Jazz Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4

Chapter Three:


Chapter Three continues with the history of Dorcas' aunt, Alice Manfred. Alice Manfred lived in Harlem for several years before she called for her niece, Dorcas, to live with her. One of earliest memories of Dorcas is a Fifth Avenue parade in July, 1917, where silent men and women marched to condemn the lynch riots that had just occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois. Alice's reason for continuing in Harlem, despite her overwhelming fear of the music and fast pace of the city, is never revealed, but Dorcas' arrival does allow Alice to make her fears and concerns vicarious. Dorcas lives in an apartment of oppression‹her clothes are unflattering; Alice instructs her niece to be "deaf and blind;" she teaches her how to avoid anything that is living and unknown. Her "elaborate specifications" are a well-intentioned effort to protect Dorcas from the "Day of Judgment," "The Beast" and "Imminent Demise." Both the aunt and the niece, privately admire the songs and dances of the street, and Dorcas eventually acts upon her desires.

After hinting at Dorcas' "Imminent Demise" at the hands of Joe Trace, the chapter offers more details of Dorcas' history. The East St. Louis riot that the Fifth Avenue march protested is the same riot that orphaned Dorcas. Her mother (Alice Manfred's sister) was "burned crispy" in her home and her father "was pulled off a streetcar and stomped to death." While the music of Harlem's streets makes Alice think of the horror and "disorder" of East St. Louis, Dorcas is able to remember little of her old home. She remembers her dolls making the sound "Sst, like a match" and she remembers the wood chips falling from the porch of her burning house. The fiery sight struck her mute for five days, and she remembers thinking that the burning wood chip had entered her mouth and "traveled down her throat" before it "lodged comfortably somewhere below her navel." The narrative continues the discussion of fire and passion, recounting the remainder of Dorcas' childhood in New York. While Alice Manfred worked, the Miller sisters babysat Dorcas and a few other children. Dorcas was fascinated by the "one-armed" sister, Neola, who smoked cigarettes and read Psalms to the children. Neola's told stories of "the flesh" that would never see "Paradise;" like Alice Manfred's warnings of "The Beast," the warning is interpreted by Dorcas as an enticing story, rather than a cautionary tale.

After constructing Dorcas' childhood, the chapter's middle passage offers a few specific details regarding Dorcas' escapades. Her steady movement towards "Imminent Demise" begin on "a night in her sixteenth year." Alice Manfred had "overnight business in Springfield" and Dorcas seized the opportunity to accompany her friend, Felice, to a dance party, where she (Dorcas) is awkward though enthralled and ultimately rejected. Having "tasted" the music, Dorcas finds her life "unbearable" until Joe Trace enters the scene. Joe has interrupted a lunch meeting of the Civic Daughters, held in Alice Manfred's apartment. The women are older and gregarious and invite him to stay, wholly unaware of what would result from his visit. The third, final section of the chapter offers Alice's thoughts of Joe Trace and his "impunity" for killing her niece and shattering her delusion of safety. As Violet Trace continues to visit Alice in her efforts to educate herself about Dorcas' life, Alice is initially exasperated and gives Dorcas' photograph to Violet in order to get her to leave. Violet's visits remind Alice of her own husband, Louis Manfred, who left her and forced her to admit to her own inability to comprehend the cruelty, violence and bloodshed of the surrounding world. She must also confront the fact that she shares Dorcas' desire for passion and Violet's desire for vengeance, despite her efforts to eradicate them.


Much of the structure of this chapter reflects the novelist's efforts to maintain symmetry and balance between the characters. The reflection on Louis Manfred's dead body, as well as his funeral, serves as a parallel to Dorcas' corpse which was dishonored at her funeral. The strongest sense of symmetry comes in the budding relationship between Violet and Alice, summed up in the phrase: "The woman who avoided the streets let into her living room the woman who sat down in the middle of one." If Violet is a woman who will sit down in a street, Alice is a woman who prefers to sit down in a house. Unsurprisingly, there are several images that serve as parallel symbols to contrast the two women.

For Alice, the primary image is the iron, which she admires for its "heated control." Alice remains behind the "ironing board" in her conversations with Violet, and she relies upon this mainstay of domesticity when she fears that her emotions may overwhelm her. Just as she imprisons Dorcas in a "cast iron skirt," she remembers that "years ago she had guided the tip of the iron into the seams of a man's white shirt," in an effort to the displace the violence that she wants to render to her philandering (and dead) husband. Early on in their relationship, Alice remarks to Violet: "I don't understand women like you. Women with knives." Similarly fashioned of metal, Violet's knife is a domestic utensil relied upon with a more formidable purpose. Alice maligns Violet as "a brutal woman black as soot known to carry a knifeŠthe star of her niece's funeralŠ" "Women with knives" becomes a species of woman in which Alice includes anonymous, historic women who attacked men and "left the razor where it lodged," and other times left men to find themselves the victims of "four evenly spaced jabs by something thin, round and sharp."

