Jazz: How is our humanity defined by the way we pursue love?

In Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz the main characters struggle with what it means to love and be loved, what is means to betray someone, and why we pursue love the way we do. Violet perhaps pursues love because of the stories of love she was told as a child, and possibly fills the void of desire for the legend “golden boy” by marrying a black man. Joe Trace grew up with instability and no father figure, so it is possible he pursues love in the pursuit of stability and affection. Within Joe’s stable marriage with Violet, he seeks another love with a younger woman; maybe he longed for the instability he grew comfortable with as a child, or maybe he thought his love for Violet was insincere. Dorcas, the younger woman Joe had an affair with, pursued any love she could find and later sought love that she had to work for (someone who almost seemed too good for her).

Through Joe’s affair with Dorcas, Dorcas’ search for love, and Violet’s revenge seeking in her book Jazz, Morrison shows us that our experiences define the way we pursue love, and consequently love defines our humanity.

First, our experiences define our pursuit of love. As shown by Harvard professor Christine M. Korsgaard’s essay “Valuing Our Humanity,” we pursue what is good for ourselves and the people we love, as rational human beings. Therefore, our pursuit of love is defined by the people we love and our own benefit. As humans we also seek what appears to be good from our point of view. Korsgaard claims that, by deciding what is good in our own terms and pursuing it merely based on those terms, we put value on our own judgement and therefore value our own humanity.

Morrison supports this conclusion in Jazz by showing stories of the characters pursuing love for their own benefit, to achieve what seems to them to be good. For example, Joe pursues instability because that is what seems good to him; Violet pursues understanding because that is what seems good to her; Dorcas pursues desire because that is what seems good to her. These all define their humanity, because their pursuit of love shows what they believe is important to achieve.

Throughout the novel, Morrison sidetracks the story by telling the backgrounds of main characters. It seems unnecessary, but it gives context that allows the reader to understand the characters more deeply. Why would we need to know about the upbringing of a girl, Dorcas, who had an affair with the man, Joe Trace, married to the main character, Violet? More importantly, why did a seventeen year old girl have an affair with a man in his fifties? The fact that Morrison wrote about Dorcas’ childhood, her aunt’s overbearing rules, and her unsuccessful teen romantic life, shows that these things all played into her fatal love affair.

Fatal, I might add, because Joe shot her in his pursuit of love in chapter 1, in the very first paragraph: “He fell for an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deep down, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy he shot her just to keep the feeling going.” Dorcas could have survived, could have asked for help in the crowded party she was at, could have made it to the hospital and survived; but she didn’t want people to help her and she didn’t want anyone to know who shot her. Why would she protect the man who stole her life?

It all starts with the way Dorcas discovered love in her most impressionable years: secretly. Her aunt, Alice Manfred, was staunchly afraid of the way The City (Harlem), the place which the main plot takes place, experienced love. The City was filled with Jazz, seduction, and everything that can define the dangerous sexual exploration of the 1920’s. Manfred was afraid of it and did everything in her power to keep her niece from experiencing. Naturally, Dorcas did everything in her power to experience The City and its sexuality. Joe Trace was charming and affectionate, and he was the first opportunity for “love” that was offered to Dorcas in the form of an affair. Joe easily persuaded Dorcas to love him back, and soon they were both deeply in love with each other. Later, Dorcas leaves Joe for a boy her age who was very difficult in winning her affections.

Dorcas’ humanity is defined by these pursuits of love because when she became involved in them she was immediately consumed. She let her love affairs take her life completely, therefore her humanity became desire. Dorcas was defined by the way her lovers saw her and she was desperate for more. This is shown in chapter 3, paragraph 17: Resisting her aunt’s protection and restraining hands, Dorcas thought of that life-below-the-sash as all the life there was.”  

Violet, Joe’s wife, dealt with the knowledge of Joe and Dorcas’ affair by being consumed in the humanity of Dorcas. She went to Dorcas’ funeral and tried to cut her face off, then found and befriended Dorcas’ aunt, trying to find out everything she possibly could about this girl. Violet almost completely ignored her own husband and became as obsessed with Dorcas as he was.

This makes sense because Violet grew up listening to love stories and fairy tales and she fantasized about a passionate love affair. Therefore, when her husband experienced one, she wanted to understand it and put herself in the shoes of the girl. Instead of taking revenge on her husband or finding another outlet of love for herself, she tried to understand the person who took her love away. Violet’s pursuit of love was understanding, and her humanity is defined by this. Her entire personality was understood by the reader because she showed her humanity through her pursuit of love.

Finally, Joe Trace showed his humanity through his decision to have a love affair with a seventeen year old girl, and then to kill the person he loved most. He grew up with a lot of instability, with a mother nicknamed “Wild” by people the towns surrounding the forest she lives in, and a childhood of picking up different jobs throughout the year to survive. The way he pursued at first was marrying the first woman he felt love for and settling down with her very quickly; this shows his pursuit of love as a pursuit of stability, and therefore displays his humanity as desperate.

Then, when Joe “decides” to have a love affair with Dorcas and ultimately kill her, he shows his pursuit of love has changed to a pursuit  of instability—as if he wants to return to the instability he grew comfortable with as a child.

The ways all of the characters in Jazz pursue love are vastly different, and they all seek different kinds of love, and they all love for different reasons. Ultimately, though, they are all just seeking love; and this pursuit defines their humanity in the sense that it defines their outlook on life and the way they live it, including the way they treat the people around them.


Burton, Zisca Isabel, and Harold Bloom. Bloom’s How to Write about Toni Morrison. E-book, New York, Chelsea House, 2008. Harold Bloom’s instructional book takes the reader through the process of writing literary criticism essays, specifically for Toni Morrison’s novels. This is helpful to me because I am writing a literary criticism on Morrison’s novel “Jazz.” The chapter focusing on “Jazz” describes, in depth, the topics and themes that could be used in writing about the book and how the reader can manipulate the text to create a masterful literary criticism on it. It directly connects the literature I am writing about to the piece of literature I am creating about it. Bloom’s book also will help me develop my question to focus my essay on.

Korsgaard, Christine M. Valuing Our Humanity. Harvard, PhD dissertation. HUIT, Harvard College, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/CMK.Valuing.Our.Humanity.pdf. Christine M. Korsgaard discusses what it means to be human and how we differentiate from other living things in our humanity. This is relevant to my essay because I am writing about how our pursuit of love affects our humanity. Korsgaard goes into the subject of love in relation to humanity a little bit which I plan to talk about in my essay; Korsgaard states that as rational human beings, we love things that are good for us, but different people may have different definitions of what is good for them, which in turn will affect their humanity. 

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York, Vintage Books, 2006.

Neelakantan, G., and Sathyaraj Venkatesan. “Toni Morrison’s Quarrel with the Civil Rights Ideology in Love.” The International Fiction Review, vol. 34, nos. 1-2, 2007. The International Fiction Review, journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/4231/4764. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017. This journal article provides an explanation of Toni Morrison’s connection between the Civil Rights movement and love. The writer shows how Morrison is influenced in her romantic novels by black culture in America, how the Civil Rights movement was influenced by love, and how the Civil Rights movement influenced the interpretation of love in black people. The content in this article will be helpful to me when I’m writing my essay on how our humanity is influenced by love, because it shows directly how love influences Civil Rights. 


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