My essay in Eng2333 at UiO.
Jazz, Toni Morrison’s response to the common identification of the Jazz Age with white people (Carabi), is about jazz and the lives of black people in the 1920s, and about improvisation in jazz music, storytelling and life. The novel begins with Dorcas being murdered by Joe and mutilated by Violet. She is dead, now and then resurrected in flashbacks. She appears to be a supporting character, a part of the examination of Joe’s and Violet’s marriage, lives before marriage and after the scandal. She lacks a sense of self. Nevertheless, in this essay I will argue that Dorcas is the central character of Jazz in the sense that she binds everything together, changes everyone in the novel and makes them think about improvisation in life, which is the main theme of the novel.
The murder and mutilation of Dorcas is the central action, the core story of Jazz, which is summarised in the first lines and told over and over again throughout the novel, each time with improvisation and backstories and more layers. The narrator moves back and forth in time but always comes back to the death of Dorcas, then details the effects it has on other characters, as well as the way they respond to and cope with her death. Thus she binds the story together, and connects the characters—changes the relationship between Joe and Violet, causes Violet to speak again, somehow brings Violet to Alice and Felice to Violet and Joe and leads to their unusual, unexpected friendships.
More importantly, Dorcas affects other characters. The first one is Joe. Before the incident, he is seen as the kind of man that men like and women trust, who treats people kindly, lives honestly and does nothing wrong; he is approved by Alice, who sees danger and evil everywhere. Why does such a man suddenly have an affair with someone so young she could be his daughter, and more shockingly, kill her? It might be said that Dorcas walks into his life when he is already unhappy with his silent wife, and in need of someone whom he can love. He already asks to rent Malvonne’s place before becoming involved with her. It seems that it can be anyone and Dorcas is unimportant, replaceable. But it is more than that. When Violet wonders what Joe sees in her and why he has an affair with her, Alice attributes it to Dorcas’s youth. But it is more than that. Perhaps she reminds him of the image he has in mind of his biological mother, bold, wild, against the rules; perhaps she makes him think of the younger Violet, “snappy, determined” (Morrison 23), but there is a mutual understanding and a bond between them, because both Joe and Dorcas grow up without their real parents and seek an identity, because, young as she is, she knows “what that inside nothing was like” (Morrison 38) and fills it for him. She makes him whole. She makes him feel new and fresh without actively renewing himself as he has done seven times before meeting her. She makes “[him] know a loneliness [he] never could imagine in a forest empty of people for fifteen miles, or on a riverbank with nothing but live bait for company” (Morrison 129) and convinces him “[he] never knew the sweet side of anything until [he] tasted her honey” (ibid.), which is why for all of his life, Joe claims nobody but claims Dorcas and then kills her, for fear of losing her. She removes her hard, indifferent, rebellious shell, reveals her soft, vulnerable side and inspires him to bare his own soul, though he has not got close to anybody since Victory. Because she has enabled him to talk about things he does not even tell himself, it can be argued that her impact remains after she is gone, and when Joe finally comes to terms with his guilt and finds peace, he can have the courage to face and embrace life instead of running around and seeking for something else as he has always done.
If Dorcas changes Joe while alive, she changes her aunt Alice after she has died. They are opposites. Alice conforms to rules, norms, conventions; Dorcas breaks rules, likes secrets and enjoys the thrill of having a relationship with a married man. Alice thinks even listening to jazz, the lowdown, dirty, harmful, embarrassing music, is like violating the law and therefore closes the windows against it; Dorcas absorbs it all and lives with it. Alice sees the city as full of danger and fears everything; Dorcas fears nothing and wants “to do something scary all the time” (Morrison 202). If Alice does not have a sense of self, as she lets go of it for safety and acceptance, then surrenders and passes on all the rules and constraints that once suffocated her; Dorcas does not have a sense of self either. That is why she keeps looking for something and never feels satisfied. That is why she wants to win, to have what others wish for. That is why she clings to Acton even though he criticises and treats her badly, as she wants to have a personality and with him she gets one, or so she thinks. If Alice is too busy conforming, Dorcas is too busy rebelling. And yet, Dorcas lives. Whilst Alice secretly admires “the coats and the women who wore them” that she outwardly condemns (Morrison 55), chooses “deafness and blindness” to protect herself (Morrison 54), dares not express anger at her husband except through “vicious, childish acts of violence” (Morrison 86), Dorcas lives and breaks rules and tries to find meaning in her life and goes with the flow and takes a plunge and refuses to stay within bounds. She wants to take whatever life has to offer, good or bad, and lives like she knows “how small and quick this little bitty life is” (Morrison 113). She absorbs everything as she has absorbed the music, “the woodchips”, and turns it into fire (Morrison 60- 61).
