Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 837 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Tar Baby Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The tar baby in Morrison’s title is Jade, an intelligent black woman, orphaned and Paris-educated, who at twenty-five stands poised between two worlds. The world into which she was born is that of her aunt and uncle, Sydney and Ondine Childs, servants to the affluent Streets. Impressed by Jade’s unique abilities, the Streets have provided the wherewithal for her to study art history at the Sorbonne. Jade functions socially both in the world of the Streets and the world of the Childses. Tar Baby, a polemical novel, projects Jade’s two worlds effectively. Although legitimately a member of each world, Jade sometimes wishes that race were not a part of her social context. She wants to be accepted for the person she is inside. Much of the book is—on the surface, at least—concerned with Jade’s attempts to establish her identity.
Isle des Chevaliers, the Caribbean island on which most of the novel is set, is a mystical place named for a shipload of legendary blacks who were struck blind at their first sight of the island. They were not sold into slavery, as had originally been intended, but were left to wander the island, as their descendants still do. The setting is idyllic yet ominous; spirits lurk in the deep jungle foliage.
Valerian Street and his wife, Margaret, a former beauty queen two decades his junior, came to the island from Philadelphia. Valerian has retired from his lucrative candy manufacturing business. Their...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
An unidentified sailor leaps overboard and finds himself caught in the undertow. Unable to reach shore, he boards a small boat and hides from the people on board. When the boat lands at the private island where Valerian Street lives with his wife, Margaret, and their servants, Sydney and Ondine Childs, the sailor goes ashore unseen. Visiting at the estate, L’Arbe de la Croix, is Jadine Childs, the niece of Sydney and Ondine. Valerian has paid her tuition to earn a degree from the Sorbonne in Paris. Now a successful black high-fashion model in Paris and New York, Jadine is serving as a social secretary for Margaret while deciding her next career move.
The Streets, against Valerian’s wishes, are expecting guests for Christmas—their son Michael, his old teacher, B. J. Bridges, a friend of B.J.’s, and Dr. Michelin, who is the local dentist and Valerian’s friend. After arguing with her husband over many trivial matters, Margaret goes to her room. Suddenly, her screams alarm everyone in the house. Sydney, rushing to her aid, finds a black man hidden in the closet. At gunpoint, Sydney brings the unkempt intruder before Valerian, who amazes everyone by asking the stranger to have a drink and stay overnight with them.
The next morning, feeling that Valerian has insulted her, Margaret refuses to go downstairs. Meanwhile, luxuriating in her newly received gift, a sealskin coat from Ryk (one of her suitors), Jadine wraps Christmas presents for...
(The entire section is 1087 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Introduction: Summary and Analysis
Unnamed sailor: jumps overboard from a large ship and boards a small boat to reach an island
Two unidentified women: on board the small boat which takes the unnamed sailor to the island
A sailor leaps from a ship, the H.M.S. Stor Konigsgaarten. Although he is a strong swimmer, because of a strong undertow he is unable to swim to the deserted pier he had noticed a mile beyond the lights of Queen of France. The current carries him to a small boat, Seabird II, which he boards easily since a rope ladder hangs over the side. Although he hears voices, laughter, and music, and smells cooking odors—especially that of curry—he sees no one. He hides in a closet not far from the open door through which come the sounds. Although he intends to stay alert, he falls asleep. When he awakens, he hears two women talking on deck. After a crashing sound, a woman’s hand appears near the slightly opened door of his hiding place, picking up a bottle of suntan oil. The light from the hall enables him to see about his closet. When he finds the miniature orange trees in a crate, he eats the bitter fruit ravenously. He deduces that the boat is headed away from Queen of France and toward an island.
When the boat docks, he sees the two women walk toward a car and hears an engine start. He quickly goes to find something to eat in the galley, but everything has been cleaned up. He must be satisfied with...
(The entire section is 633 words.)
Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
Valerian Street: the wealthy American who began the development of the island and has now retired there at his estate, L’Arbe de la Croix; age 70
Sydney Childs: Valerian’s black butler for the last 40 years
Dr. Robert Michelin: a dentist from Algiers; Valerian’s friend;
invited to the island for Christmas
Margaret Lordi Street: Valerian’s second wife, who bears his only child; a former beauty queen from Maine
Ondine Childs: Sydney’s wife; cook for the household; called Nanadine by her niece, Jadine
Jadine Childs: 25-year-old niece of the Childs; a high-fashion model in Paris and New York; sometimes called Jade
Michael Street: Valerian and Margaret’s only child, now nearly 30 years of age, who has not visited the island in several years
Yardman: the handyman for the Streets; Gideon is his real name
Mary (Therese): the name Valerian used for all female servants except Ondine; the laundress
The private island on which the black sailor has landed is the Isle des Chevaliers. Valerian Street, a retired, wealthy American, who changed much of the island from a beautiful, dense, tropical rain forest into a stagnating swamp, is the owner. He loves his estate, especially the greenhouse. He listens to classical music while tending his plants. His wife is very unhappy on the island and returns...
