Cycling Up the Mountain: A Journey to Redemption

By Isabelle Covert, Meghan Havens, Shauna Blochwitz, Genesis Flores, Laryssa Olsen, Emily Loper, Madolley Donzo, Hailey Cullen

On their journey that began in Hell, Dante the Pilgrim, and his guide Virgil, reach the island of Purgatory, “where man’s soul goes to purify itself / and become worthy to ascend to Heaven” as lines 5-6 of Canto I of Purgatorio read. Purgatory is defined by the Seven Sins of Purgation, where sinners must expel their vices that have trapped them there, “where souls who wasted time must pay with time” as Dante describes in Canto XXIII line 84. As Dante encounters the shades on his ascent through Seven Terraces, he himself must purge the defined offense in order to keep along his journey. While Dante seamlessly travels without frequent delays, the shades must rely on their own strength against the sins, as well as the memories which they’ve left among the living whose prayers move them through Purgatory Proper towards Paradise.

Arriving at the Gluttony terrace, Dante encounters a long-deceased friend, Forese Donati, who speaks of his ascension thanks to the prayers of his wife, Nella, from the earthly plane. “‘It was her pious prayers and her laments / that raised me from the slope where souls must wait, / and set me free from all the other rounds”’ (Canto XXIII). With Virgil at his side, Dante is able to fast-track the sins of Purgatory, and expresses his surprise that Forese is one who has spent so little time but has gotten so far. It is well known amongst the shades that they are limited to traveling only when the sun shines upon them, and Dante is instructed by Cato of Utica who says, “‘When you are ready to begin to scale / the mountainside, do not come back this way; / the rising sun will show you where to climb”’ (Canto I). Unlike the souls who are confined by the cycles of day and night, Dante is able to move freely, manipulating the laws of Purgatory. As they leave Cato, he leaves Virgil with one final instruction: to bind a reed around Dante’s waist. The reed will represent Dante’s successful purgation of each sin that he comes across. Upon completion of the first sin, Virgil exclaims, “‘Oh, miracle!’ When he pulled out the reed, / immediately a second humble plant / sprang up from where the first one had been picked” (Canto I). This is a symbol of Dante’s necessary humility going forward, in harsh contrast to the self-confidence he emanated throughout Inferno.

The novel Jazz by Toni Morrison explores the movement of its characters in a journey toward atonement and redemption, both through the characters’ emotional progression and their physical progression through the island of Manhattan and what this means in relation to the island of Purgatory.

The novel Jazz by Toni Morrison explores the movement of its characters in a journey toward atonement and redemption, both through the characters’ emotional progression and their physical progression through the island of Manhattan and what this means in relation to the island of Purgatory. 

The novel establishes very clearly the general area in which Violet and Joe live in: Harlem, more specifically, on Lenox Ave. Despite having a somewhat deceptively positive sounding name, it is a neighborhood that has a “tarnished” reputation. Harlem is in uptown Manhattan, where most, if not all, of the Black and other marginalized groups live. Which in turn means that all the white people live in downtown Manhattan. That being said, it is very interesting to note when looking at a map of Manhattan, the downtown area has far more neighborhoods and distinctions, whereas uptown Manhattan has bigger and fewer neighborhoods. This causes the Black people uptown to travel downtown for work, because that is where it is easier for them to get jobs and make more money, compared to the jobs uptown. As they traveled downtown during the day, the white people traveled uptown at night for entertainment. Essentially, one group travels out of their neighborhood out of necessity, while the other does so for pleasure. 

In the characters’ emotional journey through Jazz, and thus Purgatory, the novel represents this journey in part through the representation of rest. In Purgatorio, the souls cannot move up the mountain during the night, only being able to progress during the day. This is demonstrated by Joe and Violet, as in the beginning of the novel they are both hung up on Dorcas, who can be qualified as representative of their sins: Joe for the affair and the violence that led to her death, and Violet for her envy and attempted violence against the dead girl. This obsession with Dorcas causes both Violet and Joe to frequently lose sleep, alternately getting up “two or three times during the night” to stare at her picture in their living room (Morrison 12). As the novel progresses and Felice, Dorcas’ best friend, helps guide Joe and Violet through their grief and into their atonement, the couple is finally better able to rest: “Because of Joe’s work—Violet’s too—and other things as well, they have stopped night sleeping—exchanging that waste of time for short naps whenever the body insists, and were not surprised by how good they felt” (Morrison 223). This is exemplative of their growth throughout the novel, as Joe and Violet have symbolically moved through their Purgatory as they have each wept and atoned for their past sins. 

Morrison’s use of cycling, in the character’s movements around the city, their arcs, and the narrative structure of the book itself, recapitulates Dante’s cycles in Purgatorio. Progress in Jazz is much more fluid than in Purgatorio, where it seems very static. Morrison’s notions of Justice are based more in humanity than divinity, therefore sin and punishment are more ambiguous and forgiving.

