Jazz is the story of a husband and wife living in Harlem, New York in the 1920s. Joe and Violet Trace’s marriage has experienced the usual ups and downs, but in the winter of 1926, their lives are nearly destroyed by Joe’s infidelity with 18-year-old Dorcas whom he shoots to death. Because there are no witnesses, Joe is not arrested or made to pay for his crime in the traditional sense. Instead, he punishes himself.
His wife Violet is humiliated and outraged by Joe’s betrayal of their love. Her reaction is to blame the dead girl and to strike out against her. Violet attends Dorcas’ funeral to see what makes this girl so beautiful and why her husband loves her so fiercely.
At the funeral, Violet tries to attack the corpse with a knife. Violet is physically thrown from the funeral service. Now both Joe and Violet are the subjects of ridicule in their community.
However, neither of them is concerned. Joe is too busy crying. Violet spends her days trying to find out more about her husband’s dead lover. Violet still considers Dorcas her rival for Joe’s affections.
Violet becomes more and more mentally unglued. She is willing to do anything to hold on to her husband and to keep herself from going crazy. Violet becomes friends with the dead girl’s aunt Alice Manfred and with Dorcas’ best friend Felice.
As the story unfolds, we find out what causes the anguish suffered by Joe and Violet. Joe wanted recognition from a mother who was unable to give it to him. Violet is haunted by her mother’s suicide. Her mother threw herself down a well when the burden of having no money to care for her five children became too much.
These private agonies eventually cause the couple to pull away from each other. Joe’s involvement with Dorcas broadens the barrier between them. By the time spring comes, the couple have forgiven each other.
Around this time Dorcas’ best friend, Felice, becomes their friend and helps them return their lives to normal. From the beginning of the novel, the reader is led to believe that Joe shot Dorcas dead. But in the final pages Felice reveals some missing details, details that help the couple figure out what Dorcas was really like and how much responsibility Joe should take for his part in ending her life.
Estimated Reading Time
The novel Jazz is not divided into chapters, but stops and starts in short, unnamed and unnumbered parts. Extra time will be needed to get used to the rhythm and style of the writing. Many sentences need to be reread because they are long and have a complex construction. Other sentences need to be reread because they are beautiful examples of Morrison’s way with words.
The reading should be divided into the following parts and time slots:
Parts 1 & 2 1 1/2 hours
Part 3 1 hour
Part 4 45 minutes
Part 5 1 hour
Parts 6 & 7 45 minutes
Part 8 45 minutes
Part 9 15 minutes
Upon finishing the book, spend another ten minutes rereading the first paragraph of Part 1. Your total reading time for this book is approximately six hours.
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Jazz is an account of both the personal and the historical. While focusing on the lives of Joe and Violet Trace, the novel also provides an account of African American life in the South from the mid-nineteenth century through the Great Migration that brought millions north beginning in the 1870’s and continuing in a steady stream into the twentieth century. The story of the Traces’ move in 1906 from Virginia to Harlem is part of the African American story.
The novel opens and closes with the puzzling relationship of Joe, Violet, and Felice. The narrator, a strong and critical voice throughout the book, has access to the information readers will need to understand a fifty-year-old man who “fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going” and his wife, who cut the dead young girl’s face at her funeral. Like the Greek chorus, the neighborhood busy-body, or perhaps more accurately the tribal storyteller who must get the story right because she is the only channel of truth and history, the narrator explains not just Joe and Violet, Dorcas, and Felice but the forces that brought them together in Harlem in 1926 and brings all African Americans together as a people. Although not presented in neat chronological order, the novel taken as a whole provides a fairly complete account of the characters’ and African Americans’ lives. As the...
