While Violet tries to deal with the fact of her husband’s betrayal and the knowledge she has acquired about Dorcas, Joe is also deeply troubled by what happened. He lies in bed remembering every detail of the day he met Dorcas, only three months before he killed her. He wants to ensure that his love of her does not fade, as it has done with Violet. He cannot remember much about how their early life together felt.
He first saw Dorcas at a drugstore, and again when he went to a group of women to deliver some of the beauty products he sold.
The narrative then describes how Joe and Violet first got together. They met in Vesper County, Virginia, where they both worked in the fields. Together, they left the County in 1906, and traveled north by train. They were excited to be starting on a new adventure. For them, Harlem, as for many black people of the time, presented an alluring destination.
But twenty years later, Joe and Violet are barely speaking to each other, and Joe takes a young lover he finds he can talk to about important things, such as the fact that his mother abandoned him at birth, leaving him with a feeling of emptiness (an “inside nothing”), a feeling he knows that Dorcas also has. They fill up the emptiness for each other. Dorcas tells of abuse from her mother and a fire at their home in East St. Louis when she was a child. After she and Joe make love one day, she says she wants him to take her to a club called Mexico, but Joe is nervous that someone might see them together. After their late afternoon and early evening tryst, Joe returns to his apartment before Violet returns.
The narrative now moves to Malvonne, the neighbor in whose apartment Joe and Dorcas meet while she is at work. Malvonne lives alone and works at night as an office cleaner. She keenly observes everything around her and is very interested in all the people in the neighborhood. Her nephew, whom she calls Sweetness, used to steal mail and remove any cash inside. This was before he left for another city. Malvonne found a cache of stolen letters and read them. She resealed some of them and sent them on. While she was pondering what to do with one of the letters, Joe Trace knocked on her door and asked her in a roundabout way whether he could rent her apartment and use it for the occasional afternoon. He does not say explicitly what he wants to use the place for, but Malvonne quickly guesses. She does not like what he is proposing but she eventually agrees to it.
A few more details slip out about how the dangerous triangle of Joe Violet, and Dorcas developed. The previous chapter focused on Violet, but this one focuses more on Joe and the unhappy situation with Violet that prompted him to take a lover who was young enough to be his daughter. Once again youth is contrasted with age; Joe worries that he can no longer feels things as acutely as he did when he was younger, but in the presence of Dorcas it appears that he recovers at least some of that ability. It is as if he feeds off her youth. What they have in common is an inner emptiness, and the passion that they generate with each other helps to cover that feeling of lack.
The telling of the story is not chronological but shifts back and forth in time, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. The lyrical, poetic style is noticeable, full of sharp images that capture both life in the City and the life that the African Americans left behind in the South. Racism is alluded to in the racially segregated train that Joe and Violet ride on as they journey to New York. There is a very vivid sense of time and place, and for many African Americans the Great Migration north ends in their discovery of Harlem as a kind of flawed but immensely exciting Promised Land where they feel at home. Much of this chapter, therefore is a kind of hymn to Harlem, sung by the narrator who is a longtime resident of the City.
This chapter begins in 1917, and Alice Manfred, with her nine-year-old niece Dorcas, watches black people marching in a parade on Fifth Avenue in protest against race riots in St. Louis, which left two hundred dead, including Alice’s sister and brother-in-law. Alice is fearful on Fifth Avenue because of the racism she encounters there.
Alice has been raising Dorcas in Harlem since the girl’s parents were killed. Alice teaches her how to deal with racism, and she also raises her in a conservative fashion, not liking the new clothes that the young women wear and their sexualized appearance. She feels she must shield her niece from the immorality on the streets—the loud-mouthed men, and the music that incites passion. She blames jazz for loosening people’s moral restraints and making them do wild, disorderly things. She thinks there is something angry and potentially violent in it.
However, Alice’s attempt to shield young Dorcas from what she sees as bad influences have no effect on Dorcas, who loves the music she hears and senses the physical passions it arouses. When she is young she is sometimes looked after by the two Miller sisters, when Alice is at work. The Miller sisters tell her cautionary tales about the dangers young girls face when they are seduced by men or by love, but the stories have the opposite effect on Dorcas than the sisters intend: Dorcas is enchanted by the idea of love and the earthiness of passion. At the age of sixteen, when Alice has some overnight business somewhere else, Dorcas and her friend Felice go to a party where there is dancing and music. Dorcas dances with a boy named Martin, and she dances well. But she is rejected by one of the best dancers at the party, and this rebuff stays with her. This is why when Joe Trace approaches her about a year later she is ready to accept him; her life has become unbearable; her passions need an outlet.
