Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
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 Valerian treats Son better than he treats them, whom he has known for years. Son also feels tension, not only because of what happens within the Street household but also because he sees that the Streets and Childses treat Gideon, Thérèse, and Alma Estée, whose names they do not bother to learn, as chattel, not as individual human beings. Perhaps most significantly, Son also resents the fact that Jadine acts more like the Streets than like the African American women of his childhood.
All tensions erupt at Christmas dinner after Valerian casually announces that he has fired Gideon and Thérèse for stealing apples, without previously notifying Sydney and Ondine. Verbal blows between Valerian and Son, Valerian and Ondine, Valerian and Sydney, and Ondine and Margaret ensue, with Jadine trying to smooth everything over. The climax occurs when Ondine reveals the reason for her bitterness toward Margaret: Margaret had abused the Streets’ son, Michael, when he was a baby. This revelation renders Valerian virtually helpless and provides redemption for the emotionally disturbed Margaret.
In the resultant numbness, Jadine and Son grow close and decide to meet each other in New York, where Jadine has a modeling job scheduled. Son, who arrives in the city first, feels uncomfortable in New York, but for Jadine it is a welcome change. The two close themselves off from the outside world for weeks, living only for and through each other. Finally, Son persuades Jadine to visit his family and friends with him in Eloe. Jadine feels like an outsider during their entire stay and feels especially threatened by the women in Son’s background. She does not fear their repossession of Son as much as she fears their claims upon her and her own identity. When the two return to New York, their differences escalate. Jadine looks toward the future, wanting Son to make something of himself in the real world. Son looks toward the past, wanting Jadine to imbibe the traits of the women in his community who mothered him. Both want to rescue the other from “misguided” worldviews. The relationship ends after Son emotionally and physically assaults Jadine. She returns to the Streets’ Caribbean island for a brief visit and to retrieve her belongings. During the visit, Ondine criticizes Jadine for not feeling and acting like a daughter. Jadine refuses to let guilt subordinate her to someone else’s wishes and leaves for Paris alone, determined to face her future and her past on her own terms. Meanwhile, Son, after realizing that Jadine is more important to him than his past, flies to the Caribbean to find her. He is sidetracked by Gideon, Thérèse, and Alma, who lies to him about seeing Jadine with a man. Thérèse agrees to row Son to the island but takes him to the swampy side, not to the Street home. Disoriented and confused, Son leaves the boat to join mythical blind horsemen rumored to haunt the island. Whether he reaches his destination remains a mystery.