(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.)

Tar Baby Summary

(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.)

Tar Baby Summary

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 entire section is 1087 words.)

Tar Baby Summary and Analysis

Tar Baby Introduction: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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 flat Norwegian bread and mustard.

When he goes on deck to look at the...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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


(The entire section is 1238 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 2: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 1567 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 4: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
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...

(The entire section is 1474 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 5: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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....

(The entire section is 2648 words.)

Tar Baby 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...

(The entire section is 1411 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 7:Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 1783 words.)

Tar Baby 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...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)

Tar Baby Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
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...

(The entire section is 2569 words.)

Tar Baby 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...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Tar Baby 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...

(The entire section is 941 words.)