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Malvonne cleans the offices of powerful white businessmen every night from six until 2:30 a.m.. She took care of her nephew, alternately called "Sweetness," "William Younger," or "Little Caesar," from the time he was seven until he moved away to Chicago or San Diego. After he leaves, she finds her favorite grocery bag tucked behind his radiator and filled with the unsent letters of neighbors. A busybody who loves gossip, Malvonne begins to read through the letters. Some of the letters require her to take immediate action because the intended receiver has been left waiting with inadequate or outdated information. Such is the case with a woman named Winsome Clark whose husband in Panama is still sending cash to an old address. Sometimes she also adds unsolicited and anonymous clippings to letters that she finds particularly sinful or steamy before sending them on.
One day Joe arrives at Malvonne's door. She assumes that he is there to sell her his cosmetics so she assures him that she has no money. Joe corrects her and explains that he is there to ask a favor. He wants to rent out Sweetness's old room to use while Malvonne is working downtown. He says that he will pay her two dollars a month in addition to fixing up any leaks or problems around the house since she now lives alone. Malvonne refuses, saying that she wants no part in Joe's infidelity. She rejects his offer on the basis of her reputation and her solidarity with Violet, whom she does not like but for whom she feels some sympathy. Joe tries to convince her that he only wants to spend some time with a female companion for some conversation. He says that he is a decent man who does not gamble, drink or run around the neighborhood with prostitutes. He says that Violet no longer talks to him but busies herself with her hairdressing and communicates more with her parrot than with her own husband. Although she is troubled about being an accomplice to a man's treachery, Malvonne agrees to the arrangement with the proviso that she will not pass notes or messages between the couple or help them to arrange meeting times. She also begs Joe not to get involved with a woman who has young children. Of course, Joe has been running around of late, meeting Dorcas on any evening that she can manage to get away. The couple tends to meet on Thursdays, a night that seems reserved for covert relationships and that does not carry the high expectations or dangerous energy of a weekend night.
The narrator often mentions a character's name in relation to a certain plot event and then branches out from that point to a discussion of his or her life or personality. While in the previous section, the narrator had been describing the meetings between Joe and Dorcas in Malvonne's apartment, now the focus switches to Malvonne herself. Malvonne collects newspapers and is a keen observer of the neighborhood people. Like the narrator, she collects what she deems to be the relevant information pieces together different story lines. When she cleans the white peoples' office buildings she learns about the men from different traces: a photograph, a waste basket, a snatch of overheard conversation. As a Black cleaning lady, she is considered invisible so she taps into a collective psyche and exercises a sort of independent control. Therefore, Malvonne mirrors not only the narrative of Jazz itself but also the City landscape that is everywhere and everything.
As the narrative voice shifts, so too do the identities of Morrisson's characters. Everyone seems to change names or identities, responding to dispossession, migration, and relocation. Malvonne's nephew "Sweetness" is first named "William Younger" and then "Little Caesar," and his names reflect his transformation from a "young" trace of his parents to a small king and then a sweet man. Sweetness does not live with his parents and the narrator does not give us any information about their story. Raised by his aunt Malvonne, Sweetness's situation thus mirrors Dorcas's. In fact, most of the characters in the novel are raised by people other than their own parents. Joe Trace is raised by the Williams family, Violet is raised by her grandmother, and Dorcas is raised by Malvonne. This familial fragmentation is echoed by the narrative style, which often skips and jumps, interrupting itself and resisting a continuous plot structure.
The unsent letters that Malvonne reads display the pain of separated families, homesickness, and a longing for something simpler. In the most poignant letter, from Winsome Clark to her husband in Panama, Winsome spells out her suffering and loneliness. Her writing is later read by Malvonne, an anonymous, invisible, and benevolent observer who hopes to help Winsome in any way possible. Winsome writes with pleading urgency "us drowning here," and dreams of her home in the Barbados with "big trees" and her mother. Displaced in the concrete jungle, she still longs for her roots, just as Joe will continue to search for a woman who can serve to replace his own mother. As Malvonne reads the letters that her nephew stashed (for unexplained and mysterious reasons), she is able to flesh out the stories and reconfigure them. At the very least, she adds her own advice as she does when she sends on a particularly steamy letter between two lovers. Attaching a magazine clipping to the letter before sending it on, Malvonne adds her stitch to a larger tapestry that entwines and connects all of Morrison's characters.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Jazz!