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Jazz (1992) Toni Morrison

Jazz (1992) Toni Morrison

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When American author Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Jazz was her most recently published novel. The book tells the story of Joe and Violet Trace, an unhappily married couple in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s. Joe has an affair with eighteen-year-old Dorcas, then shoots her when she loses interest in him.

Jazz takes much of its inspiration from the structure of jazz music, and the novel shifts in time and perspective, with different narrators coming forward at different points to take the spotlight.

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison: Summary

Jazz begins with an unnamed narrator describing an unfortunate turn of events in the marriage of Joe and Violet Trace. Joe fell in love with eighteen-year-old Dorcas and then shot her when she moved on to another man. Violet made a dramatic appearance at Dorcas' funeral, where she tried to cut the face of the dead girl and then ran home to release all her pet birds into the freezing New York City winter.

Jazz's present day is Harlem, New York City, in 1926. This period was the height of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement in the 1920s and 30s that saw an explosion of Black culture, including art, literature, and music. During the Great Migration, millions of Black people moved from Southern states to Northern ones, and Harlem became an epicenter of African American culture. In particular, the neighborhood became known as a key place in the birth of jazz music.

Between Joe's sadness at losing his lover and Violet's sadness at uncovering her husband's affair, the Trace household is not a happy place. Violet slowly starts to become obsessed with learning all she can about Dorcas. She finds a picture of the girl, which she and Joe both spend time staring at, and Dorcas is a frequent topic of conversation when Violet visits her clients for work as a hairdresser.

As the story progresses, the narrator reveals that Violet has exhibited other strange behaviors in the past, most notably trying to steal a baby on the street and sleeping with a baby doll.

Joe, meanwhile, mopes around the house, devastated by his loss. He recalls his relationship with Dorcas, which lasted three months, and the start of his relationship with Violet. The two met while working in Virginia cotton fields in 1906. Years later, they traveled to New York City together to pursue their dreams and escape the racism of the South.

Jazz, cotton field, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Joe and Violet met picking cotton in Virginia.

However, as time passed and Violet's behavior became more erratic, the two grew apart, and when Joe met Dorcas, he quickly fell in love. He began renting a room in a neighbor's apartment, where he brought Dorcas a few evenings a month.

The novel then moves back to 1917, when Dorcas' parents were killed in the St. Louis riots. The newly orphaned girl was taken in by her aunt, Alice, who believed that jazz music was to blame for the social unrest. Dorcas, however, loved music, and as she grew up, she began to sneak out to dances.

In 1917, riots broke out in St. Louis as white workers protested labor rights and race relations. White workers in several St. Louis industries went on strike for higher wages, prompting businesses to hire lower-paid Black employees. In retaliation, a crowd of white men marched the streets of St. Louis, attacking Black people on the street. Somewhere between 40 and 150 Black people were killed during the riots, and thousands were left homeless when rioters burned down African American neighborhoods.

Back in the novel's present-day, Violet visits Alice in her home. These visits started a week or so after Dorcas' funeral and have become common. Alice doesn't understand why she tolerates the presence of Violet, given her proximity to the man who killed Dorcas and the scene she caused at Dorcas' funeral. However, both women seem to take comfort in the other's presence.

Violet leaves Alice's house and orders a milkshake at a nearby drug store. She remembers the events of Dorcas' funeral, contemplating what "that Violet" had been capable of. She remembers releasing her birds afterward, particularly the parrot that kept saying, "I love you."

Jazz, birdcage, StudyStudyFig. 2 - Violet releases all her birds after disrupting Dorcas' funeral.

Thinking about her husband and Dorcas, Violet remembers meeting Joe in Virginia and her childhood before that. She remembers her mother, Rose Dear, who stopped speaking back in 1888 after her husband allowed collectors to repossess all the family's belongings and then disappeared. Violet's grandmother, True Belle, came from Baltimore to help her daughter recover.

