Love, Collaboration, and Spiritual Improvement in Morrison’s Jazz

By: Rachel Balfoort, Claire Corbeaux, Yadelin Fernandez, Denis Hartnett, Randall Lombardi, Brian Vargas, Quentin Wall

When Dante and Virgil emerge once more to see the stars, they find themselves in Purgatory, a lone island that takes the shape of a mountain. Dante’s Purgatory is first divided into Purgatory Proper and Antepurgatory, which are then further subdivided. Purgatory Proper is divided first into three regions that are defined in terms of love. The regions of Misdirected  Love, Deficient Love, and Excessive Love are composed of the 7 Terraces of Purgation, where each terrace corresponds to one of the Seven Deadly Sins. According to Dante scholar, Dr. Ronald Herzman, the function of Purgatory is spiritual improvement, which is to say that if an individual scales Mount Purgatory and works through each region and terrace, that individual will undergo and achieve spiritual improvement through this movement. 

The structure and function of Purgatory, as well as its emphasis on love, likely played a large role in the creation of Toni Morrison’s own rendition of purgatory, which takes shape in the island of Manhattan in her novel, Jazz, the second installment in her Dantesque trilogy. Furthermore, the geography of Jazz’s setting, Manhattan, aesthetically looks and functions as Dante’s Purgatorio. Jazz’s characters, many of whom live in Manhattan, are placed in Morrison’s purgatory to undergo spiritual improvement. In particular, Jazz follows the characters of Joe, Violet, and Felice who live and love in Manhattan. They are joined by their respective relationships with Dorcas, a young girl murdered by her lover, Joe, whose deceased body was attacked but whose spirit was loved by Joe’s wife, Violet, and who was allowed to die by her closest friend, Felice. Just as Purgatory is divided into three particular regions, Misdirected Love, Deficient Love, and Excessive Love, Jazz works through Violet, Felice, and Joe, who correspond respectively to the aforementioned regions. The narrator follows these characters through their own spiritual improvement and in so doing guides the reader through the purgatory that is Manhattan. Thus, just as a sinner scales Purgatory to achieve spiritual improvement, Jazz pushes readers up and around Dorcas’ lovers so that readers may understand the power, danger, and nature of Love and thereby undergo a kind of spiritual improvement through this newfound understanding. 

Moreover, the narrator connects not only Jazz’s various characters through the concept of Love but also connects the characters to the reader through their shared journeys towards spiritual improvement. Thus, Jazz represents a collaboration not only between Morrison and Dante, insofar as that Morrison is building on and breaking from Dante’s Purgatorio, but between each character and between all of the characters and the reader, as well. These collaborations, in turn, suggest a possible explanation for the collaboration which created this very project and for the name of Morrison’s novel, as well. Indeed, Jazz‘s collaborations parallel Jazz music in the sense that many different improvisational elements, the characters, are united with a shared structure and function which is spiritual improvement. In all, Morrison, Dante, Jazz as a narrator, and all of Jazz’s characters are brought together in a jazzy collaboration that educates readers not just about the beautiful problem of Love but the path to spiritual improvement, as well.

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