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Jazz

Toni Morrison

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Quiz

What effect does the narrative voice that Morrison employs in "Jazz" have on our reading of the novel? Why would she have chosen a narrator that is neither a character nor wholly omniscient and detached?

Morrison's narrator tells and retells the stories of the characters, interrupting herself, and questioning her reliability and reframing events from multiple viewpoints and perspectives. In the first paragraph of the novel, she gives us the skeletal structure of the main plot but then goes on to recapitulate and develop the story, moving outwards and backwards from the events that tie together Joe, Violet and Dorcas. Morrison redefines the structure of a novel by rejecting the standard conventions of beginning, middle and end because in that her stories follow no timeline. Her narrator, therefore, asserts a literary aesthetic that better captures the experience of African-Americans whose stories integrate Christian, African, and mythological sources. Positioned above the story but also oddly tied into her tale, the narrator immerses the reader in the textures of the black community, and closes the distance that a more historical or sociological view would create. As the spirit of the book, she witnesses everything from every angle and her openness invites the reader to practice flexibility, tolerance, and empathy.

Does Morrison suggest a moral in her story?

In Jazz, one of the protagonists, a character with whom the narrator and reader naturally sympathize, is a murderer. Joe Trace shoots his young lover in cold blood and yet the reader privately rejoices when he finds a way out of depression and heals his relationship with his wife, Violet. Does Morrison exonerate his violent act simply because of his painful upbringing? Can an affair with an adolescent girl be "okay"? Jazz does not excuse the moral transgressions of its characters but rather shows how good people can be driven to do bad things, inviting the reader to explore the hidden wounds that prompt human beings to hurt themselves and others. The book does not assign blame and does not overtly condemn white America for the economic and psychic hardships suffered by the black community. However, in examining the deep wounds that haunt the lives of her main characters, Morrison illustrates how morality shifts depending on whose side one takes and how almost any action can be explained by psychological motivations.

Describe the role of the city landscape as a character in the novel. Why does the narrator talk so much about the cityscape and how does it relate to the lives of the other characters?

The narrator frequently interrupts her investigation into the lives of Violet, Joe and her city characters to describe the distinctive feel and pace of life in Harlem. She paints images of buildings, alleys and front stoops with loving detail but also moves back to look for patterns and designs that are refracted again and again. Given a pulse and a backbeat, the city is animated and set to its own musical score, coming to life and quietly shaping the lives of its black inhabitants. That is to say, "the City" represents black Harlem and is its own character. Considered by the narrator from a variety of angles and vantage points, the City offers an infinite number of possibilities to the hopeful migrants who flock there. It is a place to remake oneself, as Violet, Joe and Dorcas all traveled to the City to escape painful memories from their southern homes.

Suggested Essay Topics

Why does Dorcas choose to die and what does her death symbolize?

Does Violet's forgiveness and acceptance of Joe's infidelity undermine a possible feminist reading of the text? Is Violet weak for doing so?

How can the narrative structure of the novel be compared to a jazz piece? What does jazz music have in common with the stories of many African-Americans in the early twentieth century?

To whom does the narrator address herself at the end of the novel? Are the narrator and Toni Morrison indivisible?

Examining the theme of sisterhood and the different female relationships described in the book, discuss why Morrison shows the disruption of so many woman-to-woman bonds.

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