Monday, January 25, 2016

Breaking the Cycle of History

            A few years ago, I was introduced to Tom Stoppard’s brilliant 1993 play Arcadia. It follows two separate yet intertwined stories: one taking place during 1809/1812 and the other in present day (1993). The scenes go back and forth, occurring in the same place but different times. As the play progresses, time hops back and forth between scenes, ultimately converging the two storylines so that they are performed concurrently. During several moments of this final scene, the characters in the separate time periods seem to mimic each other in their actions – poring over a diagram and dancing among them.
            I fell deeply in love with the play. The way Stoppard blends history and the present together is skillful and insightful. Toni Morrison does the same in her novel Jazz. By blending together different moments in time, Morrison exposes for the reader how important the past is to the “now” and how tied current events are to history. Even as she argues that claim, however, she also demonstrates how the past can break free from the ties of the past and how the cycle of history can be broken. Through these different moments in history, Morrison weaves a complex tale about a couple who ultimately choose to break from that repeating record.
            In the first half of the novel (separated into unmarked sections in order to soften the divide between stories and time), Violet makes an unlikely friend in Alice Manfred, the aunt of the girl Violet’s husband had slept with and then murdered. Naturally, Alice Manfred at first despises and holds a deep grudge against Violet. During a conversation between the two at Alice’s home, Violet unintentionally reminds Alice of the fact that Alice’s own husband had cheated on Alice with another woman. When Alice thinks about this experience, she reminds herself that she “was starving for blood. Not his. Oh, no. For him she planned sugar in his motor, scissors to his tie, burned suits, slashed shoes, ripped socks. Vicious, childish acts of violence to inconvenience him, remind him. But no blood. Her craving settled on the red liquid coursing through the other woman’s veins” (Morrison 86). Alice, in the same situation Violet is in, feels the same desire during her own ordeal, for seven months during the affair. Before she could do anything about it, however, her husband dies, and to Alice, it becomes too late to do anything to the other woman. She still does not forget, however, the intense rage she felt at the other woman.
            The experiences of these two women are similar. Their husbands commit adultery, and the women feel incredible anger toward the other woman. Both stories also end in a death, although the death differs in the victim and the way the victim dies. Morrison ties Alice’s past to Violet’s present in an attempt to connect not only the two women but also history to current times. History has repeated itself for Violet just as it has done for countless other women. The cycle is vicious almost always creates these negative outcomes. For both these women, the outcome is extreme: death.
            Just as Violet experiences the repeating of history, so too does Joe. As he begins to hunt for Dorcas on that fateful, icy day in January, he also reflects back on another hunt earlier in his life. Joe was abandoned as a baby and was raised with his friend Victory. As many people are wont to do, Joe wants to learn more about his mother, whom he assumes to the woman named Wild, and why she abandoned him. He searches for her three times. The first time, he merely sees her but leaves, deciding against approaching her (Morrison 177). The second time Joe searches for his mother, he does not see her but believes he hears her in the dark. He asks her for a sign as to whether or not she is his mother, but is unsure as to the response.
            His third hunt is woven in with his description of his search for Dorcas. In his third hunt, Joe returns to the place he found Wild before. He finds a crevice that is home to some kind of domestic life, but he does not find Wild. When he hunts for Dorcas, he assures the reader that he “isn’t thinking of harming her, or, as Hunter had cautioned, killing something tender. She is female. And she is not prey. So he never thinks of that. He is hunting for her though, and while hunting a gun is as natural a companion as Victory” (Morrison 181). Joe believes Dorcas rejects him only because she is young and still not in control of her emotions. He truly does not set out to hurt her in the beginning, but unfortunately when he arrives at the scene, the reader knows that changes because he sees Dorcas with Acton, her new lover. This hunt ends differently than Joe’s hunt for his mother. He achieves his mission by finding his goal.
            By intertwining these two different hunts during different times in Joe’s life, in an almost Oedipal kind of structure, mixing lover for mother, Morrison again brings to light the idea of history repeating itself. Joe has done this before. Three times before, in fact. He is skilled at this type of work, and yet both times, the outcome is not quite what he expects. He expects to find his mother, but she does not show. He expects to confront Dorcas and reaffirm their relationship, but he loses himself and commits murder, shooting Dorcas in front of her new lover and friends. Something larger than Joe is at play during these moments. He becomes trapped in a cycle that has doomed him to failure.
            Even though Violet and Joe seem to be trapped in these cycles, Joe in a personal cycle and Violet in a societal historical cycle, the narrator is astonished that they break free from what would be expected of their lives moving forward. The narrator starts off the novel very assuredly, stating, “Sth, I know that woman. She used to live with a flock of birds on Lenox Avenue. Know her husband, too” (Morrison 3). From this attitude, we see that the narrator believes he or she knows the characters intimately. The narrator knows them in public but also catches glimpses of their private lives. In the last section, the narrator declares, “I thought I knew them and wasn’t worried that they didn’t really know about me” (Morrison 220).  Now the narrator knows that he or she only knows a facsimile of the characters. They are aware of the narrator all the time. They present themselves and perform for the narrator who does not know the true intimate details of the characters’ lives. The narrator explains,  “I was sure one would kill the other…I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle” (220). Because this scene has played out millions of times throughout history, the narrator was sure it would happen again. Joe and Violet have been stuck in their own repeating cycles their entire lives, and so they should continue now. But they don’t. Instead, they choose to break out of the confines and reaffirm their love for one another.

