Tar Baby (1981), Morrison’s fourth novel, changes location from the geographical boundaries of the United States to the larger context of the Caribbean and Europe. In part, the novel is the story of two families, the Streets and the Childs, who are connected as employer and employee, but whose lives are interconnected as though they are family.
The novel brings together many oppositions, North and South, white and black, high and low culture, folk and institutionalized narrative in order to consider the value and merits of each. The focus of this coming together of different perspectives occurs with the courtship and breakup of the novel’s central characters, Jadine Childs and Son Green. Their relationship prompts the reconsideration of the hierarchies that order and control the communities the characters inhabit. The novel uses the mythic image of the Tar Baby to evoke the flaws of racial stereotyping and to suggest the stickiness of authenticity. The image of the Tar Baby suggests a false front, a substitute for reality that all of the characters either confront or embrace.
The novel begins with one of the central characters, Son Green, as he emerges out of the sea from the ship where he has lived as a stowaway. His shoes, knotted to his belt, are his only possession. Son makes his way through the dark ocean water toward the shore and chooses a boat anchored there to find shelter for the night.
Son climbs on board unnoticed. There are two women aboard the ship, Jadine Childs and Margaret Street. He avoids discovery and finds himself traveling with them to the nearby island that Margaret Street calls home, the Isle des Chevaliers. The island is the retirement home of the Streets, Margaret and Valerian, who build a wonderful house, L’Arbe de la Croix, on the island and settle there after leaving their home in Philadelphia. Valerian Street builds a greenhouse near the main house so that he can have a controlled environment in which to raise the flowers he loves. He pipes classical music into the greenhouse while he is in there working on the imported flowers he grows.
The Streets bring to the island their two lifelong servants, Ondine and Sydney Childs, who attend to their needs and provide their meals. Valerian and Sydney carry on an extended conversation about a number of inanities, but a number of important facts weave themselves into the banter between the two men. Sydney mentions to Valerian that Margaret has said that the couple’s son, Michael, is coming to the island for Christmas. Valerian tells Sydney that he does not believe that Michael will actually show up.
Margaret joins the conversation and it is apparent from the couple’s interactions that their relationship is fraught with underlying tension that manifests itself in targeted pettiness. Jadine, the other woman on the boat, is an orphan who is adopted by her aunt and uncle, Ondine and Sydney. Jadine is a model living in Paris and is visiting her aunt and uncle for a few months on the island. She and Margaret, a former beauty queen, are more like friends than anything else. Jadine also functions as company for Margaret.
Sydney retreats to the kitchen, his wife’s domain. The conversation between the two is mainly about Margaret and Valerian. Ondine takes it personally that Margaret does not eat the food that she prepared for her. They also speak about Michael, and Ondine expresses her certainty that he will not come for Christmas. Sydney accuses her of spoiling him. Ondine seems to hate Margaret, blames her for Michael’s absence and calls her by the nickname, the Principal Beauty of Maine. The mean-spirited nickname comes from a newspaper describing her during her beauty pageant days. The two brighten up when Jadine comes into the kitchen and Ondine busies herself trying to find something for the girl to eat. As the conversation progresses, Ondine says to Jadine that she hopes that the girl never leaves them. Jadine does not reply.
While the three are in the kitchen, the Streets’ helper, Yardman, appears at the door. Often he brings with him a woman who also helps with work at the Streets, whose name, Ondine and Sydney think, is Mary.
The chapter reveals the nighttime habits of the residents of L’Arbe de la Croix. Ondine and Sydney sleep well. Their bodies silently comfort and reassure each other. Valerian finds sleep elusive as he frequently sleeps during the day. He sleeps in a separate room from his wife, who hopes for peaceful sleep and good dreams. Sleep is not available to Jadine, who is awakened by a bad dream. The dream reminds her of an event that happened before she left Paris two months previously. She is in a grocery store purchasing great food for a party she throws for herself in celebration of being selected for the cover of Elle magazine. While she shops, she spots a statuesque black woman wearing a yellow dress. The woman, according to the standards that make Jadine beautiful, is too much—too dark, too heavy, too busty—and yet the woman has a majesty and mystique Jadine feels that she does not. People in the store are mesmerized by the woman, who chooses just three eggs from the case. Although the cashier tries to tell the woman that she cannot buy just three eggs, the woman ignores her, puts her money on the counter and leaves. The woman, before disappearing from sight, looks back at Jadine and then spits on the sidewalk.
What Jadine wants and does not get from the woman is respect. Then, as she looks sleeplessly out of her window, Jadine remembers the legend of the island. The legend states that there, on the other side of the island, one hundred horsemen ride. Jadine’s sleeplessness comes in part from her attempt to make a decision about her relationship. She is not certain that the man she loves, Ryk, who is white, loves her or if he is in love with the idea of a black woman.
As Jadine finally falls asleep, Valerian wakes. Unlike Jadine’s focus on the future, his gaze is fixed on the past. Valerian worked as the head of a family candy company. Valerian’s father dies when Valerian is seven and his uncles take over the boy’s future. They even name a candy after the boy. The candy sells only to a small market of African-American customers in Mississippi.