(The entire section is 962 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Jazz, Toni Morrison’s sixth novel, is a lyrical, multifaceted narrative that explores the Harlem lives and back-country roots of a number of African American characters in the years from 1873 to 1926. In keeping with the loose, improvisational nature of the music that gives the book its title, Jazz is composed of ten untitled, unnumbered chapters. The principal first-person narrator is an unnamed omniscient observer with a distinctly subjective personality who knows Harlem and the main characters well. The novel also includes first-person passages narrated by Joe, Violet, Dorcas, and Felice, that give the reader a rich and sometimes conflicting range of perspectives on the characters and action.
The main events of the novel take place in the six months or so from fall 1925 to spring 1926. The locale is Harlem, site of the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance, a legendary period of African American creativity in fiction and poetry. Morrison’s emphasis, however, is on jazz, the distinctively urban African American music that reached an early peak in this period. Her novel begins in medias res in January, 1926, with an anecdote that seems the novelistic equivalent of such blues ballads as “Frankie and Johnny.” Joe Trace, a married man in his fifties, has a “deepdown, spooky love” for eighteen-year-old Dorcas, but when their three-month-old affair goes awry, he shoots her at a party. (The reader later learns that Joe is never...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
A three-month affair between Joe Trace and the young Dorcas Manfred ends when Joe shoots Dorcas at a party. At the young woman’s funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet Trace, is nicknamed Violent after she tries to cut the face of the corpse. For months, Violet and Joe grieve. They have only a photograph of Dorcas. The narrator believes that another scandalizing threesome is about to occur, as Dorcas’s friend, Felice, visits the couple.
The childless, withdrawn Violet had once collapsed in the street. At another time she had intended to take someone else’s baby home. Violet’s public craziness differs greatly from the determined and vocal woman she used to be. After Dorcas’s funeral, Violet even cast out the parrot who told Violet he loved her.
Violet herself recalls the funeral and its aftermath and wonders where her old, strong self has gone. She tortures herself about the things Joe may have done with Dorcas, revealing her own earlier relationship with Joe.
Violet is now remembering her childhood in Virginia: Her father can only visit the family occasionally, and secretly, because of Reconstruction (a period after the American Civil War). When he does visit, though, he always brings presents for his wife, Rose Dear, and their five children. Unfortunately for the family, Violet’s father also belongs to a political party that opposes white landowners. Eventually, Rose Dear is dispossessed of her home and its contents because of...
(The entire section is 1147 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Much as in Beloved and in Paradise, Morrison focuses in Jazz on a particular period of African American history: the 1920’s, sometimes called the Jazz Age. African Americans migrated in large numbers to urban areas of the Northeast in the early part of the twentieth century. They came to escape the racial discrimination so prevalent in the South and to find economic opportunity that urban centers in the Northeast promised. Their migration, sometimes called the Great Migration, created all-black areas in cities such as Chicago and New York City. Harlem is the most famous of these and is the setting for Jazz. The existence of large numbers of people of African descent in places such as Harlem created an explosion of African American art that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. A large part of this art was jazz, which gives Morrison the title of her novel and also the thematic center of her story. The economic opportunity that drew so many African Americans to the North never materialized, but the lives lived in the context of the city and the music are the subject of Morrison’s novel.
Morrison’s narrator gives to the reader the central plot on the opening page of the novel: “he fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” The “he” in this passage is Joe Trace. The eighteen-year-old girl is Dorcas....
(The entire section is 605 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Part 1 Summary and Analysis
Violet Trace: Joe’s wife of 20 years. She is starting to lose her mind
Joe Trace: The husband of Violet. He has an affair with 18-year-old Dorcas
Dorcas Manfred: Joe’s 18-year-old girlfriend who is eager to explore her sexuality
Alice Manfred: Dorcas’ aunt. She cares for Dorcas when her parents are killed
Malvonne: Joe and Violet’s upstairs neighbor. She feels guilty about allowing Joe and Dorcas to meet in her apartment
Gistan and Stuck: Joe’s two best friends. Their names are always mentioned in the same breath
Very quickly the narrator lays out the story of Violet’s and Joe’s scandalous behavior. Joe shoots his 18-year-old lover, Dorcas. His wife Violet’s first reaction is to make a scene at the dead girl’s funeral. Violet is physically thrown out of the funeral service for trying to cut the dead girl’s face with a knife.
