The City Shines Gold, but Only From a Distance
When Christopher Morley explains in Where the Blue Begins that “All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim,” he may not realize how closely he is describing the city illustrated in Jazz, a novel by Toni Morrison. Jazz tells the story of those striving to get to the place of their dreams, Harlem, and how in the face of harsh reality, they must construct false hopes for that eventually destroy their lives and the lives of those around them. The City particularly affects Violet and Joe, who come to New York to begin a new life. As the City makes powerful promises of eternal bliss to Violet and Joe, their expectations soar. Unfortunately, great expectations invite the possibility of great disappointments, and as reality sets in, the characters in Jazz fall victim to the danger of relying on the City for happiness and success. Violet and Joe travel to New York in the hopes of a new beginning. Violet’s rough childhood led her to look for hope and happiness in places far from her home state of Virginia. Her family consisted of a mother who committed suicide and a father who was absent from her life for several months at a time. Similarly, Joe was abandoned by his mother, leaving him to search for fulfillment of his maternal void. After Joe and Violet meet and marry, they work multiple hard-labor jobs like plowing and working in a sawmill. They wanted something more out of life. Together, Joe and Violet were the perfect candidates for the alluring promises of the City because of their need to escape their painful childhoods, but also because of the lack of fulfillment they were receiving from their adult lives. As they head on a train to New York for the first time in 1906, “they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them,” (32). This is the first sign of the expectations of acceptance and love Violet and Joe hope to acquire in the City and this new life. Violet and Joe entered the City with, “fascination” that made them, “feel more like themselves,” before they had even met the City and its flaws. Their hope is dangerous. By placing all of their confidence in a place they had never been to provide them with excitement, money, and love, they set themselves up for disappointment from the beginning. The first reminder of the harshness of reality hits when they attempt to find decent jobs in the City. Though Joe no longer must do hard labor on the fields, he now must resort to demeaning jobs, from cleaning fish to scrubbing toilets. Once he works his way up, he begins working at a hotel and as a waiter where he makes tip money “that dropped in [his] palm fast as Pecans in November,” (128). Life seems to have improved for Violet and Joe, and when they move to Lenox, they live in a home far larger than necessary for two people. They feel they are living in a castle. They have overcome the first challenges of the City, and are living part of their dream–until reality strikes again. As newcomers to the City, Violet and Joe are not, at first, aware of the high cost of living. When they move into their house on Lenox they can afford the “fifty, sixty dollars a month,” but they are not prepared for the drastic climb in rent of the early 1900s that stemmed from the high demand of others who wish to live in the City (127). Landlords set rent as high as they wanted; all that mattered to them is that people were willing to pay what they were asking, whether or not it was the people already living in the house. In an already poverty stricken area like Harlem, the rents turned people onto the streets. Wanting to keep their home and their way of life, Joe and Violet must adapt to the rising price of their home. Joe must take up a side job of selling women’s cosmetics and Violet must become a hairdresser full time to make ends meet. As the City began to shows its underbelly of poverty, a reality still more disillusioning appears to Joe and Violet. In the early 1900s the United States was segregated by race. Thus, “the wave of black people running from want and violence crested in the 1870’s; the 80’s the 90’s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it,” (33). Though the North was more welcoming than the South, it was still filled with prejudices and racism, neither of which Joe or Violet are prepared to face. Coming to the City Violet and Joe expect everyone to dance with them the way they danced in the train on the way to New York. Much to their surprise, even renting a home proves difficult, because the “light-skinned renters” try to keep them out of their complexes (127). In the meantime, white privilege becomes particularly obvious when “the stores doubled the price of uptown beef and the whitefolk’s meat stay the same.” However, these frustrations are not nearly the worst of their experiences with racism in the City. In fact, the dangers of being black become more personal than they ever expected them to be. Being a black woman in New York was especially difficult and frightening at times in ways any man, black or white, may never have to experience. In parts of a City that once promised freedom, Violet and other women, like her neighbor Alice Manfred, are vulnerable to the sexual dangers of