Four years later, Rose Dear jumped down a well and killed herself. After her mother's suicide, Violet swore she would never have children. Over the years, she had three miscarriages that neither she nor Joe mourned. However, when Violet reached forty, she was surprised by an overwhelming desire for a baby. She wonders if she is beginning to think of Dorcas as a daughter.

Although spring is transforming the city, Joe still spends his days crying in his home. He cries so much, in fact, that people have stopped thinking it strange. Joe begins narrating his own story, starting with seeing Dorcas for the first time and moving back to his childhood.

Joe explains that he was born in Virginia in 1873. As a baby, he was taken in by a couple with six other children. Although they treated him well, he knew he was different from his adopted brothers and sisters, and he gave himself the name Trace. He then describes a series of key changes that occurred in his life, including meeting Violet and moving to New York City.

Jazz, jazz musician, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Violet and Jow live in New York City during the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

The story goes back in time again to before True Belle moved to Baltimore. True Belle was enslaved on an estate in Virginia, but when her enslaver's daughter, Vera Louis, became pregnant by a Black man, he disowned her, and she moved to Baltimore. Vera Louis took True Belle with her, and when her son, Golden Gray, was born, True Belle helped to raise him.

When he was eighteen, Golden Gray, who always passed for white, learned his father's true identity, and he set off for Virginia, intent on killing him. Along the way, he encountered a naked, pregnant Black woman who knocked herself unconscious trying to run away from him. He put her in his carriage and continued to his father's house. He arrived to find the house empty, so he placed the woman on a bed and waited for his father to appear.

Instead, a young Black boy arrived, told Golden Gray that the man he was looking for, Henry LesTroy, would return soon, and began caring for the still unconscious woman.

Henry LesTroy, now known as Hunters Hunter, arrived and was shocked to learn of his son's existence. However, their reunion was interrupted when the pregnant woman woke up and went into labor. She gave birth to a little boy that would grow up to be Joe Trace. After having the baby, the woman, known as Wild, disappeared.

Wild would go on to haunt the fields nearby, and Joe tried to meet her several times. The novel continues by combining the last time Joe searched for his mother and his final search for Dorcas. Although he left his house with a gun, he insists he never meant to hurt Dorcas.

When he found her, however, Dorcas was dancing with another man. Here, Dorcas begins to narrate, describing her relationship with this new man, Acton, and how he is different from Joe. Then, Joe himself enters the party, and Dorcas describes being shot. She doesn't want to tell anyone that Joe shot her, although she thinks she might scream his name when she tries to whisper it to her best friend, Felice.

Another beautiful day dawns in the city, and Felice approaches Violet. Felice visits the Traces because she wants to know if Joe has Dorcas' missing opal ring. She also thinks she might be able to give Joe some solace by telling him exactly how Dorcas died. Felice reveals that Dorcas would not allow anyone to call an ambulance, she could have been saved, but she chose to bleed to death instead.

The unnamed narrator returns and describes their affinity for pain. They assumed that between Joe and Violet, one would kill the other. Peace, however, seems to have returned. Alice has moved to Massachusetts, Felice wanders the streets and buys records, and Joe and Violet have rediscovered their love. But this makes the narrator feel alone, and they wish they had someone of their own to love.