Valerian accepts the reins of the company, promising himself that he will retire at 65 and not become ineffectual. He enters an unhappy marriage and gets divorced. He then meets Margaret, who is on a float in her role as the winner of the Miss Maine beauty pageant. Valerian marries Margaret, and the two have a baby boy. He buys an island in preparation for the retirement he has always focused on throughout his career. He recognizes that Michael is not interested in the business. Valerian also accepts that he and Michael will never be close. Valerian misses the youth that he did not have after shouldering the adult responsibility for the family after his father’s death.
As Margaret sleeps, the past also haunts her. The woman’s life has been entirely defined by her beauty. Her looks isolate her from her family. Her red hair also distinguishes her and, although his fear is not justified, bothers her father. Her father worries that she might not be his child. Margaret grows up lonely and so her marriage, shortly after high school, is a hope for a new kind of connection. Valerian’s life is too big for Margaret, and she has no tools to cope with the insecurities that the mansion, Valerian’s wealth, and family generate. The one soft spot for Margaret in the early years of her marriage is her friendship with Ondine, a relationship Valerian soon terminates. The one outlet left to her is her son, Michael. Margaret tries to be a good mother to him but does not have the foundation to give him what he needs from a mother since she is too needy and insecure herself. Now that Michael is grown up, Margaret wants to go and live near him so that she can make up for her earlier failings.
Much of the action at the beginning of Tar Baby centers on the dinner table. At this particular meeting, Valerian seems hell bent on humiliating Margaret and pointing out her seeming inability to master the rules of the table. They also discuss the impending Christmas dinner, and Margaret assures Valerian that Michael is coming and that she has invited a poet, one of Michael’s former teachers, as a surprise. Valerian believes that Margaret’s plan is a terrible one, doomed to failure.
Jadine sits with the Valerians and watches uncomfortably as the couple pick at each other. The two continue fighting about Valerian’s sister and other matters that disguise the larger issues the couple face. Jadine searches for a graceful exit and Sydney, when he enters, is disappointed that Ondine’s carefully prepared soufflé has barely been touched.
Ultimately, the couple argue about Michael, and they blame each other for what they both feel is failed parenting. Valerian remembers coming home from work and finding Michael humming to himself while hiding under the sink. The song, Valerian remembers, was inconsolably sad. He also remembers that Margaret is inconsistent as a mother, sometimes interested and devoted and sometimes neglectful and abandoning. He experiences Michael’s absence from their lives as a condemnation of their parenting.
Eventually Margaret and Jadine leave the table and, sometime later, they hear Margaret scream. They all ask her what the problem is—Ondine impatiently—until Margaret reveals the source of her fear. The man Son, who without their knowing it, sailed with Margaret and Jadine to the island on the boat, has been hiding in Margaret’s closet. When she sees him there, it triggers all of her fears, some real, some racialized and imaginary. In the midst of the conversation, Sydney comes downstairs with Son in front of him. Inexplicably, Valerian invites the man to have a drink.
The next morning finds Margaret longing for her original home for the first time. She is completely unhinged by the idea that her closet was violated by the presence of a man she sees as intolerable. She says that the only thing that keeps her from leaving the island that same day is the fact that Michael is coming for Christmas. She does not know what happened the night before—if her husband actually drank with the intruder or called the police. All she knows is that the man in her closet is a nightmare from her inventions of black men who lurk in the shadows with no other intention or purpose in life than to rape innocent white women.
Jadine reflects on the strange new man as she luxuriates in the black baby seal coat that was a present from Ryk. Ondine comes up to bring her some breakfast and asks whether she is going to marry him or not. Cryptically, Jadine tells her that the coat is only a present. Ondine tells Jadine that Valerian, rather than calling the police, allowed Son to spend the night. Jadine looks at the Christmas presents she bought for everyone and cannot seem to take off the coat. She recalls the dinner from the night before and thinks that Valerian is somehow comforted by her presence at the table. Sydney is beside himself and even drops something.
The next morning Ondine and Sydney talk seriously about their position and whether they should stay with the Streets, given what they perceive as Valerian’s incredible lack of judgment. Sydney points out that Valerian lets the strange man sleep upstairs in the guest room when he and Ondine have always slept on the main floor. Ondine argues that Valerian is not as much of a racist as she feels most white men are. He tries to help ensure the couple’s future by giving them stock instead of a present that would have less long-term value. Ondine advises Sydney to accept the situation so that he does not put them and their future in jeopardy. Ondine also believes that they will be safe as long as Jadine is there.
Although Son’s presence in the house comes as a surprise to its inhabitants, the others who work at the house are aware that he has been hiding on the place. The man that the household calls Yardman is named Gideon, and he and Alma and Therese, the women who work with him at the house, have been wagering on how long the man would be able to stay on the place undiscovered. Therese believes that Son is a horseman of the legendary horsemen. She predicts that the situation will not turn out well for any of the blacks involved and that Son will end up dead.
