Toni Morrison and Mark Twain may not have a great deal in common, and yet the ways in which they both develop their novels stylistically, is something worth being mentioned. The juxtaposition of Jazz with The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson seem to underlie deep problems not only within the black community but with women in general. Morrison, experienced the civil rights movement in the 1960s and Twain having lived through the Antebellum period onto the end of Reconstruction, delivers a unique vision of how it was and how it remains. Even after Twain’s death in 1910, women would still not have the right to vote for ten more years. Therefore the comparison of these two authors serve to reveal that even after the Civil War, Reconstruction, Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights Movements there remains a dark level of negativity concerning sexual and racial ideology. Morrison and Twain were commenting on the period they were writing these stories in, by placing them into dark periods of slavery and the early years after reconstruction. Both writers use their novels to flesh out characters indicative of these times and give them voices that would never have been heard. One of the major thematic elements in both novels is the emergence of poetic justice, an ironic twist of fate that rewards or punishes a character’s actions. This theme emerges as a secondary tool to voice the true ramifications of the novels.
In writing Jazz, Toni Morrison has delivered a rather large lens to view women through as well as describe the many flaws and aspirations of the human race. Taking place in New York City, the background of her novel sets the tone of the chaotic and conflicting lifestyles that develop as waves of black workers migrate into the North. Morrison’s writing reveals that the love found within the city is equally capable of producing happiness and violence. This is majorly realized through the character of Joe Trace, the women he loves, and the outcomes of their relationship to Joe. The narrator establishes early in the novel the complicated love triangle that Joe has created. In his impulsivity, he neglects the sanctity of his marriage to Violet in order to indulge in an affair. The affair between himself and a young girl named Dorcas, quickly leads to her death when Joe’s love for her becomes unbearable to live with.
Joe’s wife, Violet is renamed “Violent” by her community after a few public incidents. Most notably when she attends Dorcas’ funeral and slashes her face with a knife, walks off with a baby, and when she walks into traffic to sit down in the middle of the street. It is thought-provoking how the affair and the death of Dorcas effected the community. Dorcas’ aunt, Alice recalls to Violet, ” Even when my husband ran off I never did that. And you. You didn’t even have a worthy enemy. Somebody worth killing. You picked up the knife to insult a dead girl” (Morrison 85). From what she explains to Violet, when her own husband had an affair, she would never have hurt that woman as Violet had to Dorcas. The narrator then reveals that as angry as Alice was when her husband cheated on her, she only planned on punishing him in trivial ways. However, the narrator also reveals that Alice had in fact craved blood when it came to thinking about what she would do to the other woman, describing an “ice pick” and a “clothesline rope circling her neck” in order to get her revenge (Morrison 86).
In the same section, Alice thinks about the funeral of her late husband where his “hussy” makes her final appearance. Just like Violet had taken her very last literal stab at the other woman during a funeral, it was Alice’s last chance to do the same and yet she did not make a move. This is where the idea of poetic justice emerges, as Alice can not truly harbor a grudge towards Violet because she has lived through the same experience of hatred towards the ‘other woman’. Violet has accomplished what Alice never could, which seems indicative of women in general were thought incapable of. For Alice, her niece’s death had only solidified how “Any other kind of unarmed woman in 1926 was silent or crazy or dead” (Morrison 78). Generally speaking, even before the early 1900s up to this day, men have accepted an ideology where women are not capable of violence or anything grotesque. This line of thinking only mystifies women when they do become physical or assertive, attributing them to being insane and downplaying any power they exude.
It it interesting that out of all Twain’s major novels, the one fully-developed female character is that of Roxy in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Roxy is a slave even though she is only one-sixteenth black and her complexion is very fair. Mark Twain has had dozens of white female characters in all of his major novels and yet he chooses to really envelop his writing around the slave-woman Roxy. There seems to be no major concern of anyone in the village that she is basically white but treated as a slave because the law demonstrates that it only takes one drop of blood in order for a person to be considered black. At the beginning of the novel, Roxy switches her own baby with the baby of her master’s when she comes to the conclusion that even he can’t tell the difference between the two because their complexions are almost identical. She decides to make the switch because as a slave, her worst fear is that her son will be “sold down the river” which is the equivalent of condemning him to “hell” (Twain 634). Meaning she will lose him forever into the worst possible faction of slavery that will probably lead to his brutal death.
While Tom grows up as ‘white’ he inherits the privileges of being a white man, while his counterpart grows up into the slave life. As Roxy has to conceal what she has done even to her real son, he grows up estranged not only from her, but from his black identity. Just as Joe grows up estranged from his mother, the two men do not benefit from the absence of their mothers. Roxy is eventually freed from the estate and makes a life of her own, away from the complicated relationship with her son. When she loses all of her money in a failed bank, she goes to Tom to “fawn upon him slavelike” (Twain 650). When he rejects her for a mere dollar, she instills a sense of fear that Tom has never experienced before causing him to actually fall to his knees. This is the first instance of the power and control Roxy has over Tom as his mother. By the time Roxy does reveal to Tom that she is in fact his mother, he has lived a life full of hatred and disdain towards all blacks including his own mother.
It is ironic that in Roxy’s attempt to save her child from being sold into the worse factions of slavery, she is forced to sell herself down the river and through a turn of events her son is sold as well. In addition to its irony, the true tragedy of the novel is that Roxy and Tom are subject to society’s worst ideologies. Tom is not sold down the river as punishment for his crime, he is sold because his true lineage was revealed. Life imprisonment would have been a justified ending for Tom, since he stole from homes and murdered the Judge Driscoll. However, it is decided that this punishment is only meant for men and Tom is not even a bad man, he is property. Ironically, with barely a drop of black blood coursing through his veins, he is revered as any other black slave. All of the sacrifices Roxy made as a mother were in vain, as Tom never truly loved or appreciated her and being sold was unavoidable in the end. Perhaps, the true poetic justice in Pudd’nhead Wilson is Tom’s punishment for his treatment of blacks and more importantly, his own mother.
Both novels import the ideologies of the periods that Morrison and Twain grew up around, in order to deliver sharp critiques that are very successful. Morrison has witnessed firsthand the many failures in the struggle to gain equality not only as a black writer, but as a black female writer. Just as Twain was writing during the final years of legal slavery and reconstruction, he observed the horrible failure of the American people to foster equality instead of prejudice. Using a literary device that focuses on praise or punishment, the poetic justice found in Jazz and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson both describe outcomes that do not leave the reader with a happy ending. The tragic elements found in both novels, are perhaps most notably of the parallels drawn to the failures of the reconstruction period and the social injustices that continued for years after.
Morrison, Toni. Jazz. NY, NY: Random House, Inc., 2004. Print. Twain, Mark. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Five Novels. San Diego, CA: Canterbury Classics, 2009. Print. Pages 626-718.