(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 faithful servants, Sydney and Ondine Childs, accompanied them to Isle des Chevaliers, Sydney as butler, Ondine as cook. The two, however, are not enthralled at being separated from their roots. Sydney dreams often of his native...

(The entire section is 689 words.)