Jadine still revels in her coat, and, as she does so, Son stands at her door giving her morning greetings. She notices his hair, which is locked, and sees it as wild. The two have a conversation. They talk about her modeling and Jadine focuses on her accomplishments that mark her profession and make her feel that she is successful. Jadine is patronizing and talks down to Son. She tells him about her position in the household. She says that she works for Valerian and tells him that the Streets put her through college. Son insults her by asking her if she has had to prostitute herself to get all of the things that she has been bragging about. She begins to hit him, and he threatens to throw her out of the window. Jadine tell him that if he rapes her, the men of the house will kill him. Son replies that he never thought of or intended to rape her and that she simply shares the fantasies of white women about black men wanting to rape them. Again she threatens to tell Valerian on him. Son reminds her not to forget to tell him that he smelled her. During their encounter, Son senses that she is attracted to him. Although she is angry with him, after he leaves, she acknowledges that there is something there that is disturbing and unsettling. When Jadine finally goes to talk with Valerian, she finds him laughing with Son in the greenhouse.
Jadine goes to tell Margaret what she has seen. During the exchange, Jadine calls Son a nigger, and Margaret agrees with her and repeats the term. Margaret wants to leave the island but is immobilized by her hope that Michael will actually show up for Christmas. Margaret and Jadine make plans and then retire to their rooms for the day. Their plans go awry. The next time that the women see Son he looks very different from the man they remember and invented.
Son uses Jadine’s bathroom to shower and shave. During the shower, he thoroughly removes all of the excess that comes from being outside of the comforts of living and belonging inside. He thinks of his life outside, living as a shadow on the edges of other people’s existences. While he is living on the outside, he dreams of a time when he lived in a place he called home, of learning to play the piano from Mrs. Tyler. Son does not follow the women home from the ship with the intention of stalking them or hiding out in the house. He merely seeks food and shelter, but while he waits to decide what he will do next, he finds himself obsessed with and, perhaps, beginning to love the beautiful black woman Jadine.
In the wake of Margaret’s discovery of Son, Valerian retreats to the greenhouse. He reflects on his rationale for letting Son stay and realizes that his reasons are deeply embedded in his experience of Michael and his regrets about their relationship. In the back of his mind, he believes that if Michael had been present he would have been surprised at and pleased with his father. Valerian realizes that he has upset his servant Sydney. Even Valerian recognizes that Sydney and Ondine’s ire at Valerian’s acceptance of Son illustrates some real problems that the couple have in terms of their acceptance and internalization of race and class hierarchies and of their subordinate position within that order.
When Son visits Valerian in the greenhouse, Valerian agrees not to turn the man in to the authorities. He tells Son to get Sydney to give him some clothes. Son looks at one of Valerian’s plants and plucks it with his fingers telling him that plants, like women, need to be shaken up every now and then. The men exchange jokes and are laughing with genuine rapport when Jadine comes to find Valerian in the greenhouse.
Son ventures into town with Gideon and Therese. Gideon, Therese, and Alma Estee gain some status in their community because of the visit of the American. Son is generous and listens patiently to their stories. Gideon has spent time in the United States and has stories of what he sees there. Therese finds each of his stories ammunition for her belief that the United States is a kind of macabre hell. Although things are not exactly as she imagines, Son cannot deny the beliefs that she holds. Gideon says that Therese, who is losing her sight, is one of the blind race on the island who lose their sight as they approach their 60s. They are said to be descendants of slaves who, upon seeing the island where they would be enslaved, went blind. Gideon also tells Son that Ondine does not know that Therese is the same woman who comes to the house each week. They believe that she is a different woman each time and have not taken the time or interest to discover differently. Gideon tells Son that he is welcome to stay with them.
When he returns to L’Arbe de la Croix, Son apologizes to Jadine for his earlier insult. Jadine asks him to apologize to Ondine and Sydney so that they can feel a bit better about what has happened. Son makes Jadine nervous because she is attracted to him and finds him, especially since he cleaned up, quite beautiful.
Son apologizes to Ondine and, during the conversation, says that he came back to the house to make things right with them before he leaves for good. Ondine asks about his family, and Son tells her that his mother is dead and that all of his family—his father and his sister—live in Florida and that he has been at sea for eight years and has not seen them in that time. When Sydney comes in, he is not as sympathetic and easily won over as Ondine seems to be. He does not trust Son and says he never will. Son says to the couple that he does not feel comfortable on the second floor. In a move of solidarity, Son asks them if he can eat with them in the kitchen.
Despite the interruption of Son’s arrival, the house seems to recoup with everyone’s effort to prepare for Christmas. Even Margaret is cajoled by the thought that Michael might enjoy and be impressed by Son’s company. She learns that Michael’s poet professor has not picked up his ticket and, therefore, is probably not coming.
Son has deep ambivalences about the United States but realizes that the place is his home and that it is time that he returns. He remains on the island because he feels he cannot leave Jadine. He thinks that she has no feelings for him and tries to court her. He asks Jadine if she would like to have lunch with him and she agrees. Son tells Jadine that all he wants from his life is his original dime, the first money that he ever earned for cleaning a tub of sheep head. Son spends the money on five cigarettes and a Dr. Pepper. Son seeks the satisfaction and direct correlation between effort and reward inherent in the exchange. Son tells Jadine about his hometown, the ALL-BLACK TOWN of Eloe. He asks Jadine where she is from, and she replies that she has no home. She says she is a metropolitan woman, from the world’s cities. Jadine asks him what his name is, and he tells her that people call him Son. She wants to know what he was named, and he tells her that the name he was given at birth was William Green. He also tells her that he has been running all of these eight years because he killed his wife Cheyenne when he found her in their house making love to another man. Then he tells her that he cannot hurt her because he loves her. Jadine rejects Son’s statement. Despite her protestations, Jadine does indeed have feelings for Son, feelings she does not know how to handle. As they drive back to the house, they run out of gas. Jadine sends Son to the dock to get gas from the boat. Tired of waiting in the sun, Jadine seeks shelter under some trees and gets stuck in some mud. She has to hold onto a tree to keep from sinking in the muck and eventually gains solid ground. Her white skirt is stained black at the bottom. When she gets back to the house, she has a hard time removing the stuff from her legs.