Violet vows to get even with her husband. But first she frees the pet birds that she loves so dearly and that love her in return. As part of her plot to punish her husband for his misdeeds, she comes up with two plans: to take up with a new boyfriend and to find out more about her competition.
She focuses on the second. Violet is driven to find all she can about the dead girl. She must know what Dorcas looked like, how she did her hair, and what music...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Part 2 Summary and Analysis
Sheila: One of Joe’s customers that he was making a delivery to
Wild: Joe’s mother. She lived in the cane fields. She was incapable of loving and caring for him
Sweetness (aka William Younger): Malvonne’s nephew. He stole mail to look for money
After the funeral, Violet lets her birds go. Her birds are the only creatures she can speak to and they speak back to her. Yet without the responsibility of caring for the birds, Violet finds herself without routine to her life. Now that they are gone, not caring for them causes her to have trouble sleeping.
Furthermore, Dorcas’ memory casts a pall on the house. Like a sickness, Violet feels the pain of her memory everywhere. Joe on the other hand is thankful that Dorcas’ memory is constant because he doesn’t want to forget a single thing about her. Joe thinks back to how he met Dorcas while delivering beauty supplies. Joe remembers how she had given him signs that she was interested. He remembers the excitement of the desire he felt, and how he prepared for their coming together.
Joe fights to remember because he has already lost the memory of the love he and Violet once had for each other. That is why he needed Dorcas so that he could feel again.
Joe thinks back to how he and Violet met in 1906 in Vesper County, Virginia. Then he reminisces about how exciting it was coming to the city on the train....
(The entire section is 1018 words.)
Part 3 Summary and Analysis
Felice: Dorcas’ best friend
The Miller Sisters: Frances and Neola: They care for Dorcas and other neighborhood children while their mothers are working
This section of the novel opens with a funeral parade in protest of the killings and riots in East St. Louis in July of 1917. Blacks march quietly but forcefully down 5th Avenue. Dorcas’ parents were the victims of the racial attack and the protest is in their honor. Alice Manfred began caring for her sister’s nine-year-old orphaned child. Alice tries to find comfort from the tragedy in the beat of the drums and the looks on the marchers’ faces.
The novel starts to unfold Alice Manfred’s background. The fears and torments she has been wrestling with all her life are described. Now her sister and brother-in-law have died at the hand of racist whites. Another loss for her is that her husband left her for another woman.
As a teenager Alice Manfred was made to feel uncomfortable about the maturation of her body and the development of her sexuality. She received confusing signals from her restrictive parents. For example, her breasts were bound to hide them.
She tried to do almost the same thing with her niece Dorcas. Alice Manfred admits to the mistakes she made with Dorcas and runs them over and over in her head. Alice still asks herself again and again why the girl is dead.
Was she wrong to...
(The entire section is 1257 words.)
Part 4 Summary and Analysis
True Belle: Violet’s grandmother. She was taken away when a slave, to help her mistress in Baltimore. She returns to help her daughter and granddaughter when she hears they are in trouble
Rose Dear: Violet’s mother. The strain of trying to single-handedly feed five children and the humiliation of being evicted cause her to eventually commit suicide
Father: Violet’s father is unnamed. He left his family when he could no longer bear the hunger and hopelessness of the land. He would return periodically with presents for everyone
In this part of the novel, we get a chance to go inside Violet’s head and see what she is thinking and feeling. She feels like there is another person inside of her, seeing through her eyes and using her body. “That Violet,” as Violet calls her, sees things Violet doesn’t see and does things Violet would never think of doing.
