Motherhood is a topic that is prevalent throughout many of Toni Morrison’s novels. In Jazz, the idea of motherhood is very important because it affects not only the lives of the two main characters, Joe and Violet Trace, but it also affects the lives of the people that Joe and Violet touch. More specifically, the lack of motherly love and even a motherly presence is what causes Joe and Violet’s problems. Because Joe and Violet grow up without a mother, they are unable to find a real connection with themselves. They grow up without a sense of self and this causes many of their problems that we see in the novel. Andrea O’Reilly, who is Associate Professor in the School of Women’s Studies at York University and President of the Association for Research on Mothering, says in her book, Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart, that Jazz‘s “emphasis is upon the reclamation of the lost selfhood of the unmothered child” (O’Reilly 153). Her statement points out that although Joe and Violet have these problems, they are able to overcome them in the end through accepting their mothers and themselves.
Even though True Belle took over Rose Dear’s motherly duties, Rose Dear’s suicide left an emptiness in Violet. Violet attempts to fill this hole left by her mother with Golden Gray. True Belle told Violet stories about Golden Gray and Violet came to love Golden Gray as her grandmother had. Violet says that Golden Gray “lived inside [her] mind. Quiet as a mole. But [she] didn’t know it till [she] got here. The two of us” (208 Morrison). In an attempt to fill the hole that the absence of her mother’s love and presence left, Violet’s “desire becomes not only to love Golden Gray, but to become him” (155 O’Reilly). Violet wants to become Golden Gray because she grew up with stories from True Belle about Golden Gray. Golden Gray took the place of True Belle’s children, one of which was Rose Dear. True Belle spent all of her love that should have gone to her daughters on Golden Gray. Violet wishes that she could become Golden Gray in order to receive the love that True Belle withheld from Rose Dear and Rose Dear, in turn, withheld from Violet. Violet thinks that by becoming Golden Gray, she will somehow be able to finally feel the love that rightfully belonged to her, but was lost on Golden Gray.
One of the things that stems from Violet identifying herself as Golden Gray are her “private cracks.” The narrator describes these cracks as “dark fissures in the globe light of the day…. The globe light holds and bathes each scene, and it can be assumed that at the curve where the light stops is a solid foundation. In truth, there is no foundation at all, but alleyways, crevices one steps across all the time. But the globe light is imperfect too. Closely examined it shows seams, ill-glued cracks and weak places beyond which is anything” (Morrison 22-23). This description of Violet’s “private cracks” show that there is no foundation at the end of the light or, rather, that the “absence of foundation marks a selfhood without core or center” (O’Reilly 154). Without the love of her mother as a guiding force for allowing Violet to accept her own nature and herself, she has no foundation of character that she can call upon when she looks at herself. She has tried to fill this foundation with the identity of Golden Gray. However, his identity is unable to fill the foundation because this foundation is where Violet’s own identity should be. This is where her identity belongs and she won’t be able to fill it until she finds and accepts herself.
These “cracks” in Violet’s personality start to manifest themselves in the presence of two different characters in Violet’s body. Violet sees one of these characters as “that Violet.” “That Violet” is the one who went to Dorcas’ funeral and cut up her face. Violet says that “whenever she thought about that Violet, and what that Violet saw through her own eyes, she knew there was no shame there, no disgust. That was hers alone…” (Morrison 95). That Violet is a completely different entity than the regular Violet that inhabits Violet’s body. When that Violet takes over, she seems to have no conscience. To put it in Freudian terms, that Violet would be the Id. The presence of these two Violets starts with True Belle’s stories of Golden Gray and Violet wishing to become Golden Gray in order to secure her mother’s love. In a conversation with Felice, Violet says, “Forgot it was mine. My life. I just ran up and down the streets wishing I was somebody else…. Not so much who as what. White. Light. Young again” (Morrison 208). By wanting to become Golden Gray, Violet pushes away her true self, which is a black female from the country, and embraces Golden Gray, who is a white male from the city. This causes Violet’s personality to split into two, with one being her original self and the other being her copy of Golden Gray or that Violet.
Violet’s split personality was caused by the absence of love from her mother. In the novel, we see that Violet’s reconciliation with herself must first begin with a reconciliation with her mother. While Violet is speaking with Alice, Alice says the words, “Oh, Mama” (Morrison 110). Right after that, Violet thinks, “Is this where you got to and couldn’t do it no more? The place of shade without trees where you know you are not and never again will be loved by anybody who can choose to do it? Where everything is over but the talking?” (Morrison 110). These thoughts of Violet’s show that “Violet identifies with her mother and is at last able to understand her mother’s life” (O’Reilly 157). She understands what Rose Dear went through and why she committed suicide because Violet, herself, went through the same thing. This is emphasized even more when, in the same conversation with Alice, Alice asks Violet what she would do if she threw Joe out. Violet responds with, “Watch the floorboards I guess” (Morrison 112). This is reminiscent of Rose Dear when, after her husband left, she just sat in her chair at the table while her possessions are being slowly pulled from under her. After finally reconciling with Rose Dear, Violet is able to reconcile with herself. Speaking about Golden Gray living inside of her body along with her old self, Violet says, “Had to get rid of it.” Felice asks, “How did you get rid of her?” Violet responds, “Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her.” The final question that Felice asks is, “Who’s left?” Violet responds, “Me” (Morrison 208-209). Violet is finally able to get rid of “that Violet.” She kills her and is left with the old Violet. She is finally able to become “the woman my mother didn’t stay around long enough to see. That one. The one she would have liked and the one I used to like before…” (Morrison 208).