Although the past heavily influences the present, Morrison demonstrates the possibility that people can break free from what history dictates they should do. Joe has been brutally beat by policemen earlier in his life, and so violence begets violence historically, and he kills someone else. History repeats itself all the time. Joe and Violet, however, finally manage to break free, showing that it is possible. Morrison’s presentation of the passage  time in the novel, seamlessly melting between one story and another, almost never in chronological order, highlights the deep connection between history and the present and how the past still has an enormous amount of influence on the events of today.


  1. I appreciate your conclusion that Morrison wants the reader to learn to break the cycle of history. The novel spends so much time with the history and slowly layering it so that we see the connections of the present to the past that I, as a reader, didn't spend much time analyzing the end chapter because it was so brief. It wasn't necessarily "and they all lived happily ever after," but it felt tacked on to me, dismissive of the past. I didn't take the time to consider that their final acts were breaking cycles. I am curious what cycle Violet ended; the cycle seems to be women who abandon their own children (True Belle to raise Golden Gray; Rose Dear's mental breakdown after her husband leaves). Violet seems very cognizant that she has not fulfilled the cycle of having children (so she may try to steal one and then sleeps with a doll). Would you consider Violet's nurturing role toward Felice as breaking that cycle?

  2. I hadn't considered her relationship to Felice near the end into my discussion, but I think that makes a lot of sense. She is able to be nurturing to her. Perhaps it is also breaking free from Violet's desire to harm Dorcas because Felice and Dorcas were very close? Violet could be trying to make up for what she did to Dorcas's face at the funeral. I'm not really sure, but it's interesting to think about!

  3. I had a similar thought as Kristin, that Violet does seem to break this cycle somewhat in her life. (McKenzie and I will talk about this more in class tonight.) But, to respond to your comment on my post as well, I felt that Joe was not really able to break from his own cycle, that he is "stuck to the track," but Violet seems to be able to more easily break out of that.

  4. I too noticed the blending of past and present--how the former is inextricably linked to the latter--but failed to realize the extent to which Morrison highlights the need to break the cycle of history--what seems to be an impossible feat, even for an author who sets out to create believable characters. To answer Kristin's question, I think Felice's presence was integral to Joe and Violet's "redemption." As orphans with troubled mothers, Joe and Violet both yearn for a daughter-figure in their life--one to whom they can impart the love they lacked as children. Although the narrator describes Joe as "stuck to the track," I thought of him as ultimately breaking from the oppressive cycle, hence the lovey-dovey ending and the narrator's surprise at he and Violet's reconciliation.