1. What is the significance of the novel’s title?
The “tar baby” is a folktale that was made popular by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus stories, a collection of stories based on African-American folklore, narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus, a former slave. Tar baby is a doll made of tar and turpentine and is used by Brer Fox to trap his enemy Brer Rabbit. The more Brer Rabbit struggles with Tar Baby, the more entangled he becomes, because the doll is sticky. The term tar baby has sometimes been used in a derogatory sense to apply to black children. It is generally considered by African Americans to be an offensive term.
The story of the tar baby is told by Son in Tar Baby, when he taunts Jadine. Jadine is roused to fury by it because she discerns the interpretation Son is putting on the story: She is the tar baby, who has been created by a “white farmer” (the reference is to Valerian, who paid for her education) to trap the rabbit (Son) who has been eating the farmer’s cabbages (Son stole some food from Valerian). Indeed, Jadine does prove something of a tar baby, since Son is deeply attracted to her and cannot get her out of his mind; the more contact they have, the more deeply he gets involved with her. He is also right to be wary of being trapped by her, since she, in his view, is the creation of white culture and tempts him to abandon his own heritage.
Interestingly, Toni Morrison has a rather different perspective on the tar baby folktale. She gives the term a positive connotation, stating in an interview that there was a “tar lady” in African mythology, and at one time “a tar pit was a holy place . . . . [Tar] held together things like Moses’s little boat and the pyramids. For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who could hold things together” (quoted in Ron David’s Toni Morrison Explained, p. 100). Morrison thus takes a term often used as a pejorative and reclaims it. But applied in this sense, Jadine makes an inadequate tar baby, since she is not the black woman who can “hold things together” in the sense of being a nourishing force for her family and community, since she is too concerned with forging her own individualistic career path.
2. Discuss the theme of parenting in the novel.
This is a novel in which parents and foster parents fail their own children, even with the best intentions. The Streets failed to give their son Michael the close nurturing he needed. Indeed, Margaret physically abused him in a shocking manner, and Valerian was too preoccupied to notice what was going on. Margaret’s reward now that Michael is an adult is that he never visits, although she claims to love him and that he loves her. It appears that Michael, like many children who have been abused, has grown up feeling guilty, as if he deserved the treatment he received. His response has been to devote himself to the cause of the downtrodden, although it seems that he does this in a somewhat obsessive manner; Ondine complains facetiously that he was always coming to her kitchen trying to liberate her.
Jadine, who is a few years younger than Michael, also did not receive adequate parenting. Both her parents were dead by the time she was twelve, and she was raised by her uncle and aunt, Sydney and Ondine. But just as Michael gives nothing back to his parents, so Jadine gives little back to Sydney and Ondine. She feels no obligation to help them as they get older. Near the end of the novel, Ondine confesses to feeling aggrieved about the situation. She says to Sydney, “I stand on my feet thirty years so she wouldn’t have to. And did without so she wouldn’t have to” (p. 283). But Ondine presents here a rather rosy view of what she did for Jadine. The truth is that she handed to Valerian Street the responsibility for educating Jadine, and he sent her to European schools, which alienated her from her own cultural heritage. Ondine and Sydney, although they cared about Jadine, identified too closely with their white employers to give their niece the kind of upbringing she needed. When Ondine tries to lecture Jadine about the responsibilities of being a daughter (“You don’t need your own natural mother to be a daughter. All you need is to feel a certain way, a certain careful way about people older than you are” [p. 281]), her words fall on deaf ears. This is not to say that Jadine does not bear some responsibility for this breakdown in her relations with Ondine. She has little sense of her responsibility as a woman to carry her cultural heritage and keep family and community together.
3. What is the mythic dimension of the novel?
Morrison gives the novel a mythic dimension in two senses. First, she supplies the Isle des Chevaliers with a myth that on the other side of the island a hundred horsemen are riding a hundred horses and have been doing so for hundreds of years. The white people think of the horsemen as French, and Margaret Street insists that there is only one horsemen, not a hundred. But to the native islanders, the horsemen are black, and they are also blind. The story goes that they are former slaves who went blind the minute they saw Dominique (one of the Caribbean islands). They were marooned on the Isle des Chevaliers when the ship on which they were being transported sank. The horses were marooned too. The slaves hid from the French, who returned in search of them, and learned how to ride the horses. They had descendants, who also went blind.
