Academic journal article African American Review

Following the Traces of Female Desire in Toni Morrison's 'Jazz'

Academic journal article African American Review

Following the Traces of Female Desire in Toni Morrison's 'Jazz'

Article excerpt

Toni Morrison's exploration of desire seeps into every aspect of her novel Jazz, from the richness of her style to the content matter of her love triangle. She moves from clarinets on Harlem street corners which awaken desire in passers-by to an eighteen-year-old girl with a pock-marked face awakening desire in a fifty-year-old married man. What becomes clear, however, is that Morrison is not simply telling the story of the conflicting sexual desires of Violet Trace, her husband Joe, and his eighteen-year-old lover Dorcas. Rather, she is theorizing the nature of desire, particularly African-American female desire, and its effect on narrative. In Jazz, Morrison broadens traditional approaches to desire by considering factors of race and gender and by removing female desire from its rut of sexual embodiment.

Specifically, Morrison suggests that sexual desire becomes the only desire operative when the fulfillment of other desires is denied and that what African-American women currently most desire, and what is currently most denied to them, is subjectivity, the consciousness needed to act as a subject. She then lays out a subject formation process needed to fulfill this desire for subjectivity and suggests that this formation is instigated by the violent element in female desire and culminates in a process of female bonding based on recognizing other women as subjects.(1) Finally, through the setting of her story, Harlem in the 1920s, she brings out the significance of her vision of black female desire by contextualizing it within the African-American desire embodied in the Harlem Renaissance.

Morrison begins her story with sexual desire because that is the only level of desire her character Violet initially understands. The narrator tells the plot of this desire quickly in the first two pages:

Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on

Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too. He fell for an eighteen-year-old

girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad

and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going. When the woman,

her name is Violet, went to the funeral to see the girl and to cut her dead

face they threw her to the floor and out of the church.... There was

never anyone to prosecute [Joe Trace] because nobody actually saw him

do it, and the dead girl's aunt didn't want to throw money to helpless

lawyers or laughing cops when she knew the expense wouldn't

improve anything. Besides, she found out that the man who killed her

niece cried all day and for him and for Violet that is as bad as jail. (3-4)

Driven by his sexual desire first to seek out Dorcas and then to kill her "to keep the feeling going," Joe has created his own jail or personal hell; and driven by her sexual desire into the jealous rage that makes her slash the dead girl's face, Violet has also created her own jail. But Violet and Joe do not stay in their self-created jails because Violet learns of her desire for subjectivity, the desire that Morrison's book theorizes and bases on the theory of jazz.

The Blueprint of Jazz

In Jazz, Morrison highlights how contemporary black female desire has derived from the cultural context of an African-American heritage to include an element of violence as it struggles, with the aid of female bonding, toward its object of subjectivity. And the music denoted by the title of her novel, jazz, becomes the blueprint for her theory of black female desire. She sees desire, like jazz, as both a creative and violent force, and, also like jazz, she sees desire creating solo voices within a community. Speaking of Alice Manfred, Dorcas's aunt, and her interpretation of jazz, the narrator tells us:

It faked happiness, faked welcome, but

it did not make her feel generous, this

juke joint, barrel hooch, tonk house,

music. …

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