Joe's hunt for Dorcas on January first, 1926 is interspersed with scenes from an earlier hunt in his life. As he searches for Dorcas, he thinks back to the third and final time that he attempted to find his mother, Wild. The two scenes are juxtaposed here as the narrator jumps from one time frame to another, with Joe speaking in his own defense at one point. As though he were speaking before a judge, Joe gives his testimony, avowing that when he left his apartment with a gun in his pocket on the first day of January he never intended to hurt or kill Dorcas. She had said hurtful things that he knew she didn't mean and he simply meant to find her. He believed that she would be alone when he found her, that she would not be with one of the slick "roosters," or street-corner sweet- talkers, that lounged on every block. He only meant to track her down and having a gun with him seemed like a natural part of the process. He stalked through the cold slippery streets with his hand in his pocket and boarded a train, getting off where he knew she would be. Years before, after he had married Violet but when he still lived in Virginia, Joe had returned to the spot by the river where he had seen Wild and asked for to make a hand signal to him. He found the place because of a large, gnarled tree that marked the spot. Close by he found a natural burrow that he crawled into. Wild was not there but Joe smelled cooking oil and he found himself in a room that was full of broken furniture, pots, pans, stolen items and the green dress from Henry LesTroy's cabin that had once belonged to Vera Louise Gray. He stood for a long time among these belongings but Wild never appeared.
The reader often forgets that Joe Trace is a murderer; that he stalked the streets of the City looking for a girl who then shot in cold blood. Morrison paints Joe as one of the most sympathetic characters in the novel even though he commits a violent crime against a defenseless young girl. However, Morrison does not assign blame in a very straightforward way and almost completely exonerates Joe by showing how self-interested and callous Dorcas is and by showing the pain that she causes Joe. Further, Joe does not seem to be in control of his actions. He talks about being propelled down the streets with his instinct for tracking a trace. He does not intend to harm Dorcas and he remembers that Hunters Hunter told him never to hurt a female. The City presses Joe onwards and the train that he gets onto seems to lurch to the stop where he is meant to disembark. As the hunter he believes that he has agency and the power to act but in fact something greater is acting upon him. Interestingly, by showing a murderer as a pained and sympathetic human being, Morrison plays with our entire moral framework and asks that we look at mitigating factors in determining someone's innocence or guilt.
Even the fact that he is looking at all indicates that something rests beyond him that he needs to become whole. The hunt for his mother becomes confused and entangled with the hunt for his lover and a kind of Oedipal structure begins to emerge from the interlacing of these two searches. The anger he bears towards his mother and the shame he feels about her wildness, her antisocial behavior and her very dark skin are relocated and transplanted onto his idea of Dorcas. Joe's own voice narrates his search through the winter streets of New York while the narrator describes the similar and final search for Wild in Virginia. Joe does not speak about the search for Wild and his silence suggests that he does not see or does not acknowledge the connection that the narrator is capable of making. She follows the trace of his stories and his actions back to their origins so in a way she is and we are, as the readers, the true hunters, piecing together the information and approaching some sort of conclusion. Because Joe's narrative pieces are delivered in the present tense, the immediacy of his hunt is highlighted and the reader can see that he did not, in fact, set out to kill Dorcas. Because we are right with him we can appreciate that he is not a ruthless killer.
Morrison also shows black people killing other black people, illustrating that even within the community, sexual and power politics continue to exist. Joe is brutally beaten by white men and almost killed in 1917, and then he shoots Dorcas, so it seems that violence engenders further violence.
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