Therefore, in her own way Dorcas changes her aunt, making her re-examine her whole life. She reminds Alice of her younger self, who grew up under “heated control”, deciding never to pass it on, but eventually does and imposes the same rules on Dorcas (Morrison 77). She forces Alice to recognise her own passivity, cowardice and fears and her own surrender, and more importantly, to see the emptiness of her own life—in her fifties Alice has nothing, no husband, no children, nothing of her own, nothing to love, and no self. Losing Dorcas is like losing a daughter, though at the same time Alice perhaps also realises that her overprotection has always kept Dorcas at a distance and made her resist for the sake of resisting, rebel for the sake of rebelling, and revel in the freedom to be self-destructive. The murder makes Alice feel unsafe since danger is not in the streets but inside her home. However, as she ponders over security, unarmed women and women with knives, she comes to see the consequences of choosing the safe way, of conforming to rules, repressing her own desires and throwing away her individuality—she no longer has a self and does not truly live. When saying to Violet “Nobody’s asking you to take it. I’m sayin make it, make it!” (Morrison 113), she seems out of character at first, because she is the one who tends to “take it”, but at this point Alice has realised that herself, thanks to her niece.
Through Joe and Alice, Dorcas affects Violet. If Dorcas, after filling the emptiness in Joe, devastates him, she wakes up his wife from a long sleep and sets her in motion. For her whole life, Violet has nobody—her father was never home, her mother Rose Dear committed suicide, her grandmother True Belle was immersed in her stories of the idealised Golden Gray. In her fifties Violet has no children; depressed and desperate in her disorientation and mother-hunger, for a long time she is withdrawn into herself, speaking to no one but her parrots. Seeing the chores being done, not herself doing them, she feels nothing, perceives nothing, and finds out about Joe’s affair with Dorcas the moment she knows about his murder of her. This reminds Violet of what she has forgotten—she still has someone to love and care for, who could leave her for Dorcas if not for the murder. She also comes to the realisation thanks to Alice “You got anything left to you to love, anything at all, love it” (Morrison 112), who in her turn learns it from the feeling of loss and emptiness caused by Dorcas’s death. All of the changes in these characters point back to Dorcas, showing the centrality and significance of this character in the novel.
Another change is that Dorcas, who knows it because she knows the suddenness of death, reminds Violet that her life is hers. Violet and Alice become some kind of friends because they are united in the feeling that they are both betrayed by Dorcas and Joe; because they are around the same age and have no children; because they do not feign politeness and have clarity. More importantly, after Dorcas, they both are forced to think about their lack or loss of control over their own lives. When Violet tells Felice “Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her.” (Morrison 209), she refers to the person in her who goes with the flow and gets shaped by external forces, the woman in her who keeps wanting to be something else, the side of her that is immersed in grief and guilt and turns it into violence; and her answer “Me.” (ibid.) to the question “Who’s left?” (ibid.) means that she at last remembers that she has to be herself and regain control over her life.
