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Toni Morrison's Jazz Toni Morrison's 1992 NovelEssay

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Toni Morrison's Jazz

Toni Morrison's 1992 novel Jazz is about a group of people living in Harlem, a predominantly black neighborhood in New York City, Baltimore, Maryland, Vienna, Virginia and many points in between. They are linked through blood, loyalty, friendship, desire and violence. The title seems to refer to two things. One is the big influence jazz music had for the novel's characters. Set in the mid-1920s, jazz was just beginning to gain popularity among black and white people. Jazz clubs and gatherings popped up all over the city, where some of the most important events of the novel take place. Perhaps, another reason why the novel is called Jazz is because of the structure of the novel and the way it is written. Ms. Morrison weaves the stories in solid, twisted, intertwined lines that if read out loud, have a pattern similar songs and solos in jazz music.

Most of the action revolves around Joe Trace, his wife Violet, and Dorcas, Joe Trace's teenage lover. In the beginning of the novel Dorcas is already dead, having bled to death from a gunshot wound. Joe Trace, out of a fit of jealousy, shot her while she was in the arms of her new boyfriend, a handsome teenage boy named Acton. From there the action in the first half of the novel goes forward and back many times to two major events: Dorcas being shot and Violet going to Dorcas' funeral and slashing her dead face with a knife.

One would think given the title of the novel that jazz music would be a strong theme, but jazz and its influence are more secondary, background themes that appear reoccurring forms, such as the girl who left a baby in the protagonist Violet's care so she could go get a jazz record. Jazz music is a backdrop in front of which the action happens, such as the jazz dance club where Joe Trace shoots Dorcas. One of the most compelling and frequently occurring themes is violence. In the book Jazz Morrison closely examines violence, the damage it brings, suspected reasons behind violent acts and what people do, if anything at all, to repair the damage they've wrought. Morrison explores the instances of violence as they occur between couples, relative strangers, and within interracial relationships. Violence occurs in reaction to infidelity, dishonesty, and, in the case of a white woman, Vera Louise Gray and a black former slave Henry LesTroy, breaking social rules. Vera Louise Gray had a son, Golden Gray, whose grey eyes and golden skin allowed him to pass for white, even though his father was Henry LesTroy.

In her exploration of violence, Morrison tries to make sense of why black people, people belonging to a race that for so long has been suppressed by others, commits violent acts on other black people. If the novel were a jazz song, the theme of violence would be a distinct passage in the song, like the opening bars of Dave Brubeck's Take Five or Charlie Parker's Ornithology. Morrison "solos" around this theme by returning to the two key violent themes in the novel, Dorcas's shooting and Violet slashing the dead girl's face at her funeral, each time twisting around the events, looking at them in different ways and introducing different perspectives to try and figure out why those events happened and what purpose they serve.

In Jazz Morrison sees violence not so much as a natural weakness in blacks, but as a result of the violence they suffered at the hands of their parents, strangers, and ultimately, whites, first as slaves and then as second-class citizens. After fully describing the two violent incidents in circular patterns, picking up, manipulating, expanding or disregarding views and ideas on the incidents, Morrison spends a significant part of the novel going into the backgrounds and histories of Joe Trace, Violet (called Violent after her knife welding attack at Dorcas' funeral) and Dorcas. Each of these characters suffered greatly from violence and abandonment in their young lives. At first, their actions seem crazy and impulsive. But after Morrison goes into their backgrounds and the history of the abuse blacks have endured in the United States, the characters appear less irrational, more human and their actions seem more understandable.

Joe Trace learns as a child that he is adopted and his parents left "without a trace." Later on in the novel, he meets Wild, who he believes is his mother. Wild would not talk to him and when Joe asked her to give him some indication, "Is it you? Just say it. Say anything. & #8230;Give me a sign, then. You don't have to say nothing. Let me see your hand. Just stick it out someplace and I'll go; I promise. A sign." (Morrison 178) but she never gave him a clear answer. Violet's mother committed suicide by jumping into a well after Violet's father left and their possessions were taken away. Dorcas' parents died in the same day, her father murdered after being taken off and trolley car and beaten to death and her mother in an apartment fire. Dorcas, who was staying with a friend, was spared.

Morrison attributes the characters' violent acts in part to being abandoned early in their lives. For example, when Joe on New Years Day in January 1926, shortly after Dorcas broke up with him, goes looking for her, his thoughts flow back to an earlier time in his life.

I just want to see her. Tell her I know she didn't mean what she said.

She's young. Young people fly off the handle. Bust out just for the hell of it. Like me shooting an unloaded shotgun at the leaves that time. Like me saying, 'All right, Violet, I'll marry you,' just because

I couldn't see whether a wildwoman put out her hand or not (Morrison, 181).

In his train of thought Joe blames mistakes he made on being young and abandoned by his parents "just because I couldn't see whether a wildwoman put out her hand or not." But Joe committed violent or destructive acts each time he was abandoned by a woman. He shot an unloaded shotgun into bushes where his birth mother hid. He had an affair with Dorcas after his wife Violet stopped talking to him and he shot Dorcas, leaving her to bleed to death, after she left him. By describing events though a narrator and using the vernacular to write dialogue, Morrison makes the reader see the characters as more real. Her rich, realistic approach to voice and the way events occur in relation to actions makes potentially sappy scenes more believable.

Violet, also abandoned by her parents, was raised by her grandmother, True Belle. While Joe Trace worked hard to become overcome his difficult childhood, working hard to make himself an honorable member of the community, Violet felt crushed by her father's abandonment, her mother's suicide and her inability to have children. Before slashing Dorcas' face, Violet had sat down in the middle of the street one day and had to be lifted out and nearly kidnapped a baby (the one that the young girl left in her care to go record shopping). In a way Morrison is saying that it is not so much violence that forms one's personality but what one chooses to do about violence. In this case, Joe's determination to succeed despite a difficult upbringing made him more successful. Joe was never accused of shooting Dorcas and is seen with more sympathy by the characters than Violet, who was thrown out of the funeral after slashing Dorcas' face. In a way Morrison is saying that it is better to try to rise above one's troubles rather than let them weigh you down. Morrison's insights closely match those of many life advise dispensers such as the Dali Lama and Deepak Chopra.

Dorcas started out doing well under her aunt Alice Manfred's care until she became a teenager. Then Dorcas began to get restless under her aunt's strict rules and worked hard to get out and meet boys. At first, Joe's attentions and gifts built up her confidence, which was torn down by her critical aunt. But just months after the affair began, Dorcas got restless and started seeing boys closer to her age. Dorcas wanting to be with boys her own age is understandable, but she lacked the ability to let Joe down easily. She was rude and insulting to Joe. It is doubtful as to whether Dorcas' rudeness led Joe to shoot her. Joe was very much in love with Dorcas and explained away her rudeness as typical teenage behavior. But the fact that Dorcas chose to bleed to death rather than be taken to a hospital indicates that had Dorcas had a better upraising and more self-confidence, than she might have lived.

Morrison reinforces her theory on violence, that it stems back to the physical and psychological violence blacks suffered throughout history, by weaving in historical facts and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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