Exploring Sin in “Jazz” and “Purgatorio”

By: Alice Chen, James Bonn, Allison Flanagan, Margaret Hall, Mya Nazaire, Rickie Strong, Helen Warfle

This paper will explore Toni Morrison’s Jazz through the lens of Dante’s Purgatorio in terms of mapping through time and space. Mount Purgatory is clearly divided into layers based around the seven deadly sins. The bottom starts with antepurgatory, and then progresses through sins based on how each sin distorts love, ending with excessive love and the sin of lust. Sinners must move up through the levels, purging themselves of sin. Similarly, in Jazz, the characters move up and down the island of Manhattan, mimicking the social and emotional journey of their own struggles towards recognizing the origin of their sins and what it takes to achieve true morality. Furthermore, Joe Trace goes through his own evolutions, of which there are seven. Based on these similarities, we hypothesize that, if Beloved is the suffering due from a sin one has committed, then Jazz is the acknowledgement of the source of said sin and letting it go. 

As we discussed in class, the mapping of Manhattan is complex and filled with intricate markings of neighborhoods, which can be traced to fulfill a social-emotional story within Joe and Violet’s narrative. The story of Jazz is non-linear, working through the emotional turmoil of Joe having committed a crime of passion, Violet disfiguring the dead woman, and back again to events that led up to it. In living through the sins they have committed for love, they are able to overcome their domestic struggles and reunite stronger at the end. Morrison uses the idea of movement in stages – with the physical movement of the characters up and down Manhattan, the temporal movement of the narration, and the emotional movement and evolution of characters like Joe – to mirror the levels of Purgatory and Dante’s own search for freedom from sin. The most important line in Purgatorio, according to Dr. Herzman, is “May it please you to welcome him – he goes in search of freedom” (Canto I lines 70-71). This idea of freedom, from sin and the tendencies that cause us to sin, is also found in Jazz through Joe’s transformations in his sinful love of Dorcas and in Violet’s search for fulfillment. Ultimately, we see Felice as a Beatrice figure, leading Joe and Violet to freedom, and this is the culmination of our analysis of Jazz as a mirror of Purgatorio


We believe this is an important study for several reasons, especially as it applies during this time of quarantine. First, through the idea of excessive love and having that which we love excessively, being taken away, we have noticed that, in our own individual experiences, made us realize that what we need and what we want are very different. Second, the idea that community can arise in unexpected ways, as we see in the friendships throughout Jazz, is significant in this time of social distancing. And finally, in collaborating across time and space on this essay, the act of reading and thinkING together is a form of self-improvement, much as Purgatorio and Jazz encourage us to do.

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