being a black woman. Daunting experiences plagued women constantly when “white men leaned out of motor cars with folded dollar bills peeping from their palms,” and worries of being raped or mugged set so deeply into these women that their fears begin to replace their aspirations in the City they once considered an escape (54). However, the racism particular to women did not end with the fear of being raped or even killed. Humiliation played a major role in the experience of a black woman, even in the most common circumstances. An event as simple as shopping poses potentially upsetting situations for them, like when they are asked to cover their skin with tissue if they want to try on a shirt (54). This major disappointment changes Violet. She danced her way into the City; now, she falls silent with fear and sadness. A particularly devastating experience and disappointment for Joe and Violet occurs in the summer of 1917, when a riot occurs because white men were trying to hang a black man as a demonstration to the community. The true danger of the City becomes clear to the couple. As Joe explains, “those white men took that pipe from around my head, I was brand new for sure because they almost killed me,” (128). Joe points out that being almost beaten to death because of his race forced a drastic change to his personality and his overall comfort in the City. Coping with this tragic experience further dashed the hopes of happiness and acceptance in New York that Joe and Violet came for. Where was the City’s “love” they had been awaiting and expecting now that they were being looked at as a race rather than as human (32)? In our society, and in the society of the Jazz Age, being young and eager to grow and prosper was–and is–encouraged. Yet with being young and hopeful comes the possibility of being naÃ¯ve and unprepared for the rough realities and hardships life offers. Violet and Joe were young and excited to begin a new life in a City they thought was filled with money, opportunity, excitement, and love; however, because of their pure and innocent hearts, they trusted that the City would give them the love and acceptance they expected. Because of the disappointments and harsh realities Violet and Joe had to face, they ended up destroying their own lives, each other’s lives, and, literally, the lives of others.
Unprepared Lives Lead to Unforgettable Mistakes
Adolescence is a confusing and vulnerable time in any young woman’s life. Unfortunately, the sexual decisions one makes as an immature youth can set a dreary path for a woman’s future. Unhealthy sexual lives such as these are displayed in Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” and William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” through the characters of Dorcas and Caddy. At the time, these women are too young and immature to realize how their decisions will affect the rest of their lives, and their sexual acts quickly lead to their demise. It is important to understand why Dorcas and Caddy would need to become so sexual in their young lives in the first place to understand the choices they made and the consequences that follow. Furthermore, their choices are similar in that they are influenced by their families and the cities. However, the characters are judged differently, in that Dorcas is seen as a victim and, unfairly, Caddy is seen as a sinner. Dorcas and Caddy both suffer from tarnished families that lead them to make poor choices, eventually ruining their lives and the lives of those around them. Early in Dorcas’ life she loses both parents on the same day, her father to a car accident and her mother to a house fire. This horrific tragedy leaves Dorcas to be raised by her aunt, Alice Manfred, a quiet, fearful woman that “worked hard to privatize her niece,” (67). Alice Manfred was not evil, but she had been through situations that made her fear people, men especially, leaving her to raise her niece under “heated control” so that Dorcas would not be hurt by the pain men could cause her (77). Alice gave Dorcas no freedom at all and treated her as the child she was growing out of. She did not speak to Dorcas about the horrors and pains of the world and how to handle them; instead she kept a tight grip and a watchful eye on her. As a young girl, Dorcas began feeling trapped and lonely. Unequipped with life experiences, when she experienced her first ounce of rejection by two brothers at a high school party, she could not handle it, “So by the time Joe Trace whispered to her through a crack of a closing door her life had become almost unbearable,” and she was easily seduced by the older man (67). Caddy grew up in a much larger family, with both of her parents, several brothers and sisters, an uncle, and a servant. However, her large family did not result in strong parenting. Mrs. Compson treated her children like they were a burden, describing her thirty three year old retarded son as “a judgment” on her, and Mr. Compson drank himself to death (5). Caddy, being the only daughter of the Compson family, became the mother figure for two of her brothers, in particular, Quentin and Benjy. This put a lot of pressure on Caddy, and as she began to grow into a young woman, the neglect she