Echoing Alice’s words “Nobody’s asking you to take it. I’m sayin make it, make it!” (Morrison 113), Violet tells Felice “What’s the world for if you can’t make it up the way you want it? […] If you don’t, it will change you and it’ll be your fault cause you let it. I let it. And messed up my life. […] Forgot it was mine.” (Morrison 208) Dorcas reminds her of her young self, “snappy, determined”. Dorcas reminds her of Rose Dear, who loses the fight and commits suicide. Dorcas makes her realise that she, affected by the migration and miscarriages and absorbed in mother-hunger, loses control and almost loses Joe. Dorcas makes her re-examine her relationship with Joe and think about her own individuality and uniqueness “Who was he thinking of when he ran in the dark to meet me in the cane field? Somebody golden, like my own golden boy, who I never ever saw but who tore up my girlhood as surely as if we’d been the best of lovers? […] Which means from the very beginning I was a substitute and so was he.” (Morrison 97) Nevertheless, original or substitute, Violet has claimed Joe, and knows now that she still wants him “Do I stay with him? I want to, I think. I want… well, I didn’t always… now I want. I want some fat in this life.” (Morrison 110) In the end she makes a choice, and gradually she and Joe reconcile. It might be argued that, in a sense, without Dorcas, Violet would still sink deep in her dejection and the rift between them would always remain and they would never talk. Somehow, Dorcas is a catalyst, a means of bringing them back together, though it takes place at the cost of her life.
Dorcas also changes her close friend. Felice’s reaction “I’m not like her!” (Morrison 209) is a release of her suppressed grief. Looking for the ring is a pretext, she needs to talk to someone and Joe shares with her the memories of Dorcas, and the anguish. Mixed with that sorrow is the feeling of indignation and bitterness at her friend, as she says to Joe “You were the last thing on her mind. I was right there, right there. Her best friend, I thought, but not best enough for her to want to go to the emergency room and stay alive.” (Morrison 213) Felice questions their friendship, and the talk with Joe surprises her when he tells her of Dorcas’s soft side, of which she knows nothing. However, her statement “I’m not like her!” is also an emphasis on her individuality, her sense of self—that she is Felice, not like Dorcas. After the conversation, Joe finds it easier to cope with his sorrows and guilt, Felice comes to terms with everything and makes up her mind to be independent. That is partly influenced by Violet, “Not like the ‘me’ was some tough somebody, or somebody she had put together for show. But like, like somebody she favored and could count on. A secret somebody you didn’t have to feel sorry for or have to fight for.” (Morrison 210) Felice comes to this realisation not only because Violet tells her to make the world up the way she wants it, but also because she witnesses Dorcas burning with her own intensity and destroying herself. She sees Dorcas act like a fool, get into an affair, for the excitement of secrecy, with a man who later kills her, then run after a man who treats her badly, and let herself die. Dorcas is an example of what she does not want to become; because of Dorcas, Felice wants to be independent, be the “me” she can count on.
Throughout the novel, all these characters, affected by Dorcas, think about their own lives, about the self, individuality, independence, choice and control over their lives. That is the main theme of Jazz. The structure of Jazz—the telling of a story over and over again with added layers and backstories, resembles a jazz piece. The narrator begins the narrating, with predictions, then finds them wrong and has to change in another direction as other voices come in and tell different versions. The characters have to find their own rhythm. All of these are parallel and connected—improvisation in jazz music, improvisation in storytelling, improvisation in life. Dorcas may be a rebel without a cause, who breaks rules merely for the sake of resisting her aunt’s restraining hands. She may be “a pack of lies”, whose “underclothes were beyond her years, even if her dress wasn't” (Morrison 72). She may be a fool who goes after the wrong men. She may be a selfish girl who chooses to die before her best friend and at her last moment thinks about nothing but Joe. She may be self-destructive in her intensity and her desperate desire for “attention and excitement” (Morrison 205). And yet, in spite of all that, she affects other characters and shocks them into re-examining their own lives and acts as a catalyst for their revelation and change.
Jazz centres around Dorcas’s death and the impact it has on other characters. She breaks them, and also heals them. She brings Joe and Violet back together, leads to the friendship between Violet and Alice, connects Violet, Joe and Felice, and binds the whole novel together. She causes them to think about independence and the self and the lack or loss of control over their lives. She causes them to change. Therefore, in this sense, Dorcas is the glue and the central character of Jazz.
Carabi, Angels. "Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison Speaks about Her Novel Jazz". In Toni Morrison: Conversations, edited by Carolyn C. Denard, 91- 97. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008. https://books.google.no/books?id=eV9_8v4pTzsC&dq=jazz+toni+morrison&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Plume Books, 1993.