“Make Me, Remake Me”: The Mapping of Purgatory and Morrison’s Treatment of Love and Healing

Taylor Bramhall, Frances Sharples, Jenna Brace, Sheridan Morgan, Joe Morgan, Hanah Myers, Olive Niccoli, Kya Primm, Dylan Walawender

Dr. Beth McCoy

ENGL 431: Conversations: Toni Morrison’s Trilogy

1 April 2023

“Make Me, Remake Me”: The Mapping of Purgatory and Morrison’s Treatment of Love and Healing

Dante’s Purgatorio revolves around movement, and unlike the Inferno from which the Pilgrim and Virgil  emerge, or the Paradisio the former aspires to, Mount Purgatorio is not an eternal destination for any soul; instead, it provides those not yet pure enough to enter paradise an opportunity to cleanse themselves of their sins and move steadily, slowly, towards a position in heaven. Geographically, it is the inversion of the Inferno—a series of spiraling terraces, narrowing as they rise, leading souls in need of purgation from Ante-purgatory, where the excommunicated begin their climb to the mountain’s summit where they enter paradise. Here the pilgrim finds seven terraces, each corresponding to a different sin. The sins responsible for depositing a soul at any given level are further grouped under one of three types of failed love: misdirected, deficient, or excessive. The proud, envious, and wrathful are housed in the first three terraces of misdirected love. The fourth terrace is for the slothful and falls under the distinction of deficient love. Excessive love is the final grouping where the avaricious and prodigal populate the fifth terrace, the gluttonous the sixth, and the lustful fill the seventh (Musa).

In Dante’s recounting of his journey through the terraces of Purgatory, the reader is brought along through the many trials, obstacles, and figures that they meet; similarly, the prose of Toni Morrison sweeps us up into the journeys of each character in her novel, Jazz. The journeys of Joe—a man stuck in a loveless marriage who murders his teenage mistress—and his wife Violet are tumultuous and inspire much of the movement within the novel. Morrison projects many of these movements onto Dante’s map of Purgatory, connecting Joe and the other characters to their experiences with Dante’s different categories of failed love. This connection can be seen clearly even in comparing the physical layouts of Purgatory and Manhattan. The significance of Jazz’s geography and layout is not lost on its characters; the narrator states, “All you have to do is heed the design—the way it’s laid out for you, considerate, mindful of where you want to go and what you might need tomorrow” (Morrison 9). In Dante’s Purgatorio, souls moving through Purgatory can move more quickly if they are prayed for by the living—a notion that plays an integral role in the movement and abilities of each character in Jazz.

As Morrison maps not only the setting but physical movement of each character through Manhattan and the various settings where the major plot points of the novel play out, the reader is reminded again and again of the geography of Mount Purgatory, where excessive love is situated at the very top, with deficient and misdirected love following, respectively. This movement is paramount to the novel’s plot and is referenced constantly; Morrison connects Joe and Violet to this movement in their desires and goals as they establish themselves in the city as a young couple and the narrator observes the many tribulations their marriage faces after this move. Morrison tracks Violet’s desires in her relationship with Joe by first establishing that the couple moved to the city to live toward the top of Manhattan, where excessive love is situated: “Up there, in that part of the City—which is the part they came for—the right tune whistled in a doorway or lifting up from the circles and grooves of a record can change the weather. From freezing to hot to cool” (51).

Of course, the entirety of Jazz cannot, and is not, related only to the landscape of excessive love. Violet, who possesses misdirected love for Joe but receives deficient love in response, finds that she “can’t find a place where [she] can just sit down,” mirroring Dante’s pilgrim hood as she talks to Alice about the messy aftermath of Dorcas’ death. At the end of the novel, however, when these relationships have reached a resolution, there is peace in the presence of rest and stillness; Joe and Violet “walk down 125th Street and across Seventh Avenue and if they get tired they sit down and rest on any stoop they want to and talk weather and youthful misbehavior to the woman leaning on the sill of the first-floor window” (223).

