Toni Morrison’s Jazz is replete with many themes. The most important ones are listed below:
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 blacks to the City reflects a distancing from this past.
Almost all of Morrison’s characters migrate to New York City from other parts of the country in an attempt to escape economic and social prejudice and in search of a new start in Harlem. The motif of migration goes hand in hand with the numerous allusions to birds and recurs frequently in the narration of the characters’ histories. Malvonne’s nephew, William the Younger, exemplifies a constantly shifting and itinerant black population with his sudden departure from New York for “Chicago, or was it San Diego, or some other city ending with O.” His young restlessness indicates an inability to establish roots or a connection in one place and echoes the “homelessness” of Morrison’s principal characters.
The absence of a strong parental presence in Jazz ties together many of Morrison’s characters and connects their shared sadness to one cause. Raised by aunts, grandparents and adoptive parents, Violet, Joe and Dorcas all experience a feeling of displacement, and feel that they are handed over with no control. Unable to control the fact that they are orphans and placed in homes without any choice in the matter, characters are relocated in a way that resonates with the paternalistic adoption of slaves. Their true parents would be the tie to a history and would provide an identity for the characters. Thus, the lack of parents creates the characters’ sense of displacement and their obsessive desire to find a stable and complete identity.
As the name of the novel implies, music operates both thematically and formally to provide structure to the book. The jazz music of the 1920s situates the narrative in a specific cultural and historical moment, when a black aesthetic style was gaining ground in New Orleans and New York. Both the City and the woods of Virginia are described as having their own music and rhythm and the pace of the narrator’s storytelling ranges from upbeat and fast to slow and “bluesy.” Music also speaks to the individual characters on a deep level, as when Alice Manfred worries about the sinful powers of the music. However, music can also be restorative, as Felice facilitates the healing process between Joe and Violet by bringing over her records and watching them dance.
According to the local Virginia lore, Wild’s proximity is always indicated by the flight of red-winged birds from nearby trees. The workers in the sugar cane fields establish their own set of symbols in the natural world based on shared stories and experiences. The collective recognition of a red-wing bird as a herald of Wild’s presence illustrates the richness of a community’s bonds. Unlike Violet’s caged birds, the birds in Virginia have not lost their instinct of flight and like the woman that they shadow, they represent freedom from society’s bonds