Tar Baby traces the quest for self-identity of Jadine Childs, the protagonist. Jadine does not seem to have rebelled against the constructs of the white society in which she is enmeshed; in fact, she has accepted and embraced the white culture without question. Because she was orphaned at the age of twelve, a break with her African American heritage occurred. Ondine and Sydney, the aunt and uncle who assumed responsibility for the orphan, unwittingly enlarged this gap by sending her to exclusive private schools and later to the Sorbonne. The adult Jadine feels equipped to deal successfully with the white world; she is a part of it. It is the African American world, represented by her nightmares, her disagreements with Son, and the feelings of otherness that overwhelm her in his hometown of Eloe, Florida, that disturbs her. Set in the late 1970’s, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby explores the sexual, racial, familial, and social tensions associated with the individual’s journey to self-autonomy and self-actualization.
The novel begins with Son (William Green) escaping from a merchant ship to a yacht that Margaret Street and Jadine have borrowed. He hides in the Streets’ home for days until Margaret Street discovers him in her closet a few evenings before Christmas. This discovery initiates the crumbling of Valerian Street’s world.
Valerian, a wealthy, retired businessman, has created and ordered his own world on his Caribbean island. He controls his wife Margaret, his servants, Sydney and Ondine, the natives who work for him, and even Jadine, quietly manipulating her choices. A godlike figure, he is relatively beneficent to but also distant from his subjects; he is comfortable in the artificially natural world of his greenhouse.
The discovery of Son, coupled with Valerian’s calm acceptance of him, causes tension in Margaret, who feels Valerian is indifferent to her needs; in Jadine, who is attracted to and repelled by Son at the same time; and in Sydney and Ondine, who feel slighted because...
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