Valerian apologizes to Margaret for not respecting her feelings. The two eagerly anticipate Michael’s arrival. The Streets share the same bed for the first time in years.
Sydney and Ondine still are upset about Son’s presence. They particularly worry about the man and Jadine after their lunch date. Ondine is also angered about Margaret wanting to come into her kitchen to cook Christmas dinner.
The Christmas dinner turns out to be a complete disaster. None of the invited guests, including Michael, arrive. While the entire household sits at the table, Valerian announces that he has fired Gideon and Therese (he knows her as Mary). Ondine and Son are angered when Valerian informs them that he has told the authorities about the theft from the house of the apples he imported from the States for Christmas. At that point, the evening disintegrates. Each of the couples divides into camps. Son accuses Valerian of not defending his wife. Valerian tells him to leave the house, and Son refuses. Ondine says that none of it would have happened if Margaret had not been in the kitchen and that she does not belong in the kitchen. She also says that Margaret is not a mother. Valerian fires Sydney and Ondine, but no one listens to him.
Margaret throws water in Ondine’s face, and Ondine runs around the table and slaps Margaret. Ondine then reveals that Margaret abused Michael when he was a little boy by sticking pins in him and burning him. Sydney, Ondine, Jadine, and Son leave Margaret and Valerian at the table alone.
Son and Jadine discuss the night’s events, and Jadine tells him that she is tired. She wants to go to sleep but she does not want anything sexual to happen between them. She also notices Son’s hands for the first time and sees him and them as, perhaps, capable of holding her, of taking care of her. She asks him to reassure her that nothing will happen between them that night. Cryptically, Son tells her that stars in the sky do not twinkle, they throb. The throbbing becomes a euphemism for the sexual connection between Jadine and Son.
Son leaves the island two days after Christmas and goes to New York to wait for Jadine. Son finds the city disorienting and devoid of older people. In the two days following Christmas, Jadine and Son resolve to be together. When she arrives in the city, she has the opposite reaction from Son. She feels at home in the city and invigorated by its confines.
In New York, the two grow close and share everything with each other. It becomes clear, although neither of them admits it, that there are serious differences between the two. Son has a hard time finding work in the city and does not like Jadine supporting him. On the other hand, Son makes Jadine feel as if she belongs and as if her parents are not dead. The two grow inseparable and their love seems like what each has been seeking. Although Jadine does not want to go, Son determines to take her to Eloe, the all-black town he is from. The two finally make arrangements to visit his hometown.
Ondine’s Christmas revelation about Michael unmasks the couples at L’Arbe de la Croix. Margaret tries to explain to Valerian what happened. Eventually, she leaves Valerian sitting alone at the table. Sydney comes to him and tries to get him to go to bed, but he refuses. Then Sydney asks him if he plans to follow through on his threat to fire him and Ondine and Valerian says that he does not know. The revelation about Michael breaks Valerian and sends him into a deep depression.
Margaret continues to try to explain her abuse. She tells Valerian that she loves Michael. She talks of her feeling of inadequacy at the overwhelming demands of motherhood, that there was not enough self for her to be available to meet her infant son’s needs. After some time, Margaret tells Valerian that she has spoken with Michael. Valerian is astonished, and Margaret tells him that she is sure that Michael has no permanent damage as a result of her abuse. Margaret asks him to hit her, and, although he says he will, he never does.
Margaret also speaks with Ondine. She says that she knows that Ondine loves Michael. She also tells her that it would have been better if she had told her secret. The two women apologize to each other. For the first time, Margaret learns that she and Ondine are the same age. She offers Ondine the possibility of becoming friends again as they grow old.
Valerian returns to his greenhouse. He accepts that he is partially responsible for what happened to Michael because he did not want to find out what was wrong with his son and did not take the time to get to know him. It had been easier for him to ignore the unease and unhappiness that was apparent in his son.
Jadine and Son travel to Eloe, and Jadine determines to document the trip with her camera. Son’s reunion with his family and friends is joyous. Because of the town’s strict sense of decorum, Son and Jadine cannot stay together at night as an unmarried couple. Son asks her to spend the night at his Aunt Rosa’s house. Son hates the way that Jadine photographs rather than talks to his people. At one point, he snatches the camera out of her hand.
During one of the nights at Rosa’s, Son comes to her, and the two spend the night together. Jadine awakes and finds the room filled with women from her life, including Therese, Ondine, Jadine’s mother, and the woman in yellow from the grocery store in Paris. The women each reveal one of their breasts and haunt her until morning. Jadine is undone by what she believes she has seen and leaves Eloe without Son.