Thérèse is a firm believer in the myth, and when Son first arrives mysteriously, she thinks he is one of the horsemen. She dreams of him riding naked on a stallion, and thinks he has come to rescue Jadine, whom she views as a black woman enslaved by whites.
The myth of the horseman is an example of how those who are powerless and disenfranchised create for themselves visions of power and liberation. Son finds the myth attractive, and at the end of the novel, Thérèse, as she leaves him again on the island, urges him to join the horsemen, to become one of them. Thus at the end, Son acquires a kind of mythic status.
The second mythological aspect of the novel is the way in which Morrison endows the natural world with the ability to feel and perceive like humans. The Emperor butterflies, for example, come to the bedroom window to see Jadine’s coat made out of baby sealskin because they had been told about it by the “angle trumpets” (87) and are fascinated. An avocado tree overhears a remark Jadine says and watches her as she leaves. When the developers first come to the Isle des Chevaliers, the clouds stand still and watch the river as it is reshaped; the river is “ill and grieving” at having to change its natural course (p. 10). Thus in this tropical paradise, the boundaries between the human world and the natural world are dissolved.
4. Which is more important in the novel, class or race?
Race and racial prejudice are clearly themes in Tar Baby. When Margaret first marries Valerian and has to deal with black people for the first times, she does not believe they are her equals. Many years later, the sudden appearance of Son brings out all the white stereotypes of the black man. Margaret refers to him as a “nigger,” but what is interesting is that the other black people, Sydney, Ondine and Jadine, use the same term about him. There is no black solidarity in this novel. Rather, it seems to be class that is the determining issue. This can seen in the way that Gideon and Thérèse are regarded. They are both black, but are regarded as so insignificant, because of the menial work they do, that no one except Son bothers to find out what their real names are. Gideon is referred to simply as Yardman, because he is the gardener. He is not seen as an individual in his own right. This is equally true of how the Street household views Thérèse. She is known as Mary, which is how the white people refer to all the island women, since all the baptized women have Mary as one of their names. Valerian refers to her simply as the washerwoman, and on occasions when he has told Gideon to let her go, Gideon returns with her and tells the Streets she is a different woman. No one notices because “they don’t pay her any attention” (p. 153). The black people who provide vital services are therefore essentially nameless, anonymous. The demeaning attitude on the part of the dominant culture to those of other races is also alluded to when Son is able to enter the United States by borrowing Gideon’s passport, the correct assumption being, as Gideon agreed, “that one black face would look like another and a difference of twenty years would not be noticed in a black man’s five-year-old passport” (p. 218). This comment reveals that attitudes in the wider society towards minorities is not that much different from those that prevail in the Street household.
5. What is the significance of Jadine’s trip to Eloe?
Jadine lives the fashionable life in Paris and New York City, and thinks that the latter is a place where black women flourish. (Son thinks the opposite, and sees all the black people there as unhappy or living inauthentic lives.) When Jadine arrives in Eloe, Florida, a tiny, all-black town, she is unable to understand or appreciate its values. Eloe is the place Son calls home. He is fond of his father—the relationship between Son and Old Man being the only example in the book of a fruitful parent/offspring relationship—and his Aunt Rosa, and he has several longstanding friends. Eloe is a place where a sense of community flourishes, but Jadine finds the small-town atmosphere claustrophobic and stifling, as suggested by the stuffy room with no windows that she stays in at Aunt Rosa’s. She feels like she is in a grave. She thinks the traditional sexual morality that prevails in Eloe—Old Man will not let her and Son stay overnight in his house because they are not married—is narrow-minded.
Jadine does not respond warmly to the people in Eloe. The only time she enjoys herself is when she photographs everyone; putting them in a picture frame is fine because it keeps them at a distance, but dealing with them close up is not. Nor does Jadine respond to the maternal nature of Aunt Rosa, who calls her “daughter.” Most significant is the waking vision Jadine has at night of the women of all kinds, including her own dead mother, who appear to her and bare their breasts. She does not understand that the breasts are a symbol of women’s responsibility to nurture the community. Normally Jadine dreams of hats, which suggests a superficial nature, more concerned with material adornments than deeper values. She thinks the women are deliberately getting together to hurt her in some way.
Jadine’s trip to Eloe is a significant episode for her because it in effect ends her romance with Son. She fails to learn the lesson of her responsibility as a black woman to maintain and nourish her cultural heritage.
Tar Baby: Essay Q&A
1. What is the significance of the novel’s title?