After leaving Alice’s apartment, Violet goes to a drugstore where she drinks a malted milkshake through a straw and wonders about herself. She seems to be two people, one of whom is sedate but the other is angry, aggressive, and potentially violent. She refers to this aspect of herself as “that Violet.” It was that Violet who took the knife to Dorcas’s funeral and fought hard with the ushers as they tried to restrain her. They had to wrestle her to the ground to get her to drop the knife. That Violet feels no shame at what she did, although the other Violet does. She wonders about the details of the relationship between Joe and Dorcas and feels resentful again that Dorcas stole her husband. Then she realizes that that Violet is indeed her, not some strange other being. She wonders if Dorcas had seen in Joe exactly what she, Violet, had seen in him when they first knew each other, “who carried a light inside him” (p. 96).
All Violet knows is that she has to hang on to Joe no matter what. She does not want to end up like her mother Rose Dear. In 1888, debt collectors had come to repossess her house and furniture, and Rose Dear and her five children had to take refuge in an abandoned shack. Neighbors helped them, bringing food. Rose’s mother, True Belle, heard about their plight and left her job in Baltimore to return. For four years she got things organized, but then Rose Dear committed suicide by jumping into a well. Her husband, Violet’s father, returned two weeks later with money and gifts, but he only stayed three weeks. He would return from time to time, but more infrequently. Violet still hopes he is alive somewhere. Also, she has never forgotten her mother. She wonders what was the last straw that drove her mother to take her own life, and thinks it may have been the knowledge that her children were being well taken care of by True Belle and that there was nothing more for her to live for. One practical result of her mother’s hard life with five children was that Violet decided she would never have children of her own.
The narrative then turns to how Violet met Joe. Violet was seventeen years old and had been sent to pick cotton near a town called Palestine. She met Joe when he fell out of a tree he had been sleeping in. She knows straightaway that she wants to be with him. After the cotton picking work ends, she stays with a family of six in a place called Tyrell, just to be close to Joe. They were quickly married, and fourteen years later were tempted to move north to Harlem, the City, because Joe had heard so many reports from people he knew about how you could make money there and even own a car. When they arrived there, it was even better than they had imagined.
Neither Joe nor Violet wanted to have children, even though they both liked children. Twice Violet had miscarriages. Years later, however, when Violet was forty, she began to long for a child, and this longing goes on for years. She also realizes that Dorcas was young enough to be the daughter she daydreamed about: “Was she [Dorcas] the woman who took the man, or the daughter who fled her womb?” (p. 109).
Violet confesses to Alice that in different circumstances, she might have loved Dorcas. She goes on to ask Alice about her dilemma: should she stay with Joe or leave him? Violet says he is all she has, but Alice replies that it doesn’t look to her as if she has him (since they barely talk to each other). On a later occasion, Alice, who is ironing, tells her that Joe will cheat on her again, but she also says that Violet’s anger does her no good—and that Violet should make the best of what she has left in life. At that point Alice allows the iron to burn something, shouts in dismay, and then the two women fall to laughing.
Violet experiences a major leap in self-understanding in this chapter. Up to this point she has been in a rather dissociated state, sometimes watching herself as if it was not her doing whatever it is she is doing. But now she thinks hard about the angry, bitter, violent side of her, which at first she dismisses as “that” Violet, as if she is split into two, but after a while she realizes that “that” Violet “is not somebody walking round town, up and down the streets wearing my skin and using my eyes shit no that Violet is me!” (pp. 95-96). She is not alone in acknowledging and asserting this aggressive side of her. Many other black women are doing the same, as the narrator explained in the previous chapter, in response to abusive men. However, Violet is still a long way from being psychically whole because she is in an acute dilemma over what to do regarding her husband.
The story then extends itself backwards in time, to Violet’s family background, her childhood in the poor, racist South, where her mother commits suicide and Violet forms a bond with her grandmother, True Belle. This part of the narrative shows Violet at a time when she was emotionally more healthy and also physically strong, able to haul hay and chop wood, unlike the skinny fifty-year-old woman she has become.
This section of the story also gives insight into the hardness of life for black people in the late nineteenth century. Slavery had been abolished but blacks were still subject to extreme poverty and racist exploitation. As for Violet, the difficulty of her early life is apparent—her physical strength and ability to love notwithstanding—her mother a suicide, her father abandoning the family even before that. But at least she found Joe Trace, with whom she fell in love almost immediately. They had good times together, although that does not help Violet solve her dilemma in the present. The wider pattern emerging in the novel is one of broken families and the way the consequences of such deprivation follow people throughout their lives. The next chapter will further elaborate on this theme.
It is spring in the city in 1926, and the narrator observes how everybody starts to notice each other again. The narrator also reveals how closely she has observed Joe, who seems to spend most of his time weeping, then wiping his face with a red handkerchief. She has noted how he always used to wear his hat at a certain precise angle—forward and to the left. She thinks he may feel self-pity, not for straying, but for being faithful to Violet for so long. The narrator says that Joe thought he was free to do something wild, but it would never get him very far, because all young love is eventually lost. The narrator adds that things might have worked out differently had Joe told one of his friends Stuck or Gistan about Dorcas.