Unlike Violet, who knew her mother and who she was, Joe’s mother abandoned him at birth and he never met her. This causes him to have no sense of self at all; “Joe does not seem to have ever had an original self because at birth he was abandoned by his mother” (O’Reilly 161). After “he missed the sign that would have been some combination of shame and pleasure:” a wave of her hand that would show that Wild was indeed his mother, Joe traveled with an “inside nothing.” He doesn’t have a definite character because he had no interaction whatsoever with Wild. He is unable to find himself because he was unable to find Wild. This is emphasized when Joe says that he “changed into new seven times. The first time was when I named my own self, since nobody did it for me, since nobody knew what it could or should have been” (Morrison 123). Since he had no mother, Joe had to name himself. His lack of a name is symbolic of the fact that Joe really has no sense of self. Without his name and without a mother to get his name from, Joe starts out life without identity. Joe lost himself when he lost his mother. So, in reality, Joe has never known himself because he has never known his mother.
The idea of hunting is very important in Joe’s case. Joe, who has never met his mother, hunts her and follows her trail so that he can find some sort of understanding or comfort in knowing who his mother is. When Joe finally finds her, it only her breathing that he hears. He pleads with her, “You don’t have to say nothing. Let me see your hand. Just stick it out someplace and I’ll go; I promise. A sign…. You my mother? Yes. No. Both. Either. But not this nothing” (Morrison 178). All Joe wants to know is the identity of his mother. He doesn’t want to talk to her or spend time with her; he just wants to know if Wild is really his mother. The fact that Joe is such a good hunter just makes it worse because here is something that he couldn’t catch – Wild. This also means that since he can’t catch Wild, Joe is unable to catch or find his own identity.
This absence of his mother, along with Wild’s refusal to confirm that she is Joe’s son, leads him, eventually, to Dorcas. Similarly to Joe, Dorcas has lost both of her parents. Like Joe, she has an emptiness inside of her. Her emptiness comes from the rejection from the males her age while Joe’s comes from the rejection from his mother. Joe, being a male who wants her, is able to fill Dorcas’ emptiness and Dorcas is able to fill the “inside nothing” that Wild has left. Dorcas takes the place of Wild as a mother to Joe and her presence becomes confused with Wild’s presence. Joe is speaking about Dorcas’ bad skin when he says, “I bought the stuff she told me to, but glad none of it ever worked. Take my little hoof marks away? Leave me with no tracks at all? In this world the best thing, the only thing, is to find the trail and stick to it. I tracked my mother in Virginia and it led me right to her, and it tracked Dorcas from borough to borough” (Morrison 130). These images of hunting in relation to Dorcas’ skin show how completely confused Joe is. He is remembering his hunt for Wild, but he is speaking about Dorcas when he remembers this. Joe’s hunt for Dorcas becomes confused with his earlier hunt for Wild. On page 184, there is a passage that describes Hunters Hunter’s home – the place where Wild had her baby. The last sentence of the passage is, “But where is she?” The beginning of the next chapter starts with the sentence, “There she is,” but this time the she refers to Dorcas. For Joe, the two women have fused together and Dorcas now represents Wild. He has finally found his mother in the person of Dorcas. In the end, Joe shoots Dorcas, who has, for Joe, become Wild.
It is this death that finally allows Joe to come to terms with his mother’s rejection. The narrator states, “To this moment I’m not sure what his tears were really for, but I do know they were for more than Dorcas. All the while he was running through the streets in bad weather I thought he was looking for her, not Wild’s chamber of gold” (Morrison 221). When he was tracking Dorcas in the city, the Dorcas that he was tracking was just a representation of his mother. Because she dies, Joe is able to mourn the death of Dorcas and, in turn, the loss of his mother. By finally expressing this grief over the loss of Wild, Joe is able to accept Wild and, therefore, accept himself.
Both Violet and Joe have problems due to the lack of a mother as they were growing up. For Violet, the consequence was a sort of split personality. She desired to become Golden Boy, who received the love of True Belle. She wanted Rose Dear’s love, but was unable to receive it because True Belle gave her love to Golden Boy instead of Rose Dear. The result of this was that Rose Dear also grew up without a mother and any motherly love. Rose Dear was, in turn, unable to give this love to Violet. Violet is finally able to forgive her mother when she goes through the same thing that Rose Dear went through. She understands why Rose Dear did what she did and is able to finally connect with her mother and herself. On the other hand, Joe’s mother abandoned him at birth. He never met her and, thus, was never able to find a connection with himself. He was born without a mother and because of this, without an identity. He had to give himself his own name and his own identity, which he changed many times. Joe fills the hole that Wild left with Dorcas. When Dorcas wants to leave him, Joe kills her. Through Dorcas’ death, which represents Wild’s death, Joe is finally able to mourn the loss of Wild. He comes to terms with what his mother did and he is able to also form a relationship with his true self that he never had before. As O’Reilly said, Jazz is about the journeys of Joe and Violet to find themselves through the identities of their mothers.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. New York: Vintage International, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.