Young Violet and Crazy Violet. Young Violet was strong-willed and determined, and Present-Day Violet is still these things. For her part, Crazy Violet was eager to be maternal, and when Present-Day Violet cooks for Felice and takes care of Joe we see these attributes front and center. Another way of understanding Present-Day Violet, then, as the book ends is as Violet in her prime. For someone named after a flower, it seems she's finally—at least kind of—bloomed.

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