Absent Fathers, Mothers, and Children: Filling the Voids of Loss in Toni Morrison’s Jazz
In Jazz, Toni Morrison writes with a style both rhythmic and passionate that is strikingly similar to the music of her novel’s title. Set mainly during the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the late 1920s, Morrison essentially tells the story of a tragic love triangle between a middle-aged couple and a young girl. As the plot progresses, however, it becomes evident that the entire cast of complex characters is connected through the relationships they build with each other. As they lead their lives, one common thread in particular emerges: loss and, consequently, efforts to fill the voids left behind. Golden Gray, the biracial result of a forbidden affair, seeks answers to not only his missing father but also a missing sense of racial identity; Joe Trace, the man responsible for starting and ending the doomed love triangle, searches for his absent mother; and Violet Trace, the distraught wife of Joe, goes to great lengths to compensate for her lack of children.
Golden Gray is unique among the other characters in that he has a relatively happy and normal childhood in spite of his father’s absence. Raised by his white mother, Vera Louise, and her black slave, True Belle, Golden is pampered and loved. He presumes from his light skin color that he is simply white like his mother, and neither woman contradicts this false assumption. Finally, when he is eighteen, True Belle confesses that his father is actually a black man named Henry Lestory. This revelation turns Golden’s world upside-down, and he immediately follows True Belle’s directions to see this Henry Lestory for himself. As he sits in his father’s house, waiting for him, he describes his state of mind: “Only now . . . now that I know I have a father, do I feel his absence: the place where he should have been and was not. Before, I thought everybody was one-armed, like me. Now I feel the surgery. The crunch of bone where it is sundered, the sliced flesh and the tubes of blood cut through, shocking the bloodrun and disturbing the nerves . . . It’s a phantom I have to behold and be held by, in whatever crevices it lies, under whatever branch . . . This part of me that does not know me . . .” (Morrison 158) By equating the loss of his father to the loss of one of his own arms, Golden conveys the immense pain and confusion he feels. In an attempt to fill this newly realized void, quite literally a flesh wound, Golden convinces himself that he must kill Henry Lestory. Of course, this is highly irrational; Golden has finally found what he has been missing his entire life, and now he wants to destroy it forever? This justification of murder demonstrates, however, the extent to which Golden is willing to go to become whole again. As the narrator puts it, Golden “longed for authenticity, for a right to be in this place, effortlessly without needing to acquire a false face” (Morrison 160). When True Belle tells him about his father, she not only complicates his racial identity; she shatters his entire sense of self. That is a hole that demands filling.
Unlike Golden Gray, Joe Trace grows up uncertain of his heritage. Taken in by the Williams family in Virginia, Joe is cared for but conscious of the fact that he is not really their son. When Rhoda Williams, his mother, tells him that his real parents “disappeared without a trace”, Joe “understood this to mean the ‘trace’ they disappeared with was [him]” (Morrison 124). He thus takes Trace as his last name. By doing so, he effectively labels himself as missing something. Despite eventually learning the identity of his mother (a mysterious, even feared woman called Wild who lives in the forest and in fields of sugarcane) and venturing to look for her on three separate occasions, he never finds her. It is precisely this lack of a maternal influence that prevents Joe from being able to cope with the loss. As he grows older with Violet, their relationship weakens until “they were still a couple but barely speaking to each other, let alone laughing together” (Morrison 36). Joe craves happiness and a meaningful connection with someone in his life, so he turns to an eighteen-year-old girl named Dorcas. He finds it easier to connect with her and trust her with his past perhaps because she is still dealing with the pain of losing her own parents: “Dorcas . . . knew better than people his own age what that inside nothing was like. And [she] filled it for him, just as he filled it for her, because she had it too” (Morrison 37-38). They bond over this “inside nothing”, and their intimate relationship helps fill Joe’s void. He does not know how to keep it going, however, and he ends up shooting Dorcas in a nightclub. Joe’s absent mother is never around to teach him the ways of the world, so he teaches himself; unfortunately, this ultimately drives him to commit adultery and murder.
Violet Trace, the granddaughter of the woman who tells Golden Gray about his father and the wife of the man who kills Dorcas, has problems of her own. Her loss initially appears to be that of her mother, who throws herself down a well, but Violet’s actions reveal that what is actually missing from her life is a child. At one point, she makes a half-hearted attempt to steal a baby from a neighbor of a hair-dressing client. The brief joy she gets from holding the baby is apparent: “When the baby was in her arms, she inched its blanket up around the cheeks against the threat of wind too cool for its honey-sweet, butter-colored face. Its big-eyed noncommittal stare made her smile. Comfort settled itself in her stomach and a kind of skipping, running light traveled her veins.” (Morrison 19) Violet may not be thinking clearly, but this incident still demonstrates her yearning for children of her own. Later on, the saga with Dorcas confirms this desire. Violet first succeeds in stabbing Dorcas’ corpse at her funeral and then proceeds to stalk the poor girl after she is in the ground. She finds out every detail about Dorcas’ life and even acquires a portrait of her, which she props on the mantel to gaze at each night. Despite Violet’s insistence that “the girl’s memory is a sickness in the house” (Morrison 28), she seems to bond with her portrait, “admiring the dead girl’s hair . . . having whispered conversations with the corpse in her head . . . [wondering] what color were Dorcas’ eyes” (Morrison 15). This peculiar, one-sided relationship in addition to stealing a baby are merely negative manifestations of Violet’s longing for a child. As the novel progresses, however, her character develops healthier coping methods. She forms relationships with Alice Manfred, Dorcas’ aunt, and Felice, Dorcas’ best friend. Their rapports are surprising at first glance, but given the circumstances they actually prove quite logical. In Alice, Violet sees a woman aged “fifty eight with no children of her own, and the one she had access to and responsibility for dead” and can empathize with her (Morrison 76). In Felice, Violet sees a girl about the right age to be her own daughter. Even Felice gets the feeling that she is “somebody [Violet] favored and could count on” (Morrison 211). Most importantly, Violet finds companions who are also dealing with grief, and the voids left behind seem easier to fill together.
Morrison’s array of characters is impressive. Each is complex, fully developed, and somehow part of the larger tapestry that connects them all. Golden Gray, Joe, and Violet Trace in particular are related not only by this family tree of sorts but also by shared life experience: they are faced with loss and must try to make themselves whole again. Golden comes close to killing his father in order to come to terms with his newfound racial identity; Joe commits heinous crimes in the process of coping with his mother’s absence; and Violet acquires both negative behaviors and positive relationships as she deals with her lack of children. As all of this drama unfolds, there is a whisper of a melody in the background. It echoes from the pages, from between Morrison’s lyrical lines. It sounds a bit like jazz.
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