Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Toni Morrison's 1981 "Tar Baby" opens by introducing readers to the enchanting Caribbean island of Isle des Chevaliers in the 70s, where most of the narrative unfolds. Against this backdrop emerges a cast of compelling characters with distinct backgrounds and motivations. 

Notable among them is Jadine Childs, an accomplished African-American fashion model; Son, an enigmatic African-American man carrying a past shrouded in mystery and crime; Valerian Street, Jadine's affluent white patron who funds her lifestyle; Margaret Street, Valerian's introspective wife; and Ondine and Sydney that serve the Streets and are relatives of Jadine.

The omniscient narration begins with an unidentified man—who turns out to be Son—sneaking into the residence of the Streets—the house, L'Arbe de la Croix. Morrison employs a shifting narrative perspective, allowing readers to see events from multiple characters' viewpoints. This technique provides insight into the characters' thoughts, motivations, and backgrounds.

Margaret and Valerian's strained relationship intensifies due to Margaret's inviting guests against his wishes, including their son, Michael. A fierce argument erupts at dinner, revealing underlying family conflicts. Margaret locks herself in her room, leaving Valerian with the unfolding drama.

The island beckons Jadine to return to the Streets' opulent estate after her time at Sorbonne in Paris (paid for by Valerian) concludes. Here, she has a fateful encounter with Son. Jadine's white boyfriend gifts her an opulent sealskin coat, where Son, a hidden presence until now, appears. With secrets hidden beneath his exterior, Son seeks refuge on the estate, and Jadine's arrival disrupts his isolation. Their initial meeting marks the inception of a complex sexual relationship infused with tension, desire, and unexpected connections.

With tension amongst the Streets never resolving, Jadine and Son depart for New York, enjoying an unfettered romance. Their love flourishes despite financial uncertainties. Meanwhile, tensions simmer on the island as Valerian's rift with Margaret remains unresolved.

A trip to Son's hometown tests their relationship—differences surface, leading to their eventual separation in New York. Jadine departs for Paris, but not without visiting the Isle des Chevaliers.

As Jadine leaves, Son arrives on the island, seeking her. Thérèse's actions lead Son to choose between pursuing Jadine or joining a unique community of horsemen on the island. Thus, He chooses the island, a type of Blackness Jadine would never approve of.

The novel delves deeply into issues of race, highlighting the tensions and complexities that arise from interactions between characters of different racial backgrounds. The clashes between African and European cultural perspectives and the impact of colonial history serve as a backdrop for exploring racial identity and its influence on personal experiences.

Characters in the novel often grapple with the tension between the desire for freedom and the constraints imposed by societal norms, personal histories, and cultural expectations. The concept of freedom is examined both on a personal level and as a broader societal ideal.

Throughout the novel's labyrinthine structure, Toni Morrison seamlessly interlaces the lives and experiences of her characters, painting a vivid portrait of the human experience. This literary masterpiece invites readers to explore the intricate interplay of race, identity, love, and societal expectations, leaving an indelible mark on those who engage with its profound storytelling.

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