Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

With Tar Baby, Morrison traces the struggle of an African American woman to find and keep her identity and individuality despite the efforts of her lover, who would domesticate her like the ladies of his childhood, her mother figure, who would chain her to the past, and her white patron, who would subtly bind her to his worldview.

With careful skill, Morrison creates characters realistic in their complexities; not one of the characters can be easily typed or categorized. Readers are never allowed to judge a character because Morrison gives such insight into each one that absolute judgments are impossible. There are no good or bad characters in the novel, only human characters.

Jadine Childs is the most complex character in the book. Jadine feels cut off from her culture and her family. She grew up in boarding schools and then moved to Europe; she has no hometown, no place that she belongs, nor does she feel that she belongs to any other people, even though her aunt and uncle became responsible for her when her mother died. Jadine feels gratitude to her aunt and uncle for their help, as well as to the Streets for paying for her education, yet she does not equate gratitude with duty, for which some readers might fault her. She also refuses to see herself as an African American first or even as a woman first. Jadine insists on defining herself using her own codes. She does not want to subscribe to the roles that communities, groupings, and labels often force on individuals.

Jadine has to endure great pain before she realizes that this is her way of meeting the world. She tries to establish closeness with her aunt; she tries to protect Valerian’s world; she even tries to enter Son’s southern community. Women of her past and of Son’s past haunt her constantly, trying to...

(The entire section is 742 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Tar Baby, Morrison broaches the most pressing human conflicts in American society: rich versus poor, male versus female, black versus white, primitive versus civilized, old versus young. Most of the novel evolves against a backdrop of a primitive jungle that must be trimmed constantly to keep it from encroaching on and ultimately consuming the cultivated enclave the Streets occupy.

Morrison uses her characters to represent a similar conflict. Son represents the primitive, Jade the cultivated. Morrison’s question is more whether the primitive should be tamed than whether it can be tamed. Her question is an essential one that goes beyond matters of race. It causes one to question how thick and durable is the socially accepted veneer of cultivation that defines society. The jungle, left unchecked, will reclaim everything in its path.

Morrison also considers the theme of ultimate worth. The Streets are richer than the Childses and are acceptable in venues where the Childses dare not tread, but are they better than their servants? Jade, left unattended, could have led the life her aunt and uncle led. She could have spent her life in a kitchen preparing meals for white people. Given Jade’s opportunities, could not Sydney and Ondine be the social equals of the Streets—or even their social superiors? The Streets, by rescuing Jade from such a fate, prove that native ability, when nurtured, can bring people to high levels of...

(The entire section is 480 words.)