While Morrison’s Jazz and Dante the Poet’s Purgatorio both discuss the journey that sinners take to paradise as they confront their past vices and attempt to make amends for their sins, the physical embodiment that represents purgatory in Jazz follows a different set of rules from that of Purgatory. In Purgatorio, people who have been damned to Hell can’t ever make it out of Hell. They are forced to stay there for the rest of their existence, suffering with no end, while those in Purgatory can reflect and atone for their sins as they make their journey to paradise. In Morrison’s novel however, the characters aren’t banned from entering the City—which seems to represent Purgatory. They have free reign to move there and settle down; to make a life for themselves that differs from where they were before. Though it isn’t explicitly stated that where Violet and Joe lived before moving to Manhattan was a Hell of its own making, readers can infer that it was Hell in comparison to the City. In Virginia, Black people were being run out of communities by white people, they weren’t making as much money and working laborious tasks, and always had to move around for work. However, the City offered so much potential: “The money to be earned for doing light work … got you in a day more money than any of them had earned in one whole harvest …. there were streets where colored people owned all the stores … steel cars sped down the streets … and if you saved up … you could get one and drive as long as there was road” (Morrison 106). Looking at Jazz as the second novel in Morrison’s trilogy following Beloved, which also indicates a movement from Hell to Purgatory, allows readers to take note of parallels amongst the duology. Beloved, which takes place in the South and deals with the horrors of enslavement, can certainly be regarded as Hell, and Morrison’s decision to situate the characters of Jazz  in the North years after enslavement ended suggests a movement away from Hell and through Purgatory. For Violet and Joe, the City offered so much that living in Virginia––living in the South in general––didn’t. So when they finally decided to leave what was considered to be their Hell, they weren’t stopped, unlike Dante and Virgil who were questioned by Cato in Canto I about their “escape from the eternal prison.”

In Jazz, the characters are granted more fluidity throughout Manhattan every day, going from Lenox Ave to other parts of Manhattan. Alice Manfred, Dorcas’s aunt, lives in Harlem, but finds herself traveling down through Manhattan during the day to work in the garment district as a seamstress, and then back up home when the day is done. Joe also travels throughout Manhattan for two reasons: to sell his products, and to find Dorcas. In the various flashbacks that showcase Joe as a cosmetic salesman, he is very put together, kind enough that people let him into their homes, and can sell things without being pushy or overtly rude. However, toward the end of the novel Joe is described as more manic as he searches all over the island of Manhattan for Dorcas. As he makes his way through the City to the party, he is no longer the Joe Trace that readers are introduced to. Unlike these two characters, Violet doesn’t really travel through Manhattan; her work as a beautician does take her from household to household, but she usually does hair around Harlem. If we put their behaviors in terms of Purgatory, Violet is stagnant in the lower levels of Purgatory, where she grapples with the difference between the Violet she used to be, the one she is now, and the one she longs to be. Joe and Alice, on the other hand, move through Purgatory by their own rights but somehow seem to come back to their vices by the end of the day:  the former, his dalliances with Dorcas, and  the latter, her strict, watchful demeanor. By the end of the novel, Alice has moved out of the City—left Purgatory—in search of her own form of paradise in Springfield, while Joe and Violet stay in the City and watch it morph into what they imagine paradise to be. Jazz concludes with Violet and Joe making their way up and down the City from “125th Street and across Seventh Avenue…tak[ing] the train all the way to 42nd Street… [to] idle along 72nd Street,” without having to worry about their sins and content with their lives. This mirrors the end of Purgatorio, where Dante is entering the final kingdom: Paradise, and embarking on the last part of his journey. 

The journey and the cycles of nighttime and rest shift throughout Jazz from the beginning to the end of the narrative. By the end of the novel, Joe and Violet no longer rest at night, which indicates that they no longer are in Purgatory and have moved on, presumably to Paradise. This choice to neglect rest could be seen as an attempt to atone or repent for what happened to Dorcas and what happened between Dorcas and Joe. A lot of the sin happening in Jazz happened under the night sky, when the souls on Mount Purgatory could not work on purging themselves of their sin. In the same way, Joe and Dorcas would meet up “when the sun sinks” (Morrison 59).  Joe, when searching for Dorcas with his pistol in tow, was under the guide of the sun. However, when she had been shot and was dying, it was night. The sin was committed at night, but the consequences would be faced in the light of day. 

The very structure of the novel Jazz reflects the cycling up and down in the city and the day and night cycle, following a cycle of time that goes from the past, to the present, to predicting what will happen, and this cycle repeats several times throughout the novel. The structure also cycles through the characters and each of their stories, histories, and perspectives. Through the course of the novel, we see Violet’s personal and family past, Joe’s past (going back to his maybe-mother, Wild), and Alice and Dorcas’s past. Similarly, in Purgatorio, the narrator cycles back and forth between the present as Dante the Poet, who is retelling his journey as the Pilgrim. There also are sections of insight from several characters, which seem almost suspended in time. In the same way, the book starts by talking about the ‘incident’ between Joe and Dorcas, and what happens or will happen later: “ … and that’s how that scandalizing threesome on Lenox Avenue began. What turned out different was who shot whom” (Morrison 6).  It ends on this same note, a little unsure and a little incorrect, but at the same moment in the narrative as what was referenced in the first chapter. 