had received from her parents caught up to her. Caddy started looking to men for the love she had always wanted from her family. Unfortunately, these circumstances led to disappointing consequences for Caddy and other members of her family, which they deemed as unforgivable. Caddy and Dorcas’ childhoods reflect their need to search for love and acceptance outside of their homes, and at this young, vulnerable age, they knew no better than to do this by exploring their sexuality.Dorcas and Caddy’s affairs were very different, and led to different consequences. Dorcas’ affair began when she was only eighteen years old, with Joe Trace, a much older, married man her aunt had known for years. Being so young, Dorcas was very vulnerable to Joe, and being so closely controlled by her aunt, she needed something in her life she could control. Early into the affair Joe rented a place to be alone with Dorcas and “to tell his new love things he never told his wife,” (36). In each other they felt special, loved, and revived. However, being so young and inexperienced, Dorcas did not understand what she had gotten herself into. Joe was married, and involving oneself in situations like these can have very painful results. Regardless, he often brought her gifts, and she loved the attention, but was incapable of letting her relationship with Joe grow any deeper than that. Dorcas needed the attention and once she got it she was fulfilled, did not need it anymore. Joe, however, needed much more, and following Dorcas’ rejection succumbs to violence, and shoots her. After being shot, Dorcas tells those around her not to save her, and then bleeds to death. At her funeral, Joe’s wife slashes her face. The community looks upon as a martyr rather than an impure girl, because she died as a result of her actions. Dorcas’ death made her seem like an innocent girl caught up in a seductive, violent situation with an older man, but Caddy does not get the same sympathy. Caddy’s sexual experience did not end her life, but instead complicated it was before.The consequences of Caddy’s actions affect her family. In “The Sound and the Fury,” Caddy has sex out of wedlock and becomes pregnant. This first mistake costs her family their reputation. Then, trying to hide that her pregnancy was illegitimate, she quickly marries her boyfriend who had promised her brother, Jason, a job in a bank. However, upon finding out about the pregnancy, her husband divorces her, which costs Jason the job. On top of all of this, Quentin, the unstable, older brother that looked to Caddy as a mother, learns of her sin and commits suicide. Finally, after Caddy’s baby is born, she is unable to care for her new daughter on her own, and Jason ends up being her guardian, which creates even more resentment towards Caddy.The bitterness Caddy’s brother, Jason, holds for her is very apparent when he refers to Caddy’s daughter as, “The bitch that cost me a job, the one chance I ever had to get ahead, that killed my father and is shortening my mother’s life every day and made my name a laughing stock in the town.” Even worse, Caddy’s daughter Miss Quentin, is continually blamed for the family’s problems. Caddy never meant to hurt anyone. She was a scared, young girl, in a situation her parents had not prepared her to prevent or face. Caddy is not given any room to make mistakes in her life, even though her parents are the ones that made the ultimate mistake of not loving, nurturing or teaching her enough to be able to stay out of the kind of trouble she ends up engaging in. The sexual choices Dorcas and Caddy make are similar in that they result from poor parenting, but are different in their effects. Dorcas is seen as a victim because Joe Trace was much older and killed Dorcas, and because Joe’s wife slashed Dorcas’ lifeless face. Though both Dorcas and Caddy were looking for love, attention, and happiness, Caddy’s case affected the reputations, jobs, and lives of her family members, who took her actions very personally. In “The Sound and the Fury” and “Jazz”, Faulkner and Morrison show how young women lacking support and comfort at home can turn to men to fill the void in their lives. Regardless of how family members or the community responded to these women, they are both innocent in their actions because of the poor conditions in which they were raised. They cannot be blamed for seeking out attention and love when they were not getting it at home in the first place.
Jazz as Postmodernist Literature
Ross Murfin defines postmodernism as, “A term referring to certain radically experimental works of literature and art after World War II” (Murfin 397). According to Murfin, postmodernism, like modernism that preceded it, involves separation from dominant literary convention via the “experimentation with new literary devices, forms, and styles” (397). Participating in this departure from literary norms is Toni Morrison’s Jazz, a historical novel depicting the lives of black Americans living in Harlem at the height of the nineteen-twenties. Jazz embraces the postmodernist style through its unconventional use of narration that incorporates a unique stream of consciousness and the identification of the narrator as the physical text itself.