Although Son promises he will come the next day, he stays in Eloe more than a week without calling Jadine to tell her that he is going to stay longer. When he returns, things begin to unravel for the couple. They begin to fight emotionally and physically about what they need to do to have a future together. At one point, Son even dangles Jadine out of a window as he tells her that whatever she learned in school is of no value because it taught her nothing about herself or her people. She wants him to go to school and get a professional job. Eventually their arguments are too painful, too close to the marrow of each other’s identity and Jadine leaves after giving Son his original dime. Son realizes that he still wants her in his life and goes to find her and to try to repair their relationship.
Jadine returns to the Streets’ island retreat. When she gets there, she encounters Margaret cleaning out Valerian’s closet. The couple seem to have arrived at a kind of peace in spite of the ugly truth at the heart of the marriage. Margaret is in control of the relationship now and, with Sydney’s help, cares for Valerian as if he was a child.
Ondine and Jadine have a conversation about responsibility and loyalty. Ondine tells Jadine that respecting and caring for those who have taken care of her is essential, not for those people but for herself and her own character. Ondine equates this sense of responsibility with womanhood.
Sydney also recognizes that there is a change in Valerian. As he feeds Valerian dinner, Sydney recognizes that he, not Valerian, is in control. He will always take care of the man, but he will not let Valerian decide what happens. He will make the decisions while letting Valerian maintain the illusion of mastery.
Alma Estee is working at the airport and sees Jadine as she is leaving. The girl asks after Son. She tells Jadine that Therese believes Jadine has killed him. Jadine says good-bye to the girl, still calling her by the wrong name.
As Jadine takes off for Paris, the chapter ends with the story of the life of the queen ant. The queen mates once in life with a male ant she has created for that purpose. Everything else is work, no time for memory or dreams.
Son comes back to the island looking for Jadine. He returns to Gideon and Therese’s. Therese is delighted to see him. Gideon tells him that Jadine has flown away and then advises him to leave her alone. Son decides to travel to L’Arbe de la Croix to ask for Jadine’s address in Paris and then to follow her there. Therese agrees to row him out to the island. When they get there, he discovers that she has brought him to the other side of the island, the purported home of the blind horsemen. As he gets out of the boat, Therese advises him to go to the horsemen, telling him that they await his arrival. Son runs off. The last lines of the book repeat the lines from the Tar Baby story when B’rer Rabbit is finally free and runs toward his home.
Houses are central metaphors throughout Morrison’s novels. The questions that emerge from the consideration of house and home as symbols are at the core of the novel Tar Baby. Interestingly, Tar Baby is the only one of Morrison’s novels whose primary setting is outside of the United States. By placing the novel outside the geographic boundaries of the United States, yet having the central characters be American, Morrison extends issues of house and home beyond personal and community considerations and places them on a national and international plane.
The central characters of Tar Baby may be read as representing the race, class, and gender conflicts of the United States in particular, and more generally may represent the way that those conflicts appear in all human interactions. Symbolically, the house/home that Valerian erects on the Isle des Chevaliers is a kind of plantation and is maintained by racial hierarchies. Tar Baby exposes the limitations of the structures of race, class, and gender, the contemporary plantation, for both the architects and the residents, the masters and the slaves.
The house in Tar Baby, L’Arbe de la Croix (the tree of the cross), built by its master, Valerian Street, represents the history and legacy of European colonialists, the men who conquered and attempted to control the new world, represented in the novel by the island. From the beginning of the novel, the physical environment of the island is a vibrant character. That vitality is usurped and contained by the development instigated by Valerian and his desire to possess and control the land. Valerian purchases Isle des Chevaliers in order to own a space where, unlike his birthplace, he has complete dominion. Throughout his life, Valerian has been subjected to the will of his father and, after his father’s death, his uncles and had no choice about his destiny. Although he accepts the decisions made for him by agreeing to become the proprietor of the family candy company, he resolves at age 39 to retire to his own pursuits by age 65. Isle des Chevaliers comes to represent for Valerian both freedom and power. The island provides an escape from the tyranny of expectation that dictates his life in Philadelphia.
Even though Sydney Childs is perpetually identifying himself as a Philadelphia Negro, after W. E. B. Dubois’s book about middle-class blacks in the city, Valerian’s identity as a native of Philadelphia provides even more illumination about the questions of freedom and oppression that are the novel’s central concerns. The history of the city of Philadelphia highlights the themes of the novel since the city provided the location for the founding fathers’s creation of American racial hierarchies through their ratification of a Constitution that compromised the principles of individual freedom and equality with the existence and continuation of slavery. The creators and signers of the Constitution affirmed that slavery and inequality were compatible with the ideals of democracy. Morrison’s character, Valerian Street, seems a clear descendant from and inheritor of that contradictory legacy.
Valerian’s name emphasizes duality. According to the character’s own self-description, he is named after the Roman emperor, Valerian. The emperor Valerian was largely unsuccessful and is perhaps best-known for his defeat and death at the hands of the Persians, who were considered by the Romans to be barbarians. So the name Valerian has the connotation both of authority and of humiliating conquest. The other meaning of the word “valerian” describes a root that was thought historically to induce strength and vigor, yet has properties that sedate and induce sleep. The medicinal qualities of valerian include relief for tension, anxiety, insomnia, emotional stress, intestinal colic, and rheumatoid disorders. These maladies seem to describe Valerian’s ailments. Readers first encounter the character Valerian in Tar Baby as he complains about his health while eating his breakfast. Sydney, Valerian’s black male servant, believes that Valerian has an ulcer, a possibility that Valerian denies vehemently. Readers also learn that Valerian is prone to putting medicine (cognac) in his morning coffee, that he has difficulty sleeping, and that he uses alcohol as a nightly sedative.