Like her recapitulation of Purgatorio through how the characters travel through the city and day and night cycles, Morrison also appears to portray versions of Dante the Poet’s characters with her characters in Jazz, illustrating the cyclical violence that Black women often face. In Canto XXX of Purgatorio, Dante the Pilgrim and his mentor and guide, Virgil, are traveling through Purgatory when they encounter Beatrice, who emerges as part of a grandiose procession on the top of Mount Purgatory. Dante the Pilgrim is struck by powerful emotions, as he loved Beatrice in his boyhood years. When he turns to tell Virgil of the “‘ancient flame,’” however, Virgil is nowhere to be found because he is unable to journey forward out of Purgatory with Dante the Pilgrim towards Paradise. Beatrice thus replaces Virgil as Dante the Pilgrim’s guide. Virgil’s absence engenders tears from Dante the Pilgrim and his sorrows are only augmented by Beatrice, who chastises him for straying to other women after she died. 

Joe, who was unfaithful to Violet by having an affair with Dorcas, is reminiscent of Dante the Pilgrim’s straying from Beatrice. Additionally, Joe is consistently characterized as weeping “‘all day and all night,’” about his murder of Dorcas, which is similar to Dante the Pilgrim’s crying (Morrison 205). Dorcas, because she is murdered by Joe, cannot move forward with her life, like how Virgil is stuck in Purgatory and cannot move forward with Dante the Pilgrim. Felice is akin to Beatrice because she enters into Joe and Violet’s life once Dorcas dies, as Beatrice enters Dante the Pilgrim’s life once Virgil disappears. The book narrator notes that Felice, Joe, and Violet look like the “mirror image” of Dorcas, Joe, and Violet (Morrison 221).

Morrison, however, flips the original narrative presented by Dante the Poet with these three characters, by having Felice rebuke Dorcas instead of Joe. When she visits Violet and Joe, Felice tells the couple that Dorcas ‘“let herself die’” (Morrison 209). After she was shot by Joe, Dorcas refused to be taken to the emergency room or let anyone call the police, according to Felice. Felice emphasizes to Joe that Dorcas was manipulative and cold. Felice’s attempt to seemingly absolve Joe from at least some of his guilt and her anger towards Dorcas is a sharp contrast to Beatrice’s anger and admonishment towards Dante the Pilgrim in Purgatorio. Morrison’s decision to have Felice upbraid Dorcas instead of Joe underscores the victimization that Black women faced and continue to face in America. Dorcas has been killed by her lover and her own best friend is unable to give her sympathy. Dante the Pilgrim is forced to confront his sins thanks to Beatrice, but Joe gets to be consoled by Felice. In addition, the narrator commenting about the Felice springing into Dorcas’s place among  Joe and Violet is evocative of the cycle of the reed springing up in place of a reed that has just been plucked in Canto I of Purgatorio. This further emphasizes the cyclical nature of Black women being victimized and not receiving justice. In this way, the characters’ interactions and cyclical traveling throughout the City reimagines the cycles in Dante the Poet’s Purgatorio, demonstrating the repetitive struggles that Black people, especially Black women, face. 

A necessary part of any recapitulation of Dante’s Purgatorio is leaving behind a companion or guide. There is so much leaving behind in Jazz – Dorcas is left behind when Joe and Violet find their paradise, Alice is left behind by Dorcas as she grows up and starts rebelling against Alice’s teachings, and the narrator of the novel is left behind when we, the readers, finish and put down the novel. This book, in a way, leaves the reader behind in our absolute want for some sort of justice for Dorcas. She is killed in cold blood, and she is blamed and condemned and missed, but she is not avenged; she does not get the justice that we readers feel she deserves. This is all too reminiscent of the treatment of violence against women of color in America and around the world.

Morrison’s depiction of cyclical violence towards Black women and representation of justice in a more fluid way than Dante the Poet represents Purgatorio challenges us as readers and students, helping us to further our progress in our college education and the Geneseo Learning Outcomes for a Baccalaureate Education (GLOBE). We apply the “Critical Thinking” GLOBE outcome by examining the complexities of justice and sin in the real world. When thinking about what sin is and what is necessary to receive justice for a sin committed, we practice critically analyzing important and age-old human ideas. We also work on the “Global Awareness and Engagement” learning outcome by thinking about how Black women are historically marginalized and exposed to violence, which reveals power relations within American society. In tackling these issues and working towards the GLOBE outcomes, we have the opportunity to take what we have learned and use it to strive for a more equitable and just world for all. 

In making the book itself the narrator of this novel, Morrison makes us as readers really think about who has the power in the writing and the reading of a novel. Of course, the author has some power in how their book is read, but truly, it’s the readers who build the realities of what is happening in the narrative. In Jazz, however, there’s another player: the book itself, separate from who composed it or who is reading it. It makes us realize that the physical book has a bigger impact on the story than we as readers usually give it credit for. This mirrors the cyclical violence, silencing, and lack of justice that women of color struggle with and fight against almost universally. In this book’s lack of justice, Jazz makes us critically think about the stories we aren’t seeing and the justice that doesn’t get dispensed. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.