Another parallel can be seen in the two main Biblical allusions that occur in the third chapter. The first allusion is to the Garden of Eden as Alice Manfred depicts the scenes of sin where Joe Trace brought about the "snake-in-the-grass stealing of the girl in her charge." She later apostrophizes Dorcas, speaking to her of the places known for "offeringŠmelons and green apples." Contrasting the Eden of Genesis, is the apocalypse of Revelations. Alice Manfred and the Miller sisters enjoy the "sweet relief" of the "Day of Judgment" when they believe that the world will come to a fiery end on account of its sins. The images of "The Beast" and the "Whore of Babylon" described with "lips rouge red as hellfireŠfingernails tipped with blood" are all direct Biblical references. Alice, often times, wishes that she could bring about judgment herself and "snatch the world in her fist and squeeze the life out of it for doing what it did."

One of the chapter's two central themes is the idea of youth, depicted in the contrast between Dorcas and her aunt, Alice. Alice reflects on her own childhood when she found her parents "resenting the tips showing and growing under the chemisesŠ resenting the blood spots, the new hips, the hair." Somewhat to her chagrin, she finds that she stymied Dorcas' youth in the same ways that made her bitter. She realizes that Dorcas has "decayed on the vine at budding time," in part because she made her restrictions unpalatable. The second theme is the idea of memory. The central memory of the chapter is Dorcas' distant memory of the riot in which her parents were savagely killed. Even within the details of the historic act, the theme of memory is present. After seeing her trampled husband, Dorcas' mother "had gone back home to try and forget the color of his entrails." Dorcas' memory is symbolized by the fire that burned down her house. She decided to "eat" the fire and hold it in her stomach and "it smoked and glowed there still. Dorcas never let it out and never put it out." Her personal memory of her parents' death becomes part of a larger memory as Alice Manfred, Violet and Joe Trace remember the memorial parades held in Harlem as a tribute to those who died in East St. Louis.

Chapter Four:


After a conversation with Alice Manfred, Violet Trace goes to Duggie's drugstore to drink a malt shake‹an effort to regain the weight she has lost in the last few months. Considering the changes occurring within her body, Violet contemplates " that other Violet." We learn that the "other" Violet knows things that Violet does not know and often acts without Violet's permission. The other Violet has cut Dorcas' face with a knife, released the birds from their cage and is proud of what she has done. Violet is embarrassed as she remembers the funeral scene when her knife "bounced off" of Dorcas' face and only made "a little dent." She notes that the other Violet is as strong as she was back in Virginia, and she is able to wrestle with the young men who are part of Dorcas' funeral service. In contrast to "that kicking, growling Violet," Violet notes that her arms have been softened from doing hair for twenty years. After thinking about her performance at Dorcas' funeral, Violet looks around Duggie's drugstore (which the law would overtax, define as a restaurant) and when she sees a young girl at the magazine rack, she wonders what her husband Joe, was looking for in Dorcas. Violet tortures herself with a litany of unanswerable questions, contrasting her silent loneliness with the music and dancing that Joe was sharing with his new, adolescent lover. Violet's anger peaks as the narrative shifts to a first-person speaker. Violet calls Dorcas a heifer and assigns her the blame for Joe's infidelity. Her anger is larger than Dorcas though, and Violet ends the first section of the chapter with two self-realizations.

Her first self-realization comes in her unspoken declaration: "that Violet is me!" Violet launches into twenty year old memories of Virginia: days spent hauling hay and nights suffering the canebrush snakes, as she waited to meet her lover, "my Joe Trace, my Virginia Joe Trace." These memories, Violet argues, are a repository that is separate from and more sacred than what Dorcas can offer. Violet's self-affirming thoughts are brief and she returns to the doldrums, beguiled by insecurities concerning her (lack of) beauty. After Violet recollects that Dorcas had "high-yellow skin," held in higher regard than her own darker complexion, she believes that Joe only loved in Virginia because "that girl Dorcas wasn't around there anywhere." Violet Trace's fleeting thoughts of "Golden Gray," the beloved blonde prince of her grandmother's mythology, only worsen "the business going on inside [her]." Her resolute decision to stop thinking about Joe's infidelity comes with a second self-realization, concerning her marriage: "from the very beginning I was a substitute [for Dorcas] and so was he [for Golden Gray]."

To give the details of Violet's family history, the chapter shifts to the original third-person narrator. One morning back in Violet's childhood, some time after her father had deserted the family, debt collectors repossessed their house and belongings. Violet's mother, Rose Dear, was presented with a "piece of paper" (presumably, an IOU) that her debtor husband had signed, authorizing the repossession. Stupefied, Rose Dear sat the dining table, sipping from an empty cup as the debt collectors emptied the house, took the dining table and slid Rose Dear out of her chair. Rose Dear's mother, True Belle, left her job in Baltimore and arrived to "take charge and over." Four years later, presuming that her children were in good hands, Rose Dear killed herself by jumping into a well. Two weeks after her burial, her husband arrived on the scene with "[chocolate] ingots of goldŠtwo-dollar piecesŠand snake oil."