It was “That Violet” that made the scene at the funeral. We find that the other Violet was also the one responsible for letting the parrot go. Every day the parrot said “I love you,” when no one else did. Violet would never have let the parrot go.
Sitting in a drug store having a malted, Violet reflects on what Joe has done. It is hard for her to understand why. Violet needs more information and thinks of dozens of questions she could ask of Dorcas.
Violet becomes angry when she...
(The entire section is 819 words.)
Part 5 Summary and Analysis
Victory Williams: Joe’s childhood friend. They were raised as brothers and both were excellent woodsmen
Rhoda and Frank Williams: Victory’s guardians. They treated Joe as if he were their own son
Hunter’s Hunter: A skilled outdoorsman who taught Joe and Victory the ways of the woods
Spring has come to the city. The narrator begins by making observations about the community waking up from the hibernation of the winter of 1926. In addition to all of the physical and psychological changes the spring will bring, the community looks for signs of change in Joe and Violet. Everyone is tired of waiting to see what revenge Violet will seek or if Joe will ever stop crying.
The narrator admits to being suspicious of Joe from the beginning and feels that he has gone through a mid-life crisis of sorts. “Look out for a faithful man near fifty. Because he has never messed with another woman; because he selected that young girl to love, he thinks he is free. Not free to break loaves or feed the world on a fish. Nor to raise the war dead, but free to do something wild.”
The narrator understands that although Joe is 50 years old, he feels 16 inside. Why didn’t he talk about Dorcas to his friends? Why didn’t he get some advice or help?
Joe tells his side of the story. He tries to explain that Dorcas was like candy to him. Dorcas made him feel fresh and...
(The entire section is 1919 words.)
Part 6 Summary and Analysis
Golden Gray: The son of Vera Louise. He is raised as a white child by his mother and True Belle. At age 18 he is told his father is African-American
Vera Louise Gray: Golden Gray’s mother. A white female that was ostracized by her parents for getting pregnant by a slave
Colonel Wordsworth Gray: Vera’s father. He is outraged when he learns of his daughter’s relationship with a slave. He gives her a suitcase full of money to start a new life elsewhere
Mrs. Gray: Vera’s mother. What her daughter has done is so unacceptable that she turns her back on her forever
Henry Lestory: Golden Gray’s father. He had a sexual relationship with Vera Louise when he was a slave on her father’s plantation. He is known as Hunter’s Hunter because of his skills as a woodsman
Honor: A teenage boy that does odd jobs for Henry Lestory
Wildwoman: The wildwoman that Golden Gray finds in the woods
This section of the novel begins with the triumphant return of True Belle, Violet’s grandmother. Twenty-two years earlier she left the county of her birth as a slave. When she got news of her daughter and grandchildren’s living conditions, she came to the rescue. True Belle returned a free woman with her life’s earnings sewed in the hem of her skirt.
As a slave, True Belle had no choice about leaving her family, but she was now free to...
(The entire section is 1345 words.)
Part 7 Summary and Analysis
Golden Gray wonders what his reaction will be when the wild woman opens her eyes. Stories were told that Wild, so named by Hunter’s Hunter, liked men with hair the same color as the golden corn fields. Wild lived in the cane fields. She was like a creature that could be as gentle as a deer or as fierce as a tiger.
There was something about her look, her touch, and her laugh that drove men crazy. Older men were particularly vulnerable because they saw her once in their youth and wanted to see her again. To others, her existence was more like a tall tale. According to local lore, the gaze of a wild woman could mark a man for the rest of his life. That is exactly what happened to Golden Gray.
Golden Gray finally has the conversation with his father that he has been waiting for. Their talk, however, turns out totally different than he has planned. Instead of the guilt, anger, and revenge Golden Gray expects, Henry Lestory easily diffuses the situation with a dose of tough love.