As Joe and Violet’s relationship parallels the three levels of Purgatory, Morrison utilizes the mapping of Dante’s Purgatorio as a means of evoking and tracing the development of healing, to provide a narrative engine for atonement necessary to love. 

Misdirected love defines the first level of Purgatory. There are two dynamics of love: love for the wrong subject and a lack of sharing. Teodolinda Barolini notes that the sinners seeking purgation experience love for the wrong object, and a lack of sharing between lovers (Barolini “Visible Speech,” “Eyes”). This dynamic defines both the beginning of Jazz and of Joe and Violet’s struggles as a couple. 

Morrison embeds this design within Joe and Violet’s relationship early in the novel. Violet’s attempt at cutting Dorcas’ face during her funeral evokes both envy and wrath as a physical expression of pain toward Joe’s affair and the insufficiency she feels toward herself following Joe’s infidelity. After Joe murdered Dorcas, a distance forms between him and Violet, and she “decided to love—well, find out about—the eighteen-year-old.” She learned everything she could about the girl, going so far as to learn her favorite dances, and try to mimic them (Morrison 5-7). Wrath ultimately dominates Violet’s feelings. 

Joe and Violet’s feelings of sadness and rage—respectively—exemplify the lack of sharing and the misdirection of love. This is clear in their competing desires to look at Dorcas’ portrait. At night, both stare at Dorcas’ portrait on their mantel; Joe feels lonesome, regretful, and hungry without Dorcas, whereas Violet sees the girl as “an inward face…You are there, it says, because I am looking at you…not only is she losing Joe to a dead girl, but she wonders if she isn’t falling in love with her too” (Morrison 12, 15). Both Joe and Violet misdirect their love toward the dead Dorcas, and thus fail to engage with the harms both hold within themselves. Violet, especially, both envies and adopts Dorcas’s traits, expressing anger, envy, pride, and love toward the girl’s portrait by calling her self-centered. These feelings stem from the lack of sharing Dante touches on. 

At the core of both the affair and Joe and Violet’s faltering relationship is a failure to engage in the empathy that eases the Pilgrim’s movement through Purgatory. Joe in particular fails to engage with Violet emotionally, and performs the original act of misdirection. Joe notes that: “In 1925, we all had it made. Then Violet began sleeping with a doll in her arms… Make me know a loneliness I never could imagine” (Morrison 129). Though he acknowledges the way he has harmed Violet, Joe reveals, yet fails to notice, that his behavior created the conditions for misdirection. He fails to nurture Violet and to understand why she has performed—in his eyes—her own form of misdirection by sleeping with a doll. Instead, he retreats from and abandons her, feeling lonely and envious towards the doll. He then carries this misdirection further, eliciting an affair with Dorcas, whom he saw as a Paradisiac retreat from his wife (Morrison 133). In other words, Joe’s failure to reach out to Violet and share their sorrow and feelings, to find out why she slept with the doll and make steps toward healing their love, drives both the affair with Dorcas and the manifestations of wrath, pride, and envy that Violet exhibits at the beginning of the novel. Violet navigates the terraces of misdirected love as she feels envy, wrath, and a damaged pride after Joe’s affair; however, Joe performed the original misdirection by shifting his love toward Dorcas (the “wrong object”) and failing to nurture and engage with Violet. 

As the misdirected nature of the love between Violet and Joe fades, it morphs into something different: deficient love. The lack of love between the couple at this time in their lives stems from not only a lack of communication, but a failure at providing the love that each needs. Near the start of Jazz, one of Violet’s clients brings up Dorcas, inquiring about Joe and how he is handling his grief. Based on the bleak nature of Violet’s response, the client comments, “Can’t rival the dead for love. Lose every time” (Morrison 15). Here lies the root of Joe and Violet’s miscommunication, and why they are feeling a lack of love—when someone dies, especially someone as young as Dorcas, the mourner may put the deceased on a pedestal. Joe and Violet do just that with the “ghost” of Dorcas impeding their ability to love. When Violet learns of the death of Dorcas, she lashes out, desperately trying to recapture the love of her husband whose affections are no longer returned. On the other hand, Joe retreats into himself; when Joe met Dorcas, the love he once possessed for Violet reemerged with a vengeance, and now that she is dead, this love no longer has a tether. The weight of society’s pity for him can’t fill the void of the love that was lost, leaving Joe to stew in these tangled emotions. Where times of grief and death can cause relationship bonds to strengthen, Joe and Violet’s lack of communication comes across as selfish; instead of providing one another a shoulder to lean on, they are seemingly competing for whose romantic plight inspires the most sympathy, creating deficiency in their relationship. 