The remainder of this chapter is a first-person narration by Joe of his life story and what happened with Dorcas. He says he could not tell another man about it, not even his foster brother Victory, even though Victory is not around to hear it. He has not allowed himself to get too close to anyone, so he would never tell Stuck or Gistan. He says he couldn’t talk to anyone but Dorcas, and “I told her things I hadn’t told myself” (p. 123).
He then tells the story of his life. He was born in Vienna, a town in Vesper County, Virginia, in 1873. He was placed with foster parents, Rhoda and Frank Williams, who raised him with their six other offspring as if he was one of theirs. They called him Joseph but never gave him a last name. He adopted Trace as his name when he was told that his parents disappeared without a trace. He assumed he was Trace.
Joe was proud of being taught how to hunt, along with Victory, by a man who was known as the best hunter in the county. Because of what he learned from this man, he was always more comfortable in the woods than the town. When Vienna burned down in a fire in 1893, Joe walked fifteen miles to Palestine, where he met Violet, and they married. They worked on the land for several years, then Joe got a job laying rail. He tried to buy some land but was cheated. Then in 1906 he took Violet to New York, where they lived in the Tenderloin area for a while. He did all kinds of jobs there, cleaning toilets and waiting tables. Then they moved to Harlem, and Joe worked in hotels because there were more chances to earn tips. Then he started selling Cleopatra cosmetics. He was caught up in and almost killed in a race riot in 1917, and he marched in a parade with the black troops of the 369th regiment after World War I ended.
In 1925, everything was going well, and then, Joe says, Violet started sleeping with a doll in her arms. He is quick to add that he does not blame Violet for what happened to Dorcas. He says he was lonely, but in a way did not know it until he met Dorcas.
He and Dorcas were experiencing difficulties in their relationship. Five days before he shot her on a crowded dance floor, he followed her trail, trying to find her. He went to the hairdressers where she usually went on Tuesdays but was told she had no appointment that day. He began to suspect for various reasons that Dorcas had been lying to him about her activities and whereabouts. When he finally tracked her down and they went to their usual meeting place, they quarreled, and she said mean things to him. The next day he goes to Inwood, the place where they went at the very beginning of their relationship. He remembers what it had been like between them that October, and all the gifts he has bought her during their relationship. He does not sound as if he regrets anything; he had attained a kind of paradise by being with her, and because he chose her of his own free will.
Most of the chapters focus on one character in particular, illuminating events as they are experienced by that character. This chapter is no exception. It focuses on Joe; for the first time there is a first-person narration from one of the principal characters. Joe tells his life story, balancing out the previous chapter, which told the story of Violet’s early life. It is a continuing story of broken or nonexistent families. Whereas Violet lost her mother to suicide, and her father abandoned the family, Joe never knew either of his parents, who abandoned him at birth. Although he was raised by kind foster parents, the absence of any knowledge of his real parents left a hole in his life.
In spite of that deprivation, however, Joe had sufficient intelligence and drive to make his way in the world, even though he was granted no natural advantages. He sees his life in terms of seven major phases, in each of which he made himself a new person. He says that before he met Dorcas, “I’d changed into new seven times” (p. 123). These are the stages: when he named himself; when he was trained in hunting by the man known as the hunter’s hunter; when he moved from Vienna and met Violet; when he bought land and was cheated out of it in 1901; in 1906 when he went north with Violet; when he moved to Harlem; when he walked with the 369 in the parade. He thinks he is complete at that point, that he has no further changes to go through. It is significant that the last change, walking with the 369, the black regiment, is associated with pride of race. He and his people have come a long way to get where they are; it is a collective as well as individual growth. Joe thinks this change is the best one: “the colored troops of the three six nine . . . made me so proud it split my heart in two” (p. 129).
There is a Biblical symbolism tied into the seven changes. In the Bible, the number seven occurs frequently, and is associated with fullness, completeness, and perfection. Joe should have stopped right there, as he himself acknowledges. When he met Dorcas, “I changed once too often. Made myself new one time too many” (p. 129). However, there is an irony here because he speaks of his relationship with Dorcas as if it was for him a return to the Biblical Eden, a paradise: “You looked at me then like you knew me, and I thought it really was Eden,” he tells Dorcas, in this monologue in which he addresses the dead girl directly. He tells Dorcas that she was the reason Adam ate the apple, i.e., fell into temptation, but that doing so was a great thing, because Adam “left Eden a rich man. Not only did he have Eve, but he had the taste of the apple in the world in his mouth for the rest of his life” (p. 133). Significantly, he says he did not fall in love—the allusion is to the fall of man and the expulsion from Eden in the Biblical myth—he rose in love. So his attitude is ambivalent; he is aware of both what he gained and what he lost in his relationship with Dorcas.