“Look here. What you want? I mean, now; what you want now? Want to stay here? You welcome. Want to chastise me? Throw it out your mind. I won’t take a contrary word. You come in here, drink my liquor, rummage in my stuff and think you can cross-talk me just cause you call me Daddy? If she told you I was your daddy, then she told you more than she told me. Get a hold of yourself. A son ain’t what a woman say. A son is what a man do....
(The entire section is 995 words.)
Part 8 Summary and Analysis
Acton: Dorcas’ new boyfriend. He is young and cocky and quite sought after
The opening of this section sets the scene for the shooting. On January 2, a cold, cold day of continued Happy New Year celebrations, Joe finally locates Dorcas. At this time Dorcas starts to tell her side of the story.
She didn’t mean to hurt Joe’s feelings, but he wouldn’t let her go. Dorcas is proud of the progress she has made in her life. She has a new look, a new boyfriend, and a new personality. At last she has everything she has always wanted. Yet she is aware that Joe is coming after her.
Joe walks through the party unnoticed and shoots Dorcas before she fully realizes what is going on. She has trouble speaking and hearing, but we are aware of the thoughts that run through her mind. We know that she is cold and that she is feeling sleepy. She doesn’t say anything about the pain but notices her boyfriend is angry about the blood on his jacket.
It is a while before the partygoers discover her bleeding in the bedroom. “Who has done this to you?” they ask. Dorcas doesn’t want to say, furthermore, her voice is too weak to be heard. It is easy to guess who shot her, but she protects Joe by never saying his name.
At this point, the narrative unfolds at a faster pace. In previous sections, the narrator tells one story in the middle of another, or...
(The entire section is 577 words.)
Part 9 Summary and Analysis
Felice’s mother and father: Live in servants that worked upstate in Tuxedo, New York. Because of their jobs, they could rarely spend time with Felice
Felice’s grandmother: She raised Felice in her parents’ absence
Spring has produced one of the most beautiful days of the year and Harlem responds to the weather. From the street corners to the roof tops, the music sounds glorious and adds another dimension to the spring fever that is rampant. We also find the environment slightly improved in the Trace household. Joe doesn’t cry as much or as loudly. Violet seems to have gotten a grip on her sanity.
On this beautiful day, Felice pays a visit to Joe and Violet. Felice can’t find the opal ring that she let Dorcas borrow and wonders if Joe has it. Once inside the apartment, Felice talks about herself and how her parents are retired domestics that spent a large part of their lives working in Tuxedo, New York. Felice complains that she rarely got a chance to be with them, and has figured out an approximate number of days that they have spent time together as a family.
Felice talks about herself and her friendship with Dorcas. They were best friends and she feels she knows Dorcas better than anyone else. For months Felice has wanted to tell Joe to stop shedding tears because she feels Dorcas wasn’t worth it.
Because the couple seems so nice, Felice is...
(The entire section is 1007 words.)
Part 10 Summary and Analysis
The narration ends just as it began—with a conversation. The topic of the conversation is pain. Pain in the narrator’s life and pain in the lives of others. Here the narrator does some soul searching and admits having no purpose in life but to observe the lives of others.
The narrator is hurt and disappointed about being totally wrong about Joe and Violet, that something was missed that caused the wrong conclusion to be drawn about the outcome of their relationship. The narrator jumped to the wrong conclusion about Joe, about Violet, and about what would happen when they met Felice. The narrator predicted that the Dorcas thing would happen all over again.
The narrator sees where the mistake was made. For example, when Joe cried constantly, it wasn’t just for Dorcas. Now it is clear that he could have been crying for Violet, his mother, or the fact that he made one change too many.
As the novel comes to a close, we are given the last details about the characters. Alice Manfred has moved back to her hometown. Felice remains true to her resolve. Joe finds another job and gets close to Violet again. They drink malteds together, talk to each other, and care for Violet’s new bird Violet. The novel ends with the narrator longing to have experienced such love.
The narrator, not clearly male or female, criticizes himself or herself for being a misinformed gossip. Throughout the...
(The entire section is 643 words.)