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.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jade Childs is the tar baby that Toni Morrison refers to in her title. Jade is a black woman, intelligent, orphaned, and educated in Paris, who at twenty-five stands poised between two worlds. Her natural world is that of her aunt and uncle, Sydney and Ondine, servants to the affluent Streets who, impressed by Jade’s unique abilities, have sent her to study art history at the Sorbonne. Jade can function in both of her worlds.

Tar Baby is a polemical novel. Morrison examines two worlds by putting into sharp contrast the marriages of the Childses and their employers, the Streets. Although legitimately a member of both worlds, Jade wishes that race were not a part of her social context. She wants to be accepted for the person she is inside, but in her native setting, the United States, this is not possible.

Much of Tar Baby concerns Jade’s attempts to establish her identity. This emphasis is reinforced by Margaret Street’s desperate struggle to retain the identity she gained when she married Valerian. In order to marry him, she sacrificed the personal identity she had gained as a beauty queen. For more than half of her life, she has been Valerian Street’s wife—nothing more, nothing less. Now, having retired to the land of heart’s desire, she is totally alone, afraid of losing Valerian’s love.

Morrison places the durable marriage of Sydney and Ondine Childs in dramatic juxtaposition to the Streets’ deteriorating marriage. These two, hobbled by racism, lack of education, and relative, if genteel,...

(The entire section is 640 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Tar Baby focuses on many social issues, particularly race, class, and gender. Although the book makes significant feminist statements, it is much more than a feminist tract. Its social statements are encompassing, its range of vision broad.

In Jade Childs, readers find Morrison presenting all three of the social issues identified above. Issues of race and class receive greater emphasis than do gender issues; the discussion of race and class, however, brings significant gender issues to the fore. Jade Childs has almost shaken the bonds of racism. Her education has been sound. Her social, intellectual, and racial identity seem to be well established.

Son, however, delivers a devastating jolt to Jade’s carefully built structure. In his black “primitiveness,” Jade finds a dominance that something in her seems to need. In their relationship, Jade is not the decision maker or the equal partner; she is the female, subordinated to the prototypical black male that Morrison seems to be projecting—a prototype, incidentally, modeled on Morrison’s own father. Morrison in no way implies that this relationship is right. She presents it as it is, making no value judgment. Indeed, Morrison herself would likely deplore such a relationship, but as the observant writer she is, she cannot deny that a pattern exists to justify her depiction.

In many ways, Morrison makes a more strident feminist statement in her depiction of the...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Historical Background

(Novels for Students)

The current time of Tar Baby is before and after Christmas in 1979. Memories of various characters, however, present much earlier...

(The entire section is 707 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Most discussions focus on the tone, or the ways in which Morrison suggests we should view her principal characters. This analysis suggests a...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As has been suggested throughout this discussion, Tar Baby compares with Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Jazz as the most...

(The entire section is 646 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In many ways, Tar Baby is Toni Morrison's most enigmatic novel. Whereas the narratives that precede it are set in generally realistic...

(The entire section is 1563 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Tar Baby is a breakthrough novel for its author, summarizing her concern with accepting ancestral heritage by African Americans, as...

(The entire section is 399 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Lange, Bonnie Shipman. “Toni Morrison’s Rainbow Code.” Critique 24 (Spring, 1983): 173-181. Discusses Morrison’s use of color in her first four novels, arguing that her color imagery works consistently throughout the novels. Of particular importance to Tar Baby are the discussions of red, green, yellow, silver, and gold.

Lepow, Lauren. “Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby. ” Contemporary Literature 28 (Fall, 1987): 363-377. Argues that one of the primary themes of Tar Baby is the unfulfilling, destructive nature of dualistic or binary thinking. As a...

(The entire section is 248 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

“Caribbean.” Encyclopedia Americana International Edition, Vol. 5. New York: Grolier, 1988, pp. 655-658.

Donahue, Deirdre....

(The entire section is 118 words.)