(The entire section is 1238 words.)
Chapter 2: Summary and Analysis
Woman in yellow: woman whom Jade encounters in a Paris store
Ryk: Jadine’s European white suitor, who wants to marry her; sent her a sealskin coat for Christmas
Celestina and Alicia: twin aunts of Margaret’s father; red-haired residents of Buffalo
Joseph and Leonora Lordi: Margaret’s parents
The dreams of the sleeping and the thoughts of the sleepless consort throughout the Caribbean night in L’Arbe de la Croix. After a restless sleep, Jade awakens in terror from a nightmare of ladies’ broad-brimmed hats pursuing her. She then recalls a party she had given two months ago in Paris to celebrate her successes. She had just learned that she had passed the orals for her degree (the study for this degree had been financed by Valerian); her picture had been on the cover of Elle, a fashion magazine; and three young men were pursuing her enthusiastically. While shopping for food for the party she has decided to give spontaneously, a tall, regal black woman dressed in a yellow dress and holding three eggs attracts Jade’s attention. When Jade follows her, however, the woman spits on the walkway before her while looking at Jade. Following this unpleasant memory, Jade considers the marriage proposal of Ryk, one of three suitors in Paris. She wonders if he really loves her or only the idea of a lovely black woman as his wife.
Fully awake now, Jade considers...
(The entire section is 1567 words.)
Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis
Cissie: Valerian’s sister
Valerian’s four uncles: train Valerian for the candy business
B. J. Bridges: Michael’s teacher and invited guest for Christmas; a poet
The next day, a strange condition that periodically affected Margaret returns. She loses awareness of where she is and what she is doing, existing in a haziness of thought and action. Her actions are sometimes bizarre—trying to pick up the pattern on the china with her fork or putting a wrapped cookie into her mouth. Both Valerian and Ondine believe that her drinking is the basis of her problems. During such times, Valerian constantly badgers her, criticizing every behavior: the rhythm of her eating, her pronunciation of words, her reference to a line of poetry, her past behavior with his sister, her upbringing of their son, Michael. When Margaret tearfully leaves the table, after Valerian has called her a high-school dropout, Jadine tries to defend Margaret. Actually, she thinks the quarreling between the couple is based upon their age difference. Over 20 years older than his wife, Valerian is “waning, shutting up, closing in. She’s blazing with the fire of a soon to be setting sun.”
With only Jadine at the table, Valerian turns the conversation to his son, whom Jadine has met on occasion. During her college years, she and Michael had debated his support of various underdogs, such as the Indians....
(The entire section is 974 words.)
Chapter 4: Summary and Analysis
Alma Estee: a black girl who sometimes lives with Gideon and Therese
The next morning, Margaret refuses to leave her room because Valerian had insulted her by offering the black intruder a drink and then a bed for the night. Her prejudice toward the stranger is revealed when she describes him as a “real live dope addict ape.” Her thoughts jump erratically from the present to the past as she compares her room in L’Arbe de la Croix to the trailer coziness of her youth. She had thought the trailer grand until she turned 14 and overheard it called “tacky.” She thought when she met Valerian, his “squared fingernails” indicated safety for her. Now she is appalled by his welcoming of the black intruder into their home. She would leave, if only Michael was not coming for Christmas. Repeatedly, Margaret recalls her lapse with the salad bowl utensils the previous night.
Jadine is wrapping the Christmas presents she bought for the Childs and the Streets. She is thrilled with Ryk’s present to her, a sealskin coat, and has no concerns about the 90 baby seals that were killed to create it. Naked, she loves the feeling of the sealskin against her skin, and she tells Ondine of her pleasure. Ondine is more interested in how angry Sydney is over Valerian’s treatment of the intruder. Ondine described Sydney “as mean as a tampered rooster.”
Ondine has connected the theft of...
(The entire section is 1474 words.)