In the same way that the sun sets in the evening, Valerian Street is a man fading into old age. Morrison describes Valerian’s eyes as nearing their twilight. Valerian’s physical discomforts offer evidence of his overall disease and imbalance. The character Valerian is a study in contradiction. He is perpetually conflicted and, as such, his decisionmaking capacity, like that of his historical namesake, is ambiguous at best. For example, Valerian’s decision to leave his hometown of Philadelphia for the Caribbean and Isle des Chevaliers might be understood either as nostalgia for the past, for a Philadelphia home that no longer exists, or as an overwhelming need to control his surroundings. Although Valerian states that he wishes to be in control and to be isolated in his created paradise, he sells parts of his private island and therefore dilutes his dominion.
Despite his desires, Valerian also is unable to direct even the most intimate of his interactions, his marriage to his wife, the former beauty queen, Margaret Lenore Lordi Street. Valerian’s relationship with his wife is troubled and uncomfortable for them both. They sleep in separate beds. Their interactions are antagonistic and she seems to suffer from some sort of nervous condition that causes her to be forgetful. Together the Streets represent the instability and illusion of the authority of white privilege.
Despite the Streets’ paradisiacal landscape, faithful servants, and wealth, neither of them is particularly happy and neither has any real control over the events that unfold in their home. Valerian, even as the supposed master of his house, is anxious and stressed. His attempt to establish dominance is an illusion and, ultimately, a failure. For example, Michael, Valerian and Margaret’s son, bears the physical and psychological pain of Valerian’s domination of people. Valerian is unaware of his wife’s secret abuse of their son and thinks the boy weak, misunderstanding his son’s pain and vulnerability for character flaw. Margaret’s deference to her husband’s position and symbolic authority cuts her off from her humanity. Valerian marries Margaret and values her because of her physical appearance. Because that objectification is a common denominator in all of her relationships, Margaret has no access to a meaningful inner life.
In a misguided and destructive attempt to connect with another living being, she ensures that someone will react to her by harming her son. She finds pleasure in harming Michael because he is helpless and her relationship with him is the one arena in which she exercises complete control. Margaret and Valerian Street illustrate the destructive impact of the intersection of power and identity. Without the labels conferred to them by wealth and beauty, neither of them has any meaningful selfhood and, in fact, controls nothing of substance, including, as the novel reveals, life on Isle des Chevaliers.
The island becomes Valerian’s imagined colony where he dreams that he will be able to control everything and everyone in a way he has been unable to accomplish in his hometown of Philadelphia. When the land is cleared to build Valerian’s island paradise, there are negative repercussions. The detrimental effects of attempted conquest become apparent when the narrator reveals that, as a result of the development, a fetid swamp forms on what was once a pristine landscape. Valerian’s imposition upon the natural landscape of the island parallels the slow destruction of the people who inhabit L’Arbe de la Croix.
Although the natural environment of the island changes in negative ways because of Valerian’s intervention, this development is viewed by him and by many others as a civilizing process. Valerian embraces and embodies the idea that civilization begins after a geographical space and the people who inhabit that space are controlled and ordered according to the laws of the conquerors. Nearly all that exists naturally in the colonized space is dismantled, redirected, and harnessed. The necessity of civilization, as defined by the self-perceived virtues of those in power, becomes the primary tool used to justify exploitation and oppression.
Black Haitian laborers are employed to enact Valerian’s plans. Although the clearing of Isle des Chevaliers could not have happened without them, they remain the invisible engine of Valerian’s enterprise. Valerian’s interactions with all of the black people in his life are predicated on his understanding of race as a hierarchal system that places him squarely on top and in control. Valerian’s assumptions dictate his relationship with and sense of superiority to all of the black people in his life. Valerian’s assumptions and actions mirror the colonial enterprise of nation building that has resulted in the domination of people who are racially marked as colored all over the world.
Evidence of his assumed power lies in interactions between Valerian and the blacks in his life. At L’Arbe de la Croix all of the work of maintaining the mansion is done by blacks. Yet, even within this division between white and black, there are additional levels of authority and power. Both Sydney and Ondine Childs, the black American servants, perceive themselves as superior to the black natives of the island. None of the Americans, including Ondine and Sydney, even know the names of the native blacks who work at the house. The native woman servants, Therese and Alma Estee, are known to all in the Street household by the generic name, Mary. Revealingly, Gideon, the Streets’ handyman, is known to the inhabitants of L’Arbe de la Croix by a name that is associated with the work he provides for them, Yardman.
As their namelessness implies, these workers are denied individuality and, therefore, humanity. They are disposable as becomes evident when all three, Therese, Gideon, and Alma Estee, are dismissed from their duties after Valerian catches Gideon stealing apples. Their firing is ironic when one considers Valerian’s appropriation of the island, its resources, and inhabitants for his pleasure. Valerian’s response to Gideon and Alma Estee’s theft affirms his sense of superiority and demonstrates his complete and unquestioned belief in his own authority and vision.