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison: Characters

  • Violet Trace is the fifty-six-year-old wife of Joe Trace. She grew up in Vienna, Virginia, and met her husband picking cotton. Early on, neither she nor Joe wanted children, but Violet developed an all-consuming desire for a child, later in life. She falls into a depression, and this strains her relationship with Joe. Violet is sometimes prone to eccentric behavior, for example, attempting to steal a baby, attacking Dorcas' corpse, and releasing her collection of pet birds.
  • Joe Trace also grew up in Virginia. His mother, a woman known as Wild, abandoned him when he was born, and he was raised by a kind couple with six other children. Joe was never able to shake his feeling of abandonment, and when Violet starts to retreat into her depression, he seeks out another woman, the young Dorcas. When Dorcas abandons him in turn, he shoots her.
  • Dorcas is Joe Trace's eighteen-year-old lover. She is young, sexy, and loves jazz music and parties. In the present day of the novel, Dorcas is already dead. While she drives the novel's plot in many respects, we see very little from Dorcas' perspective. Instead, we learn about her from others' perspectives.
  • Alice Manfred is the aunt Dorcas comes to live with after her parents die. Alice is a seamstress, a conservative woman who believes jazz music is the devil's work and thinks her niece is a troublemaker.
  • Rose Dear is Violet's mother. When Violet was a girl, her father allowed collectors to repossess all the family's possessions to cover his debts, then vanished. This trauma caused Rose Dear to stop speaking, and a few years later, she killed herself by jumping into a well.
  • True Belle is Rose Dear's mother and Violet's grandmother. She was enslaved during Rose Dear's childhood and forced to move to Baltimore, leaving her daughter behind. After Rose Dear stopped speaking, she returned to Virginia to help care for her daughter and grandchildren.
  • Vera Louis is True Belle's mistress and Golden Gray's mother. Her father sends her away when he learns she is pregnant by a Black man.
  • Golden Gray is Vera Louis' son. Although his father was black, Golden is very fair and grows up believing himself to be white. The truth about his parentage enrages him, and he sets off to find his father and kill him.
  • Felice is Dorcas’ best friend. She often acts as Dorcas' accomplice and covers for her friend when she goes to parties or meets Joe in secret.

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison: Analysis of the Narrator's Point of View

The narration of Jazz is somewhat reminiscent of jazz music. There are perspective shifts that are sometimes jarring and confusing, and different characters step forward for their solo moment of narration.

There are three main types of narration in Jazz:

Unidentified First-Person Narrator

This narrator speaks in a colloquial voice in the first person and begins the novel as if they are revealing the neighborhood gossip about Joe, Violet, and Dorcas. This narrator will sometimes share their own opinions about the city and other characters.

Omniscient Third-Person Narrator

Without clear distinctions, the first-person narrator will slip into an omniscient third person, describing events more objectively and exploring the thoughts of various characters.

Named First-Person Narrator (Violet, Joe, Dorcas, Felice)

Certain characters, including Violet, Joe, Dorcas, and Felice, narrate their own perspective of events in the first person. Often, these moments of narration are included within quotation marks, as though the characters were stepping up to a microphone to tell their stories.

What effect do you think this mix of narration styles has on the novel? Who do you think the unnamed first-person narrator might be?

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison: Meaning of Key Symbols

There are several important symbols in Jazz, including birds and the city.


Or did he get the message—that she said, "My parrot" and he said, "Love you," and she had never said it back or even taken the trouble to name him—and manage somehow to fly away on wings that had not soared for six years. Wings grown stiff from disuse and dull in the bulb light of an apartment with no view to speak of." -Chapter Four

Violet's birds are an important symbol in the novel for several reasons. On the one hand, they represent Joe and Violet's inability to connect with one another. As Violet falls into depression, she talks less to her husband and more to her birds. However, she cannot express her feelings to either of them.

Also like a caged bird, Violet feels trapped by her domestic situation. However, like the domesticated pets she releases, she can't survive outside of it.

The City

I'm crazy about this City.

Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it's not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blasé thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women." -Chapter One

In Jazz, New York City, referred to simply as "the City," is full of possibilities and represents a new way of life for the novel's characters. Jazz is set in 1926. Many characters, including Joe and Violet, were born not long after the abolition of slavery. Their move to the City was part of the Great Migration when an estimated six million Black people moved from the South to the North to escape persistent racism.

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison: Themes

Some key themes in Toni Morrison's Jazz are art, culture, and music; women, femininity, and maternity; and violence.

Art, Culture, and Music

It was the music. The dirty, get-on-down music the woman sang and the men played and both danced to, close and shameless or apart and wild." -Chapter Three

In Jazz, the city is bursting with life and music, particularly jazz music. While some of the characters, such as Alice, think this new style of music is dangerous, most of the characters, especially the younger ones, embrace it.