Chapter 5: Summary and Analysis
Miss Tyler: Son’s piano teacher
Frisco: a man who had hired Son to clean fish
Drake, Soldier, and Ernie Paul: boyhood friends of Son
Cheyenne: Son’s former wife
Jadine tells Margaret about the laughter of Valerian and the intruder, after the intruder has forcefully held Jadine in his arms. The two, upset by Valerian’s acceptance of the intruder, consider leaving the island immediately, but the Christmas plans hold Margaret there. The date is already December 22, too late to make a change in Michael’s plans.
After Jadine had left her room in anger, the intruder showers in her bathroom and even dresses in her robe. Before he goes downstairs to find Valerian, he reviews the events of the last few days since he reached the island. He had been starving and never intended to follow the women. He had finally found a house where he slept in the gazebo. After a few days, he entered the house through an unlocked door and found food. Returning nightly, he eventually ventured upstairs and found Jadine asleep. A nightly ritual begins, as he sits and watches her as she sleeps. He recalls free piano lessons with Mrs. Tyler and events in his life thereafter. After his dishonorable discharge from the army, he played the piano in a bar (but not well). He had used more than seven names, but his real name is Son. Through Jadine’s window, the intruder sees Yardman...
(The entire section is 2648 words.)
Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Christmas Eve’s eve arrives, and the household is astir with preparations for the guests—Michael; his former teacher, B. J. Bridges; Bridges’s friend; and Dr. Michelin. Even the hydrangea blooms in the greenhouse. Valerian adds another traditional food item to Margaret’s meal plans: ollieballen, a Dutch pastry his Grandmother Stadt had prepared. Early that morning, Valerian and Margaret indulge in a bit of lovemaking, a definite departure from their usual behavior. Ondine is upset at Jadine’s apparent dalliance with Son, but Sydney assures her that Jadine is too sensible a girl to get seriously involved with a “swamp nigger.” The “crown” of Ondine’s life is her niece, and she thinks Son is unworthy of such a treasure. Also, Ondine’s feet are bothering her greatly, and her eyes are failing. Since Therese and Gideon fail to show up for work this day, Jadine helps by getting the necessary laundry done.
Christmas Eve arrives, but no company comes. There is no word from Michael, and the other guests are held away by bad weather for travel. The lack of company causes Margaret to turn the cooking chores over to Ondine, who changes the menu.
While Margaret suns on the patio, Son apologizes to her for having frightened her. As they have a friendly discussion, Margaret tells him about her “beautiful” son, Michael. She shows great pride in her son, telling Son about how Michael lives with Indians and tries...
(The entire section is 1411 words.)
Chapter 7:Summary and Analysis
Dawn: Jadine’s friend who lets Jadine and Son stay in her New York apartment
Betty and Aisha: New York friends of Jadine
Nommo: street girl in New York; befriended by Son
The chapter opens without giving a clear time to the reader. Son has arrived in New York, having used Jadine’s ticket, since he might be questioned if he had a ticket in his own name. He also is carrying Gideon’s passport. Jadine has given him $400 to pay for his hotel and other expenses until she arrives in a few days.
As he rides in a taxi to the hotel, he sees a very different city from the New York of his past. He wonders about the absence of any children or old people on the streets. He hears no genuine laughter, only “shrieks of satisfaction.” He begins to reminisce about the two days after the Christmas travesty. He and Jadine had become lovers and immersed themselves in their lovemaking, which no one else in the house seemed to notice. The plans to go to New York were made, and Son left on December 28, after visiting Therese and Gideon. Therese prepared a dirty bag of good fortune for him. Thinking it looked like ganja (a form of marijuana), he discarded it in case the customs officials at the airport should notice it.
He is concerned when he reaches the hotel that it may be the wrong Hilton. He and Jade will be unable to find one another in the city. He feels love as he...
(The entire section is 1783 words.)
Chapter 8: Summary and Analysis
For years, Valerian had believed that Margaret might be a secret drinker. The real truth, that she was a child abuser, is much worse for him to accept. When she tries to explain and calls her actions “delicious,” Valerian is disgusted and heartsick, shaken by the memory of his young son, hiding in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, singing, but actually begging his father for help. In his distress of knowing now what he never took the time or trouble to find out nearly 30 years ago, he ignores the angel trumpets dying in the greenhouse due to the “air charged with pain.”