The apples that are the object of desire and the source of conflict suggest the apple that is the centerpiece of the biblical story of the garden of Eden. In the narrative in Genesis, Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden for defying God’s power. As the self-appointed god on Isle des Chevaliers, Valerian casts Gideon, Therese, and Alma Estee out of the garden for defying his authority. Further irony exists in the fact that Gideon is stealing the apples for his celebration of Christmas and that Valerian, in spite of the holiday, has no compassion for or understanding of Gideon’s motivations.
The Christmas holidays sit as background for the crucial scenes in the novel that unravel the power structures governing L’Arbe de la Croix and supplying Valerian with his authority. The sudden appearance of the character Son, who embodies all that is outside, dark, and alien in the Streets’ imagination, dismantles all of the illusions of order and control. Son’s emergence from the very heart of the house, Margaret’s bedroom closet, challenges all of the residents of L’Arbe de la Croix to reconsider their positions and to uncover the real dynamics that lie beneath the surface. From his initial interactions with the master of the mansion, Son’s lack of deference and his disgust with Valerian’s hypocrisy undermine Valerian’s self-construction as the embodiment of civilization.
Valerian is dethroned, not by the natives that he seeks to control, or nature, but by his own lethal actions. Valerian’s house/home becomes an extravagant self-constructed prison to which he is confined with his black servants who have long known that Valerian’s power is no power at all, and with a liberated Margaret whose humanity emerges simultaneously with her insatiable need to detail for Valerian her motivations for abusing their son. Valerian never understands his culpability in his fall from power. Valerian’s fate mirrors that of his namesake, the Roman emperor Valerian, who was tortured to death by people he felt were barbarians and then was stuffed in death and mounted in a mockery of his lost domination. For Tar Baby’s Valerian, the plantation is no longer home. The arrival of Son unmasks the illusion of L’Arbe de la Croix to reveal the end result of the colonizing experiment, the creation of a paradisiacal prison from which there is no exit.
While the master’s house becomes a prison for the architect, the novel seems to suggest that its black, colonized residents are doomed to a perpetual state of homelessness. In the novel, each of the characters, Sydney, Ondine, Jadine, and Son and their relationship to Valerian provide a lens through which to examine the various and varying effects and impacts of exploitation and domination.
Adopted by Sydney and Ondine as a child and educated by Valerian, Jadine epitomizes the difficulty of finding both house and home. Jadine’s education teaches her to dismiss aspects of black culture that would help her to negotiate the complexities of her life as an upwardly mobile black woman. Jadine is easily disarmed when she encounters what she perceives as “authentic” blackness, especially authentically black women. Modeling herself after Valerian, Jadine attempts to manipulate her environment and its inhabitants to suit her purposes. While she is attracted to Son, she rejects his sense of home as too limited, too provincial. Although Son’s sense of home is romantic and not particularly progressive, it is home for him. Despite the unattractiveness and smallness of the physical structures that constitute Eloe, Son’s home, he is able to find pleasure and love inside those constructions. The knowledge and proclamation that he is from Eloe is fundamental to Son’s sense of self. Eloe is home, a community that knows and values him. Jadine has no such community and therefore feels homeless.
Sensing Jadine’s homelessness, Son takes her to Eloe. Jadine’s response to Eloe demonstrates her own anxiety about blackness, as well as her internalization of racial hierarchies. Jadine believes that she is fundamentally a more valuable person than the residents of Eloe. Though she photographs Eloe and its residents, Jadine is unable to see the value of the town or of its people. They always remain for her objects at the end of her lens. Although she is a black woman manipulating the camera, her gaze is the same as Valerian’s would have been. She becomes like the photographers who have photographed her while she was modeling, who reduced her to nothing more than an image to be sold and bought.
Jadine misses the opportunity to understand the “ancient properties” of Eloe because she flees the town and its people. She flees Eloe when, at night, she thinks she sees black women bare their breasts to her. Jadine returns to New York, yet she does not possess a house in New York. While she is in the city, she searches for a domicile that she can inhabit and wanders through a series of subleases. Throughout the novel, she occupies other people’s spaces only temporarily—she is perpetually the guest.
From his initial emergence from the depths of the night-darkened Caribbean seas, Son represents the idea of blackness that challenges the sensibilities of both the permanent and the temporary inhabitants of Valerian’s house. Jadine leaves Valerian’s house with Son hoping to change him into what she wants. Son resists Jadine’s efforts violently and, eventually, Jadine chooses to flee from him and from New York because Son becomes abusive to her.
Son perceives Jadine’s efforts to educate and change him, to colonize his blackness, as abusive as well. Valerian is most successful in colonizing Jadine because she believes that the education he provides makes her superior to others, especially to other blacks. She fails to realize what she loses in rejecting black people like Son, Ondine, and Sydney—an understanding of herself and a possible end to her perpetual hunger for belonging.
