Within Toni Morrison’s novel “Jazz,” there is a sense of redemption that could be felt by looking back towards the past. The novel centers around Joe and Violet, and older couple living in Harlem. The story slowly progresses around the events of Joe having an affair on his wife, which ends with him shooting the girl he was spending time with. While focusing on the fallout of this decision, the reader is given consistent flashbacks on each character, and while not all of them get the redemption the reader may or may not like, it allows for them to have a better dimension in understanding their actions.
The first person to really look at is Joe. When you first meet him, he seems like a bit of a low life. A 50 year old man that cheated on his wife and shot his lover. He is then seen in constant mourning over the girl, leaving Violet to struggle with her emotions of what happened on her own. With the flashbacks we get of Joe though, the story shifts dramatically for him where he comes close to being able to garner sympathy from the reader. Joe is shown to be a lonely man, earlier on, slowly drifting away from his wife even though he still loved her, and wanted the love of another woman to share his thoughts and feelings with. In this area we get Dorcas, who steps in as the emotional love support that Joe needs.
With Joe’s past that we see in the flashbacks, it’s also found that he’s a simple and kind country boy from before. His mother was named Wild, on the account of her being wild, and leaves him with Hunters Hunter to take care of him before finding him a new family. Joe is then raised by this family with the constant wonder of what happened to his parents. As Joe grows older, he does odd jobs to earn money and eventually meets Violet by coming close to “falling into her lap.” The flashbacks of Joe allow for the reader to sympathize with him over his poor past and his life struggles. By going over pivotal moments in his life, Morrison does a great job in taking away the picture of him as just an old murderer who had an affair, and gives him depth. It helps for the reader to understand why he was so broken after he killed Dorcas.
We then get the same sense of Violet’s character by these flashbacks. Although she gains the nickname Violent, on the account of trying to attack the corpse of Dorcas, the reader sees her as someone that is partially crazy. She has moments where she sits down in the street, nearly steals a baby, and even consistently visits Dorcas’s aunt even after she disrupted the funeral. This early portrayal of Violet makes it hard for the reader to fully understand anything other than the fact that she may be crazy. It makes sense why she would, she’s stuck with a grieving husband that forgets about her and only cares about the death of his lover. Again though, Morrison’s use of temporal play allows the reader to have a better background on Violet.
It’s learned that at an early age Violet’s family suffered from poverty. After her father left her mother and allowed for people to repossess their home, she’s forced to live in a shack. Her mother gives up on life and eventually even commits suicide by jumping in a well. The reader finds that Violet is forced to grow up in this rough lifestyle. Anything her mother owned until True Belle came to help assist the family was simply handouts from neighbors that felt pity towards her, her sisters, and her mother. As Violet gets older she is forced to leave, which ends up with her meeting Joe. Although not too much detail is given between when Violet and Joe get married and when they leave for the city, the reader finds out that even then the two characters struggle in the South. There is mention that Joe buys land and has to take jobs throughout the county, which leaves Violet working many of the same types of jobs that Joe does. By the time they do leave for the city, Violet is described to be like a man that works in the fields. She has muscles most women wouldn’t have, callused hands and feet, and works enough hours that when she does get home, she falls asleep without being able to take off both the boots she wears.
These plays with time, through the means of flashbacks, allow for the reader’s to have a greater understanding of both Joe’s and Violet’s actions moving forward. The hard past that they lived in the south tend to come back up within their time in the city. Joe was a hunter; he is referred to as “hunting” Dorcas when he goes to find where she’s at. Even while he goes to find her he refers back to the moral code he was taught: never shoot a baby, never shoot a female, never hunt a person. Although he breaks these moral codes, which Dorcas could technically qualify for all three, he does it as an accidental act of passion. Without these callbacks though, the reader would be left with questions and assumptions about the characters.
It is also worth mentioning that it isn’t just Joe and Violet that get these flashbacks as well. Morrison mixes them in with each major character she presents. With Dorcas, she speaks about how her parents were lost in the St. Louis riots, which leads to how she fell into the care of her aunt. We see how strict her aunt is on her upbringing, not allowing her to do a lot of the things, or wear many of the clothes, that girls her age were doing and wearing. This strict upbringing that Morrison gives the reader insight to let’s them have a better understanding on why a young girl would bother with sleeping with a 50 year old man. We also get a look at her aunt, although only brief glimpses, to her past as well. Her aunt ended up in the same situation as Violet, with her husband cheating on her, and Morrison does a great job showing the different kind of mental break that she went through over Violet.
The final things these flashbacks do is allow for Morrison to show how different stories and characters can connect. There are times where in the flashbacks she would introduce new characters. By doing so, she expands on their history with a different flashback. Each flashback finds a way to connect to one another. These connections lead back to the current time and reflects on the mental states where Joe and Violet are at in the present. By doing this temporal play, Morrison allows herself the ability to create and take away characters, while also building each one into a three dimension person that her audience can either relate to, or understand. In the end, no matter how big or small, she allows for each character to find a means of redemption, even if it's a call back to how they acted in the past.