Tar Baby

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Like the women to whom Tar Baby is dedicated—mother, grandmothers, aunts, great aunts—and like the blind seeress who sends the novel’s protagonist lickety-split into a Caribbean briar patch, Toni Morrison has not forgotten her “true and ancient properties.” Her magical vision extends not only into the past, but also into the future, as she examines the tense alliances that shape the lives of her characters. These tensions are American society’s most fundamental ones: tensions between young and old, rich and poor, male and female, black and white. In Morrison’s expert hands, Isle des Chevaliers, the lush Caribbean setting in which her characters play out their complicated relationships, becomes a microcosm of contemporary American life.

Isle des Chevaliers, the reader is told, “exaggerated everything.” Morrison’s handling of her setting, while certainly not exaggerated, is so loving that the tiniest detail is ultimately made to resonate with significance. The island’s name commemorates the legend that black slaves, upon first seeing the place, were struck blind by it; the blind descendents of these slaves still ride their horses over the hills. Other spirits inhabit the island, as well; swamps, butterflies, the very trees are, at Morrison’s touch, deeply infused with consciousness. She so animates the details of her setting that its primitive vitality threatens to overwhelm the luxurious winter home of Valerian Street, a Philadelphia candy manufacturer whose retirement to Isle des Chevaliers has become a voluntary exile in preparation for death. Valerian has brought with him his wife, Margaret, twenty years his junior, and his butler and cook, a married couple who have worked for him for years. The relationship between Sydney and Ondine Childs and their employer is sufficiently comfortable that Valerian has been the patron of the Childs’s niece, Jadine. As Tar Baby opens, twenty-five-year-old Jadine, who has been living in Paris, is visiting her aunt and uncle, and the five have settled into a civilized routine that barely subdues the island’s simmering vitality.

Because Morrison narrates her story from several points of view, the reader is fully exposed to the complexity of these characters and their uneasy relationships. Valerian, a decent, humane, rational man, spends most of the day in his greenhouse, where he can manipulate the natural growth that surrounds him; his flaw is his willingness to remain innocent of what he cannot control. Valerian’s wife, Margaret, fills her time with shopping, exercising, and otherwise maintaining the red-haired, fair-skinned beauty that first attracted Valerian. Her creamed and polished surfaces hide a mysterious forgetfulness that Valerian attributes to alcohol but that actually masks a much darker secret. These two frequently disagree, but their quarrels, like their diets, are, in the novel’s opening passages, “seasoned and regulated,” the “tiffs of long-married people who alone knew the physics of their relationship.”

Sydney and Ondine conform conscientiously, though sometimes grudgingly, to the expectations of their white employers. Proud and industrious, Sydney is a Philadelphia black who dreams every night of the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up, and Ondine is a fierce matriarchal figure whose expertise in the kitchen complements Sydney’s skill as a butler. The affection between these two is as steady as their attention to their duties is meticulous. Sydney rubs Ondine’s feet when they are weary, but refuses to wear the soft slippers that would ease his own, because “I’m a first-rate butler and I can’t be first-rate in slippers.” Sydney and Ondine both adore the orphaned Jadine, whose cultivated sophistication allows her to move gracefully between her aunt’s and uncle’s kitchen and Valerian’s dining room. Jadine has everything—beauty enough to model for Elle, brains enough to study art history at the Sorbonne, and, through Valerian’s patronage and her own talent, money enough to go in any direction she might choose. The product of a white man’s generosity to his black servants, Jadine Childs is free-spirited, upwardly mobile, and, at times, weary of her own blackness. At one point she observes of herself “that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside—not American—not black—just me.”

The equilibrium enjoyed by the Streets and the Childses at Isle des Chevaliers is brought to an abrupt end by the symbolically timed arrival, a few days before Christmas, of Morrison’s protagonist, who calls himself Son. A poor, uneducated, streetwise Southern black, Son has left the United States after killing a woman, has jumped ship because he was homesick, and has been borne by an insistent, woman-like current to Isle des Chevaliers. There he steals food from the Streets until they discover him in the house. Instead of turning Son over to the harbor police, Valerian invites him to join the Streets and Jadine for dinner. Because Son is hungry, he agrees, even though he knows, as he later tells Jadine, “’that white folks and black folks should not sit down and eat together. . . . They should work together sometimes, but they should not eat together or live together or sleep together. Do any of those personal things in life.’” Over the next several days, Son’s presence changes everything. Margaret is terrified by him, Valerian charmed; Sydney remains suspicious of Son, Ondine graduallly warms toward him;...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)