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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Jazz begins with a recap of Dorcas's murder and Violet's attack on her corpse. The couple that kills and then defaces the young girl seem immediately to be evil and immoral characters but surprisingly Morrison goes on to flesh them out and to explain, in part, that their violent acts stem from suppressed anguish and disrupted childhoods. Morrison traces the violence of the City characters back to Virginia, where generations of enslavement and poverty tore families apart. Subtly, Morrison suggests that the Black on Black violence of the City carries over from the physical and psychic violence committed against the race as a whole. She interweaves allusions to racial violence into her story with a neutral tone that lets the historical facts speak for themselves. Further, her descriptions of scenes are often filled with violence, as she discusses buildings which are cut but a razorlike line of sunlight. Even her narrative is violently constructed with stories wrenched apart, fragmented, and retold in a way that mirrors the splintered identities of the novel's principal characters.
Mothers are almost always absent from the lives of Morrison's characters, having abandoned their children, died, or simply disappeared. The absence of mothers also reflects the absence of a "motherland," as the African-American community searches for a way to make America its home, despite the horrors of dislocation and slavery. The mother also signifies a common cultural and racial heritage that that eludes the characters as they struggle to define themselves. The word "mama" rests on the tip of the characters' tongue and is an unconscious lament for a lost home or feeling of security. During one of Violet's visits, Alice Manfred blurts out "Oh, Mama," and then covers her mouth, shocked at her own vulnerability. Dorcas also refers to her mother out of nowhere as she lies on her death bed, thinking, "I know his name but Mama won't tell." Morrison's narrator, ever-present in the lives and histories of her characters, doubles as a kind of mother for the text, tending to the community of Black Harlem.
With its shape-shifting, omnipresent narrator, Jazz immerses its reader in the psyche and history of its African-American characters. The book attempts to mirror, from an anthropological and fictional standpoint, the concerns of this community and the roots of their collective search for identity. The narrator does not travel far from the self-contained universe of Black Harlem and does not focus on the lives of any white characters, save for Vera Louise Gray. The legacy of slavery reverberates throughout the story and the influx of Black people to the City reflects a distancing from this past.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Jazz!