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Joe met Dorcas in October and the affair lasted for three months. Joe remembers everything about Dorcas's face and mannerisms with aching sadness; even when he recalls the afternoon on which she said she would leave him. When he lies in bed trying to recall the early days of his marriage to Violet, he can only remember the dates and events but he has long lost the feeling of love that characterized those times. Joe met Dorcas when he was going over to sell cosmetics to a group of women gathered at the home of Alice Manfred. The young girl, whom he had already noticed in the candy store, opened the door for him, and when he left the house he whispered in her ear.
Joe and Violet met when they were both working in the fields in Vesper County, Virginia. Within a short time they found themselves heading on a train up north to New York City, intoxicated by their hopes, love, and their dreams of urban life. The year was 1906, twenty years before Dorcas's murder and Violet's breakdown. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, a great number of Black people from all over the country migrated to New York City, to escape field labor, racism, and the expectations of rural life. Upon arrival in the great metropolis it was easy to forget about their previous existences and these migrants felt that the city had always been home.
Twenty years after their arrival in the city, Joe gives up trying to make a marriage with Violet work and begins his affair with Dorcas. He rents a room from a neighbor for six hours out of the week, allowing him to bring Dorcas to bed with him and tell her things about his childhood. He tells her that when he was fourteen and still in Virginia he sat by a riverbank at dusk and spoke to a woman who he believed to be his mother as she hid in a bush. He asked the crazy woman to make a sign with her hand to tell him definitively if she was indeed his mother but in the dim evening light he could not be sure that she had done so.
Dorcas understands the emptiness that Joe feels because she feels it too. She knew her mother, but the woman had slapped Dorcas and they had fought. While living in East St. Louis, Dorcas was staying over at a friend's house one night when she heard a commotion from across the street. Her family's apartment was on fire and she remembers screaming for her box of dolls. Dorcas also talks at length about Mexico and begs Joe to take her there, where they will dance all night and enjoy a happier life.
Dorcas and Joe relate to each other the secrets of their lives as they lie in bed. The apartment they use belongs to a woman named Malvonne who cleans offices until well past midnight, but Dorcas and Joe think about how nice it would be to stay there until the wee hours. However, Dorcas has to get back to Alice Manfred's house and Joe must return to Violet. In the time they do spend together, she does his nails and they make passionate love. At the end of each meeting, Joe gives Dorcas a present.
Like many of the sections in this novel, the second section is marked off with a fully blank page that must be turned before continuing on with the story. The blank page serves as a pause in the jazz-like structure that informs and shapes the prose, language and narrative tempo. As with a jazz piece, themes from earlier segments are revisited and fleshed out. Section One ended with the words "I love you" and Section Two picks up this theme and continually uses it, as the first words of Section Two are "Or used to."
Memories and associations lead the narrator to retell certain parts of the Violet-Joe-Dorcas plot, each time highlighting or focusing on new facets of the story. As Joe's love for Dorcas is explored in more depth, the language used to describe her begins to foretell and foreshadow the appearance of his mother. The lost mother and the wild girlfriend start to meld into one and Dorcas's "sugar-flawed skin" resonates with the image of the Virginia sugar cane fields where Wild often hid. With hair like a "high wild bush" and "bitten" nails Dorcas bears a resemblance to later descriptions of Joe's mother and the language used to describe the two becomes self-referential, reminding the reader of earlier passages.
The violence of love and the idea that love is a wound also appears in this section. Love is described as "fading" or "scabbing," and Joe's eyes "burned" when he first saw Dorcas. The emotional burning that he feels for Dorcas is compared to the physical burning of the young girl's mother in the riot. Love's destruction and violence is dramatized in the internal world of the characters and in the external, historical world of race riots and prejudice.
Also, the word "fading," which is used to describe Joe's love for Violet, reappears in the description of his meeting with Wild. When she signaled to him, the light was fading so that he could not make out her response. This again highlights the theme in the novel that there are no definitive answers or interpretations available and that everything is malleable and ambiguous. Because the light in the novel is continually fading and because the narrator can look at a story from a multiplicity of angles, it is impossible to grasp one single perspective or answer.
As the novel's stories are told and retold, the narrator digresses to explore the lives of secondary characters and the stories of Black people as a whole. On the train north to the city, the narrator suddenly gives us a glimpse of the world from within the perspective of an attendant who "never got his way." Moments later, the focus zooms out from his own annoyance back to the greater story of Black Americans' migration from the South to the cities of the North in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rhythm of the language in the description of these train rides into the city mirrors the rolling of the locomotives and the rocking of the expectant migrants: "When the train trembled approaching the water surrounding the City, they thought it was like them: nervous at having gotten there at last, but terrified of what was on the other side. Eager, a little scared, they did not even nap during the fourteen hours of a ride smoother than a rocking cradle." The use of colorful comparisons and metaphors in the language ("smoother than a rocking cradle") keeps the tone from being one of historical or academic distance. Even as she describes sociological phenomena or historical truths, the narrator uses idiomatic expressions to remain within the lives of the characters. At one point she even seems to respond to questions posed by an invisible companion that may be a stand-in for the reader. These questions mimic the practice of "call and response," which was originated in Africa and practiced in southern churches and in jazz music.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Jazz!