Dante touches on the topic of grief’s relationship to  love during an encounter with his old friend Forese Donati. When he first comes across his friend, Dante’s first instinct is to say, “‘When death was on your face, I wept,’ I said, ‘and now the grief I feel is just as great, seeing your face so piteously disfigured’” (Purgatory XXIII, 55-57). While Dante seems to express remorse for the state of his friend, it should be noted that the purpose of his journey is not to sympathize, but to see how his sins in life have either helped or hindered his ability to escape Purgatory. Forese’s wife, Nella, praying for him up on Earth is the only form of communication they have access to, and in doing so she is helping him ascend to Paradise. This is a stark contrast to the relationship between Joe and Violet, because they have not yet realized that the only way to reach Paradise is if they first reach out to each other. With the trajectory of their relationship correlating with the climb up Purgatory, their relationship eventually reaches a state of deficiency. Morrison foreshadowed this from the moment Joe and Violet entered the city—as they arrive, the narrator observes “they love that part of themselves so much they forget what loving other people was like—if they ever knew, that is” (Morrison 33). Deficient love hinges on an absence of love; by saying Joe and Violet will forget how to love other people, the narrator foretells the demise of their relationship. In other words, the city is Purgatory, and Joe and Violet have been there for so long that they not only have forgotten how to love, but what it feels like. When they must show love for each other, they are unable to, and the deficiency of that relationship causes them to lash out, driving Joe’s affair and subsequent killing of Dorcas or Violet’s attempt to disfigure her corpse, in order to recapture the love that became deficient.

The last variation of love, and perhaps the most prominent within Jazz, is excessive love—something that consumes both Joe and Violet in their obsessive behavior towards the deceased Dorcas. Joe, finding his love for Violet has died, admits it has “fade[d] or scab[bed] over” before he finds love elsewhere, in the young Dorcas (Morrison 29). Joe is clouded by his own judgment as he mistakes the sexual desire he felt for his lover as a connection as deep as the one he has with Violet. This desire consumes him , as “that girl had been his necessary thing for three months of nights” (Morrsison 28). He relies on her, allows her to consume him, and yearns to consume all of her in return. When their affair ended,  Joe “shot the girl … [and] cried all day” (Morrison 4). His excessive love and obsession for her drives him to kill out of gluttony and lust. If he could not own her, he could not find contentment with her life continuing. This excessive love consumes Violet as well, in her obsession with knowing who the woman was that her husband allegedly loved more than her. Violet knows not the personality that Dorcas had nor who she was, truly, and thereafter relies on the persona “she invented for [Dorcus] based on careful investigations” (Morrison 28). Dorcas is both her enemy and her deepest inner desire for self. She yearns to become the woman her husband desired so deeply – so much so that “the girl’s memory [becomes] a sickness in the house—everywhere and nowhere” (Morrison 28). This excessive love consumes the couple. Both Violet and Joe even create a shrine to Dorcas in the center of their home, as Morrison states “One particular thing the aunt showed her, and eventually let Violet keep for a few weeks, was a picture of the girl’s face. Not smiling, but alive at least and very bold. Violet had the nerve to put it on the fireplace mantel in her own parlor and both she and Joe looked at it in bewilderment” (Morrison 6). Joe is driven by his sexual desire for Dorcus to pursue her and then kill her to “keep the feeling going” while Violet keeps this feeling going through her obsession with knowing who Dorcas was and why she deserved Joe’s love more than she  (Morrison 3). Both allow this excessive love to break them down – but it is in their collective grief afterwards that binds them back together, broken, yet bonded.