True Belle sends her granddaughters to Palestine, Virginia where an exceptionally large cotton harvest has sparked a labor migration. One night, Violet is sleeping under a tree and she startled by a man who has fallen out of the tree under which she had been sleeping. This is Joe Trace, and his hammock has broken. After the cotton work is over, Violet sends her money home with her sisters and she finds other work in the area, so that she can stay close to Joe. After marrying Joe, Violet had plans to go to Baltimore, having heard years of her grandmother's Baltimore stories. In the end, of course, Joe and Violet decide to take the train to New York, joining a steady migration of black Southerners. Excited though challenged by the rigors of "citylife," the couple decided that they did not want children and Violet's three miscarriages "were more inconvenience than loss." By the time she was forty, however, Violet's "mother-hunger" had become "a panting, unmanageable craving," and her "citylife" began to unravel in chaos. The chapter ends with the conversation that Violet has with Alice Manfred before leaving for the drugstore. Violet asks Alice what Joe might have seen in her niece and Miss Manfred is soon exasperated with Violet's conversation, accidentally burning a hole in the shirt that she was ironing. The scene ends as the two women laugh at (and through) their frustration.


In this chapter, the story-telling narrator has gelled into one distinct voice; this marks an evolution from the chorus of three voices that began the novel. The most obvious development is that Violet, one of the characters, narrates a portion of the chapter in her own voice‹this continues with different characters for the rest of the novel. The combination of the strictly narrative and deeply personal voices of the two speakers allows the novelist to employ different techniques to make her arguments. Unlike Violet, the third-person narrator freely uses irony and understatement throughout the chapter. It is this narrator who describes "that other Violet, " suggests that when Rose Dear jumped into a well she "missed all the fun," and depicts Violet's father "loaded with ingots of gold" only to reveal, several sentences later, that the "ingots" are merely chocolates in a wealthy wrapping paper. Violet's narrative voice relies mostly upon comparisons and contrasts, drawing up litanies of points where she differs from the younger, "high-yellow skinned" Dorcas.

The image of Violet's parrot is one of several images that recurs throughout the chapter. Ironically, after Violet has released the "green and blond" parrot from his cage and left him to freeze outside, she "paced the rooms" as if she was locked in a cage. Meanwhile, the parrot stares at her through the window, as if he a human staring at a bird pacing in its cage. The commentary on the parrot, with "wings grown stiff from disuse," establishes the bird as a metaphor for Violet's inability to regain her lost muscles and free herself from the negative aspects of "citylife." The Eden motif also garners further development in this chapter as Violet recounts her story of the gardens of Virginia, where she suffered the bites and "welts" of snakes in her pursuit of the man who fell "like fruit" from a tree. Despite the sweltering racism and difficult labor that Violet suffered in Virginia, her home state functions as a pastoral ideal that is to be contrasted with "citylife." The images of Virginia are of harvests, ripening fruit and fruitful sexual unions. In contrast, "citylife" dismisses Violet's three miscarriages as "inconveniences."

A final motif that emerges in the chapter, is the teacup. While the iron and ironing board are Alice Manfred's mainstays of domesticity, in both the third and fourth chapters, we find that she considers the "calming effects" of tea to be beneficial in her efforts to reform Violet. The fourth chapter begins with a drugstore scene that occurs after Violet has had tea in Alice Manfred's apartment, but the tea drinking scene is not depicted until the end of the chapter. When Violet remembers her mother's teacup, wrested away by the debt collectors, it is the chronological consequence of her tea at Alice's. Nonetheless, Rose Dear's tea-cup misadventure serves as an impediment to Alice Manfred's social mission, in part, because we read Rose Dear's situation before the narrator gets to Alice Manfred's tea.

One of the two major themes of the chapter, hearkens back to the third chapter's Miller sisters. This chapter more fully explores the idea of the physical body's manifestation of internal and spiritual suffering. This idea is dramatically presented in the dissection of Violet Trace into Violet and "that other Violet." The consequence of her dissection is made literal in her weight loss. The theme of the memory is woven in with the images of the body, when Violet recalls the days when she was emotionally complete by remembering the times when she was able to haul hay and work for long stretches of hours. Even as her memory focuses on the days when her physical body was whole, her memory is as debilitated as her present physical state. Violet's emotional distress is emphasized in images that distort her body into something incomplete or bestial. She is likened both to her parrot and to "something wearing a pelt." Her memory of "claiming" Joe Trace, is contingent upon her memory of the welts and scars that she suffered from the snakes.

The final connections between the themes of the body and memory are developed in Violet's parents. Her father is an absent body, only occasionally present. The narrator remarks that whenever he did come to town, "forgetfulness fell like pollen." His physical absence as a "resurrected" "phantom father," justifies and sustains his ability to effect forgetfulness. Commenting on Violet's efforts to remember her mother, the narrator reveals that "the well sucked her sleep." Violet is unable to conjure a complete memory of her mother because of the empty void of the well. It is only when Violet focuses on the image of the empty well long enough to see her mother's diminished and twisted body at the bottom, that her memory is restored.