She met Joe at Alice’s house, when he went there to deliver some beauty products to a woman named Sheila, who is Malvonne’s cousin. There were a number of women there, since they were having a social to plan a fund raiser for the National Negro Business League. Dorcas answered the door. The mostly middle-aged women were pleased to see him and flattered him and teased him, all except Alice. He enjoyed their company and stayed to lunch. When he left he whispered something to Dorcas and seemed pleased with her reply.
Next, the narrator’s voice intrudes on the story. She criticizes Alice for not knowing what was going on between Dorcas and Joe, right under her nose. Alice spent a lot of her time reading newspapers, but the narrator thinks she would have learned more by going out on the street and talking directly to people.
The narrative now skips forward six months to April, a few months after Dorcas was murdered. Alice is thinking again of the apparently innocuous man who killed her niece. Since the murder, she has become idle and withdrawn. Violet has been coming to see her. Violet first came in January, but Alice refused to admit her. She had been at the funeral and had witnessed what Violet had done. She is frightened of her. But Violet persisted, and eventually, in February, Alice let her in, and they talked warily to each other. Violet returns a second time, and Alice asks whether Joe ever beat her. She says no. Violet stares at a picture of Dorcas and Alice gives it to her just to get her out of the house. Violet returns the next day, and Alice stitches up the cuff of her dress for her.
Violet returns in March. Alice now actually looks forward to seeing her. They are not exactly friends, but they speak bluntly and honestly to each other. Alice says she does not understand women like Violet, who carry knives. Violet has now acquired the nickname Violent. Alice says she has never taken up a knife, even when her husband ran off. Violet says that Dorcas was her enemy, and asks Alice whether she would fight for her man. Alice remembers how thirty years ago in Springfield, she had wanted to kill her husband’s lover. But it was her husband who ended up dying, and Alice was forced to watch her hated rival lay roses on the coffin.
Just as chapter 1 focused on Violet and chapter 2 on Joe, this chapter focuses on Dorcas and how she got to the point of wanting to have an affair with an older, married man. Once more there is a contrast between age and youth, restraint and license. Alice is conservative and somewhat puritanical, wanting to shield her niece from the temptations of the world; Dorcas, however, young though she is, has a fire inside her that no one can put out. This is shown metaphorically in the smoking, fiery wood chip from the house fire “which must have entered her stretched dumb mouth and traveled down her throat because it smoked and glowed there still. Dorcas never let it out and never put it out” (pp. 60-61). This burning fire of life in Dorcas ensures that she will go her way whatever she is told by Alice or the Miller sisters. Like any adolescent might be, she is crushed by the rejection she suffers at the party and turns to Joe Trace as someone who can satisfy her longing for a passionate life.
There is also a contrast in this chapter between Alice and Violet, but the difference between them is more in Alice’s mind than in actual fact. Alice is shown in a domestic setting, often using an iron, while Violet is the one associated with a knife—another domestic utensil but one Violet tried to use to mutilate Dorcas’s corpse. Alice at first sees Violet as a wild, out-of-control kind of woman, but when they get to talking, and Violet asks her bluntly whether she would ever fight for her man, Alice is forced to remember her own past in which she nurtured violent fantasies against her husband’s lover. This shows that in truth Alice and Violet are not so very different. The funeral scene depicted at the end of this chapter also suggests this point, since it recalls the earlier scene at the funeral of Dorcas. Both scenes are the result of a love triangle in which a husband is unfaithful to his wife and the wife has fantasies of revenge.
The interaction of these two women brings into focus the general theme of anger and violence that appears in this chapter. There is the anger that explodes in race riots in St. Louis, for example, that make Dorcas an orphan. Violet hears anger in the jazz that is so popular at the time. Alice is frightened because of the murder of Dorcas; every day she reads in the newspaper about violent incidents, many of them involving violence against women. She also realizes that the women are not entirely passive victims, since “All over the country, black women were armed” (p. 74). She continues this thought over several pages of the narrative, giving examples of men who had been attacked with knives because their women had learned how to fight back.
The narrative technique in this chapter is similar to what has already been established. The narrator occasionally makes her opinions known, rather than sticking to a more neutral, reportorial tone, and the narrative keeps looping back and forth in time, giving more information each time about the central characters and incidents involving them.