In light of their troubled past, their reconciliation came as a shock to even the narrator: “I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it…busy, they were, busy being original, complicated, changeable—human” (Morrison 220). Despite what we were told at the beginning of the novel, both the audience and the narrator discover that the couple does not endure another tragedy. Instead, Morrison demonstrates the upward movement and healing of the couple, mirroring Purgatory. While Joe and Violet endured an emotional detachment for a majority of the novel, the narrator reveals that the couple has reached a sort of reconciliation: “A lot of time, though, they stay at home figuring things out, telling each other those little personal stories they like to hear” (Morrison 223). Unlike the times when Joe would cling to Dorcas for emotional validation, here, the audience recognizes that Joe and Violet broke the cycle of emotional neglect within a marital relationship, and thus returned to a love they built in previous years—not excessive, but devoted.

It’s hard, as students, not to get caught in the whirlwind of ideas, emotions, experiences, and explorations that follow us through our schooling. Students within the educational system continuously go through progression and regression of emotions for the educational system in their own unique and individualistic pathways. Similarly, Joe and Violet’s progression to paradise is not the same, though it leads them to the same ending. It’s often expected that the order in which students go throughout their first 20+ years is to: finish elementary, go to middle school, high school, and then go to college, but  people rarely make it that far.  There are different phases everyone goes through to get to their own paradise, whatever that may be. Joe and Violet went through experiences of misdirected, deficient and excessive love just as students have their own experiences; as this causes a nonlinear progression through education, there is an adjacent experience of self-discovery, and a movement toward achieving self-love. Ultimately, this self-discovery is what may divert a student’s education from the conventional path. When students experience these emotions, they are experiencing them in many different phases and ways that are not in an exclusive order.

Misdirected love manifests differently depending on the person. Joe and Violet experienced it through instances of Violet’s jealousy and Joe’s affair. This can appear in a student’s relationship with school. Personal experiences show that there are envious feelings towards other fellow students in scenarios of comparison, as Violet does with Dorcas. This is not a permanent feeling, though it can feel long–lasting. In times where students see people that are achieving things greater than their personal achievements, envy and wrath follow, and build the base for their self-love to falter. 

Students may then feel deficient love.  Just as Joe and Violet struggle to maintain the love they once had, in a lot of students’ later careers, especially in college, it can become easy for them to avoid the work that they need to do for school or even going to class. They are becoming less involved in their education and then may direct their attention to other things like partying, or drugs, or other social pursuits. The distractions create a sense of deficiency, not only in the work they perform and the rest needed to do that work, but in themselves, as the turbulent newness of college creates unsteady perceptions of the self. 

The last path through Purgatory, excessive love, can be manifested in student’s lives. Students may take up too much talking time within class, and are desperate to be heard and in turn can take away from another student. Higher education as an institution may feel greedy and hungry for wealth.. Students are expected to pay upwards of thousands of dollars for a resource, such as a degree, that feels valuable to their futures and thus the self they are becoming.. The financial aid and support from the government is limited and selective so a majority may not get what they need to cover their education. Some will not make their way out, just like Dorcas.

Thus, as Violet and Joe move through their own formation of Purgatory, experience misdirection, deficiency, and excessiveness in their relationship– and its struggles– we as students encounter a similar movement in our relationship to ourselves. We feel the misdirection of depending on school for self-worth, the deficiency apparent in the distractions we formulate or the dependency we place on schooling, and the excessiveness of taking up a space in our obsession for an academic system that itself is gluttonous for wealth. We engage with these levels, navigating our emerging adulthood, and try to construct perceptions of our identity that best fulfill the inherent need to love ourselves. Just as Morrison utilizes Purgatorio as a structural engine to build a process for healing, we– as students, as new adults, as humans– engage in a similar journey toward finding love for ourselves. 

Works Cited

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Purgatorio 10: Visible Speech.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-10/

—. “Purgatorio 13: Eyes Sewn Shut.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2014. digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/purgatorio/purgatorio-13/

Dante Alighieri. Purgatorio. Translated by Mark Musa, Penguin Classics, 1985. 

Morrison, Toni. Jazz. Vintage, 1992. 

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