Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

For African Americans to survive, first, and then to thrive, Morrison insists, they must be at once creative and conforming, innovative and traditional. They must build upon what came before while imagining a new way. The jazz that emanates from the streets of Harlem and is the novel’s recurring motif embodies such qualities.

Joe Trace, while wary of the rhythms he hears in doorways and from the rooftops, uncertain of what to make of the “sooty” guitar music played by the blind twins that could be contributing to Dorcas’s restlessness, knows what saved his forbears: “Those old people, they knew it all. . . . [B]ack then, back there, if you was or claimed to be colored, you had to be new and stay the same every day the sun rose and every night it dropped. And let me tell you, baby, in those days it was more than a state of mind.” Being new and remaining the same is exactly what jazz is about. The riffs are newly invented with each performer and performance, but the underlying beat can be traced way back and is the common force holding a culture together.

Alice Manfred fears the power of such music. The drumbeat she hears on Fifth Avenue in 1917, as frozen black faces march past her and her young niece, draws her in, providing her with “a rope cast for rescue” from the alienation and distance from everyone that she has felt since her husband left her for another woman many years ago. That music, like that of the church, sustains,...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Toni Morrison has stated that the overarching purpose of her novels is to show readers “how to survive in a world where we are all of us, in some measure, victims of something.” She begins Jazz with an anecdote in which Dorcas seems to be the clear victim of the actions of Joe and then Violet. By the end of the novel, however, Morrison has shown how all the characters are victims, for all are scarred by their pasts— often by the racism, dispossession, and violence that are the heritage of slavery. Most of the characters are thus preoccupied with a search for self that involves working out the complex family patterns that haunt them. Some characters, such as Joe and Golden Gray, conduct an actual search to find a parent. On a less conscious level, most of the characters—including Joe, Violet, Dorcas, Alice, and Felice—are searching for people who will fill the gaps left by the relatives they have, in one way or another, lost. For example, as a result of her mother’s suicide, Violet loses both her mother and her desire to become a mother; yet she comes to find in Alice and in Dorcas (and then Felice) both the mother and the daughter that she longs to have in her life.

Even the narrator is the victim of her own illusions and mistaken projections. She finds that she must partially give up the romantic view of the City, presented early in the novel, as a place of ideal liberation where people are inspired to become “their stronger,...

(The entire section is 448 words.)