It is also important to remember that the novel is set in Harlem during the 1920s. This period, known as the Harlem Renaissance, was a period of explosive growth for African American culture in general, including literature, art, and music.

Finally, the theme of jazz music is also integral to the novel's structure. The narration often follows a stream-of-consciousness style that mimics the improvisation of jazz music, and different characters step forward for their solo moments of narration.

Women, Femininity, and Maternity

By and by longing became heavier than sex: a panting, unmanageable craving. She was limp in its thrall or rigid in an effort to dismiss it." -Chapter Four

Motherhood, femininity, and what it means to be a woman are all key themes in Jazz. Motherhood is a particularly fraught topic. Many of the characters, including Joe, Violet, and Dorcas, lost their mothers early in life and have struggled with the lack of maternal love.

Due to this, Violet decided never to have children. However, she is surprised by the unbearably strong urge for a child that strikes her later in life.

Furthermore, in the 1920s, the expectations for women and the standards of femininity were in a state of flux. Some characters, such as Dorcas and her aunt, Alice, are caught between these changing expectations.


Blood is on his coat jacket and he is dabbing at it with a white handkerchief. Now a woman takes the coat from his shoulders. He is annoyed by the blood. It's my blood, I guess, and it has stained through his jacket to his shirt." -Chapter Eight

At first glance, the characters in Jazz are decidedly unsympathetic. The first thing the reader learns about Joe Trace is that he cheated on his wife and murdered his mistress. The first thing the reader learns about Violet is that she sliced a dead girl's face with a knife and then released her pet birds to the mercy of the New York winter.

However, the novel goes back in time to explore the root causes of these violent actions, including the violence inflicted on the characters throughout their lives.

Jazz - Key takeaways

  • Jazz is a novel written by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
  • The novel is set in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and tells the story of a married couple, Joe and Violet Trace, after Joe has an affair with an eighteen-year-old girl.
  • The structure of the novel mimics the structure of jazz music and includes multiple narrators and shifts in time and perspective.
  • Some important symbols in Jazz are birds and the city.
  • Some important themes in Jazz are art, culture, and music; women, femininity, and maternity; and violence.

Frequently Asked Questions about Jazz (1992) Toni Morrison

The title Jazz refers to the influence of jazz music on the structure of the book and its setting in 1920s Harlem.

Toni Morrison published Jazz in 1992.

Jazz is generally considered a work of historical fiction.

The meaning of the novel lies in its themes. There are several key themes in Jazz, including art, culture, and music; women, femininity, and maternity; and violence. The novel examines how life and culture was changing in the early part of the 20th century.

Jazz has several different narrators, an unidentified first-person narrator, an omniscient third-person narrator, and first-person narration from some of the key characters.

Final Jazz (1992) Toni Morrison Quiz

Jazz (1992) Toni Morrison Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Who wrote Jazz?

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Toni Morrison

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What is the connection between jazz music and the title of the novel?

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The novel's structure is inspired by jazz music and refers to the importance of this cultural context.

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Where does Jazz take place?

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Harlem, New York

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What is Jazz's present day?

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Which is NOT a key symbol in Jazz?

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Which is NOT a key theme in Jazz?

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Learning music

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What state are Joe and Violet from?

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What happened to Dorcas' parents?

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They were killed in the 1917 St. Louis Riots.

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How old is Dorcas?

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Why does Joe shoot Dorcas?

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Because she loses interest in him and he sees her dancing with another man.

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What does Violet do after she disrupts Dorcas' funeral?

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She returns home and sets her pet birds free.

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How many kinds of narrators are there in Jazz?

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Three: an unidentified first-person narrator, an omniscient third-person narrator, and first-person narration from some of the key characters.

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True or false? Most characters in Jazz have happy relationships with their mothers?

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What important cultural movement is the backdrop for Jazz?

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The Harlem Renaissance

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What does Felice tell Joe and Violet at the end of Jazz?

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She tells them that Dorcas would not let them call an ambulance; she chose to die.

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