That night, after Ondine spewed out the secret she had harbored for many years, Valerian sat at the table until the next morning. Sydney came in at 2:00 a.m., unable to sleep because he did not know what Valerian was going to do with Ondine and him. They had no place to go—no house, no money. Their retirement plans were based upon some stock certificates and a provision in Valerian’s will that would take care of the two of them when they could work no longer. When Sydney asked Valerian if Ondine and he were going to be fired, Valerian had no answer. All of his attention is on the image of the small boy hiding in the cabinet beneath the bathroom sink, calling out for help in a language his father had not understood. Valerian’s fingers “shuddered on the tablecloth” as he sat, waiting for his “blood-tears” to begin. Finally, at 6:00 a.m., the...
(The entire section is 1160 words.)
Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis
Carl: the black man who drove Son and Jadine in Eloe
Old Man: Son’s father, real name, Franklin G. Green
Ellen: Soldier’s wife
Aunt Rosa: Son’s aunt in Eloe, with whom Jadine stays at night
Sally Brown: Cheyenne’s mother, who wanted to avenge her daughter’s death by killing Son
Horace, Frank G, Francine, and Parky Green: Son’s siblings
Three months later, Son and Jadine visit Eloe, Florida, where Son grew up. Jade’s first observation when they get off the bus is that the entire town looks as big as only one block in Queens, New York. Son tells her she is not actually in Eloe yet, just in the largest nearby town. After talking with several black men lounging in front of the bus depot, Son locates a driver to take them the rest of the way to Eloe.
Carl, the driver, is stunned by Jadine’s appearance—especially “her cashmere sweater with a cowl neck,…Chacrel boots,” and tight jeans in which he thinks “no honest work could be done.” Jadine is amazed at the insignificance of Eloe; only four houses are visible where Carl stops the car. When Jade asks about the 90 houses Son had mentioned, he explains that they are spread out. People in Eloe “don’t live all crunched up together,…girl.” Son’s “grinning like a groom” and “down home” language pattern are the first hints of a change Jade will notice in...
(The entire section is 2569 words.)
Chapter 10: Summary and Analysis
Jadine has returned to say good-bye to Ondine and Sydney and to pick up her sealskin coat before returning to Paris. Since she has missed the ferry, she calls Ondine to tell her to send the launch to Queen of France to get her. While she waits at the hotel, she thinks of the “cultural throwback” who had affected her so deeply by a finger on the sole of her foot or a tongue on the part in her hair. His sexual appeal cannot compete, however, with his “white-folks-black-folks ‘primitivism.’”
When Jadine arrives at L’Arbe de la Croix, she greets Ondine briefly and goes to collect her things upstairs. Margaret is sorting Valerian’s clothing in his closet. She is in full control of the old man, having to button his shirt and zipper his pants for him. This change in relationship is pleasing to her, since she no longer feels a need to join her son, who has enrolled in Berkeley.
When Jadine returns to visit with Ondine, she admits the mistake she made, leaving with Son. She is planning to live in Paris and does not want anyone to tell Son where she is. As the two talk about Valerian and Margaret, Ondine says that Valerian intentionally kept his beautiful wife stupid. When Margaret tortured Michael, she was getting even with Valerian, hurting his son; she loved her son.
As Jade and Ondine talk, Jade is fearful that Ondine will ask her to care for the old couple and thinks “Don’t need me now!”...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
Conclusion: Summary and Analysis
Son arrives at Queen of France but is unable to find Gideon or Therese for several hours. He walks about the town and sits on the beach. Finally, he sees Therese selling smoked eel at a stall along the market street and chases off tourists with cameras who are surrounding her.
Delighted to see “Chocolate-eater” again, Therese closes up her stall and climbs the hill with him to reach her house. When Son asks if she has returned to L’Arbe de la Croix, Therese spits. She is, however, appreciative of the apple Son presents to her from his plane meal.
When Gideon arrives, he hugs the younger man. Son immediately asks about Jade, causing Gideon to angrily shout, “Let her go!” He will not assist Son in searching for Jade.
As Son thinks about Jade, he accepts her as “difficult,” a woman who “had a temper, energy, ideas of her own, and fought back.” At the same time, she was “a sound, all the music he had ever wanted to play, a world, and a way of being in it.” He could not abandon his search for her.
Alma Estee arrives and tells Son about seeing Jade at the airport, where Jade met a blond man, and boarded a plane with him. Alma’s appearance in her new “dried-blood”-colored wig saddens and angers Son. Her news makes Son determined to try to find Jade, for he cannot survive losing her. He was “stuck in it” (the tar baby Jade represented) and did not even want to be freed....
(The entire section is 941 words.)