Relationship Violence in a Culture Obsessed with Property

This weekend, Geneseo’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee–of which I am a member–received training on relationship violence prevention through the One Love Foundation. That this seminar took place the very weekend following our completion of Jazz was purely coincidental–but my recent analysis of Violet and Joe’s possessive dynamic added greater depth and context to the seminar.

The theme of the seminar was escalation, and it generally focused on a more reactive approach: recognizing the warning signs of an emotionally abusive relationship and preventing it from intensifying to the point where it could be dangerous. In this regard, I felt it was an appropriate response to the fact that many college students might not know exactly what signs of domestic violence look like. However, a large component I felt was missing from the session was the entire cultural aspect of it: the idea that relationship violence is, to an extent, normalized in a culture obsessed with property–something we have discussed in depth with regard to Morrison’s Jazz. 

The session featured a video portraying a boyfriend with abusive tendencies who, at one point in the video, tells the victim “you’re mine.” This is such a normalized declaration in society, but in the video, this was one of the first signs that the boyfriend was becoming possessive and would soon become violent.

The idea of owning another person has been such a vital component of our analysis of A Mercy and Beloved in a very overt way–both novels quite obviously grapple with slavery. Although Jazz is set at a later date and thus, none of the characters are slaves per se, Joe still claims Dorcas as his property and treats her as such–to the point where he murders her the instant she rebels against this treatment.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that our primarily capitalist society perpetuates a collective mindset of whatever I can get my hands on is mine. Morrison warns the reader about the dangers of such an assumption upon the conclusion of Jazz, in which she writes “…Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now,” (229). Although the exact identity of the narrator is highly contested, whoever (or whatever) the narrator is, they are warning the reader not to appropriate the story to fit their own perpective–essentially saying just because this book is in your hands does not mean the story is yours. Just because Dorcas was in Joe’s arms did not mean he belonged to her. Just because we readers own a copy of Jazz does not that we can ethically do whatever we want with Morrison’s ideas. The ideas will always be Morrison’s and Dorcas’s life will always be Dorcas’s. We are guests in Morrison’s psyche, and Joe was only ever a guest in Dorcas’s life.

The throughline of “people as property” loops back to Violet’s reaction to Joe’s infidelity: rather than taking issue with Joe for betraying her trust, Violet focuses on Dorcas, and the idea that she came into their life and took what didn’t belong to her. She wasn’t angry at the object stolen, but the person who stole the object. Of course, people are not objects, and considering a person stolen relies on the subject’s dehumanization of the person.

Multiple characters exhibit this possessive behavior, resulting in what effectively functions as an imperfect chain of possession: Violet is possessive of Joe, Joe is possessive of Dorcas, and Dorcas’s date, Acton, is possessive of his jacket. When Dorcas is shot, the only thing he seems concerned about is the blood splattered on his jacket, Morrison’s very literal way of driving home our culture’s obsession with ownership. The only character who breaks this chain is Dorcas, who is possessive of neither Joe, nor Acton, nor her material possessions.

The fact that each character displays some sort of obsession with their property shows domestic violence is less an issue of isolated incidents, but more so a reflection of a culture where we want to acquire things and claim ownership of them. When I attended the domestic violence prevention workshop, a large contingent of the discussion following the film focused on the personal characteristics of the abuser–most frequently, calling him a “sociopath.” I found this rather unsettling–calling the abuser a sociopath takes the blame off of the culture and ignores the prevalence of this problem, framing violence instead as rare, isolated incidences caused only by the inherent evil of a person.

Dorcas is only the exception to this because she doesn’t fit inside a culture of ownership, and therefore, she quite literally cannot survive in such circumstances. The chapter in which her death occurs is the only chapter written from Dorcas’s perspective, and Morrison utilizes this to focus on her perception of Acton as she is dying–specifically, she watches as he grows angry about the blood on his jacket, and as she’s fading in and out of consciousness, she sees his preoccupation with the state of his jacket. As a character that isn’t concerned with ownership like the others, the fact that this is one of the final experiences she has serves as a capstone to all that Dorcas represents in terms of a culture of ownership–not only did this culture run rampant long before Joe laid claim to her, but it will continue long after her death as well.

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