The Role of the City in the Novel “Jazz” by Toni Morrison
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.
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