Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The meanings in “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” range from a simple bit of moral advice about not losing one’s temper and not having too much pride to complex interpretations from mythology, folklore, psychology, and sociology. On one level, the clever rabbit is an obvious persona for the black slave; inventive, sly, wise, and successful, the physically inferior rabbit inevitably triumphs over the strong, slower, more stupid animals, especially Brer Fox, a worthy opponent, as seen in this story. In Brer Rabbit’s world, the weak at least have a chance. The story of the tar-baby, however, offers an interesting variation on the idea of the slave’s identification with Brer Rabbit, for the rabbit demands respect from the black tar-baby as the whites expected it from the blacks. This role reversal lets the reader turn against Brer Rabbit and root for the silent tar-baby. In the conclusion, however, the reader once again applauds Brer Rabbit and his clever escape.

“The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” is not only an entertaining fable for children but also an insightful glimpse into the history, psychology, and folklore of plantation slaves. The lines between black and white, good and evil, comedy and tragedy are blurred and changing. Brer Rabbit, hero and rogue, and Brer Fox, villain and benefactor, meet before the silent audience of the tar-baby (whose role is also ambiguous), shift roles, and rearrange themselves again into the traditional, unresolved conflict between the strong and the clever, the powerful and the powerless.