Stream of consciousness, while popularized by modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, takes on new eccentricities in postmodernist works such as Jazz. While not without nuance, Jazz encompasses sections of text that are not the painstakingly crafted, lyrical streams of consciousness as seen in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake; Morrison’s narrator can approach violence and disorder typically untapped in modernist works. The Bedford Glossary states that postmodernist works frequently embrace a level of “cacophony and chaos” (Murfin 397), and this can be applied especially to Jazz’s stream of consciousness narration. A striking example occurs as Violet sits in a corner store, ruminating over her husband’s lover and her own deteriorating mental state. As the narrator mediates her thoughts, and Violet becomes more agitated, the narrative discourse changes. Grammatical conventions fall away as sentences run on or end abruptly, paragraph breaks stop entirely, and profanity becomes frequent as ideas become less eloquent and more guttural as if staccato notes in the narrator’s song. Finally, the narration makes a dramatic shift in point of view, leaving third person “she” and adopting first person “I”. A paragraph that beings as thoughtful and lyrical as the rest of the text begins to turn to phrases like, “…keep me down and out of that coffin where she was the heifer who took what was mine, what I chose, picked out and determined to have and hold on to, NO! that Violet is not somebody walking round town, up and down the streets wearing my skin and using my eyes shit no that violet is me!” (Morrison 95-96). Morrison, using not only diction and rhythm but by changing the very rules and perspective of her own narration successfully conveys not just the thoughts but the unstable, chaotic emotional state of a character. This is the postmodernist stream of consciousness: going against modernist conventions to portray the often unpredictable and tumultuous machinations of the human mind.
Despite the undeniable sentience and agency presented by the narrator, it would be problematic to qualify them as having the “human mind” of the characters they depict, as Jazz’s narrator is not human. Morrison, in the same way she breaks literary convention in the style of her narrator’s voice, also brings a postmodernist element to her narrator’s identity, creating a narrator that is not within the world, yet not totally distant from it. The last pages of Jazz confirm their true nature, addressing the reader directly, “I have watched your face for a long time now, and missed your eyes when you went away from me. Talking to you and hearing you answer—that’s the kick” (Morrison 229). The narrative is mediated by none other than the book itself. In a historical context, postmodernism involves stepping back; a distancing of oneself from the long cord of history while examining and brining into context every metaphorical inch and loose thread from the postmodern to modernity and into the ageless pre-modern.
In the same way, as a book, Jazz steps back from the volumes of literature that precede it, being a book that comments upon books; a text aware it is a text. The narrator claims to have a role in its story, and even doubts the authenticity of its own reportage, stating, “[Joe and Violet] knew how little I could be counted on; how poorly, how shabbily my know-it-all self covered helplessness. That when I invented stories about them—and doing it seemed to me so fine—I was completely in their hands, managed without mercy” (220). The narrator, or rather, Jazz, implies that both they and the narrative’s characters are aware of their existence as spectacle. In doing this, Morrison separates the reality of the narrator—the plot—from the lives of these fictional characters, bringing into question the veracity of the entire tale. Jazz even admits that there are unknowns: “It never occurred to me that hey were thinking other thoughts, feeling other feelings, putting their lives together in ways I’d never dreamed of” (221). In raising these questions, Morrison raises questions on literature as a whole. What is a narrator? How are they separate from the characters which they describe? Narrators can be unreliable, but to what extent can that unreliability reach?
Jazz is a book aware of itself. I typically avoid using the term “book” in literary essays. I find it weak and ineffective when weighed against terms like “work” or “the text”. In similar fashion, I avoid using first person perspective, or “I” voice, but Jazz seems to warrant an exception to these conventions just as it flouts literary tradition in a capacity so postmodernist. So, I will permit this essay to admit being an essay, although it makes for a weak conclusion, “because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now” (229).
Morrison, Toni. Jazz, Vintage International, 2004. Murfin, Ross and Ray, Supryia M. “Postmodernism”, The Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms, Third Edition, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 397-398.
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.