In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison explores a theme that fascinated playwright Eugene O’Neill, who, in The Emperor Jones (1920) and The Hairy Ape (1922) focused on the primitive versus the civilized. In the former play, the Emperor Jones, a black Pullman porter, finds himself elevated to a position close to sainthood in a jungle not unlike that of the Isle des Chevaliers. In the latter play, Yank, a stoker on a freighter, finds himself in the Easter Parade on New York’s highly civilized Fifth Avenue, which becomes his undoing.

Morrison combines in a single novel the elements that O’Neill treated separately in his two plays. On the one hand, she creates a highly civilized setting in the Streets’ retirement paradise, L’Arbe de la Croix, to which they have retreated after Valerian’s lifetime of hard work in Philadelphia as a successful manufacturer of candy.

L’Arbe de la Croix has sweeping lawns and well-tended gardens, but they are at any given time only weeks—perhaps days—away from being reclaimed if the rain forest surrounding them is not continually chopped back. The encroaching jungle constantly mocks the civilized, affluent image that l’Arbe de la Croix projects. The jungle has been tamed, but only temporarily and only with the greatest of difficulty. If the Streets’ servants turn their backs on it for a day, the jungle will advance on the artificial world the Streets have created for themselves and reclaim it.

L’Arbe de la Croix has all the outward appearances of a well-ordered estate of happy, affluent people. Appearances, however, deceive. Within the walls of the house live a man and a woman who have ceased to mean much to each other. The woman has spent her life being a wife, giving that role priority over her role as a mother. Her deepest secret has to do with her abuse of their son, who now has little to do with his...

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