Son’s dismissal of anything that is white is equally problematic. Son allows himself to become the shadow, the ever-present blackness that haunts Valerian’s house, hiding in its closets, seeping into the fabric of sheets, curtains, and couches. After Valerian invites Son into the house without reservation, Jadine, Ondine, and Sydney are appalled and wonder if Valerian sees all blacks as the same. They want to be differentiated from Son. They have learned to believe in the hierarchies that place them in a superior position on the scale. Their anxiety emerges from a false sense of superiority they possess. Sydney and Ondine’s understanding of themselves as Philadelphia Negroes and their characterization of Son as a primitive black illuminates the extent to which internalized racism destroys self-perception.
Valerian does not treat Son disrespectfully or distrustfully, rather, it is Jadine, Ondine, and Sydney who refer to him as a nigger and attempt to distance themselves from Son. Such distancing efforts serve no purpose in Valerian’s house/home precisely because it is his.
Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine suffer from a false sense of power. While Sydney serves the master faithfully, he is not the master, and Ondine may own the kitchen, but it is not in her house. While Jadine is educated in and with the master’s culture and values, she does not possess the anchor of home and thus does not own herself. Although Sydney and Ondine may attempt to make a home in Valerian’s house, it is never a stable home because they will always be beholden to Valerian’s power. Both Jadine and Son are unable to find a home together and end up apart and headed in opposite directions—Jadine on a flight to Europe and Son perhaps to ride with the blind horsemen for eternity.
Son and Jadine’s failed effort to construct a home together provides little hope for either solution the two propose for escaping the impacts and legacy of the colonial project—for creating a house without hierarchy.
SOME IMPORTANT THEMES AND SYMBOLS IN TAR BABY
The Stickiness of Human Interactions
Joel Chandler Harris’s recordings and publications of African-American folktales included, perhaps most famously, “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story.” The story tells about a crafty fox who seeks to ensnare a rabbit by creating a Tar Baby, a humanlike figure covered with tar. When the rabbit greets the figure and she, of course, does not respond, he attacks her and gets stuck and provides a feast for the fox. In some versions, the rabbit has the last laugh when he tells the fox that a fate worse than being eaten by him would be to be thrown in the briar patch. The fox mean-spiritedly tosses the rabbit into the briar patch where the rabbit is able to extricate himself from the tar baby and run away to safety. The phrase Tar Baby also has a history as a derogatory slang term for African Americans. The tale and the stereotype provide a thematic frame for Morrison’s novel Tar Baby.
There is no single answer to the question of which character functions as the tar baby in the novel, but the story depicts human interactions throughout by using sticky symbols as a common element. As suggested by the stereotype of the tar baby, race is, perhaps, the most tenaciously sticky of all of the factors that intervene in human interactions. Each of the characters is stuck, in one way or another to his or her own raced tar baby.
The candy business that is the source of Valerian Street’s wealth is itself a gooey enterprise. Its scents waft over the neighborhood where Valerian’s mother created the family business, saturating the memories of the residents with its sweetness, but because of its successful appeal, the candy and its residues separate Valerian and his family from their community of origin, depriving Valerian of a sense of home located in something other than the alienating trappings of wealth and privilege. Although Valerian, without question, roots his identity in his perception of himself as a white man, his unquestioned authority comes from his wealth and status, which, the novel reveals, derives in part from African Americans who purchase the products upon which the family business depends. When Valerian is born, his uncles honor the birth of the family’s only male offspring by creating and naming a candy after the boy. The candy suffers from poor sales and remains popular only among African Americans in the South. As the novel unfolds, this candy becomes a connective thread between Valerian and Son, when Son reveals that, as a child, he used to eat the candy named for Valerian.
After his disruptive arrival at the house, Son makes the candy/stickiness association not only with Valerian, but also with Margaret. When he sees her sunning, Son notes that she looks like a marshmallow, melting and white in the heat. Margaret’s behavior mirrors Son’s vision of her. Margaret sits in the sun, yet she carefully avoids getting any color. She is the representation of the idealized white female beauty. Before the confrontation with Ondine over the Christmas dinner table, Margaret lacks substance and is incapable of providing sustenance. Ondine’s exposure of Margaret’s secret abuse of Michael reveals the lack of foundation behind the illusion Margaret has tried to create. Like the vision Valerian first has of her as the beautiful polar bear queen on the float, Margaret, throughout the majority of her marriage to Valerian, has worked to cultivate an appealing, insubstantial illusion.
Jadine’s adherence to illusions that support her version of reality is also symbolized by a sticky symbol. As a result of Valerian’s alterations to the landscape when he purchases the island, Isle des Chevaliers’s pristine terrain transforms into a swamp. It is this sticky, smelly swamp that Jadine falls into after her first afternoon encounter with Son. Her misreading of the land causes her to fall into the swamp. Jadine sees a circle of trees that she wants to sketch and as she moves toward them, she falls into the muck. Jadine sinks in the insubstantial land because she does not see it for what it is. She stubbornly clings to what she imagines and envisions rather than discerning reality and, therefore, is unable to navigate what she does not control. Significantly, when Jadine falls into the swamp, she loses the sketch book she is carrying that contains her portrait of Son. This loss foreshadows the ultimate failure of the couple’s relationship as a result, in part, of Jadine’s desire to construct Son through her vision rather than finding the ability to accept him as he is on his own terms.
Son, too, is symbolically immersed in various dark substances throughout the novel, but, unlike the other characters, he seems unencumbered by the stickiness that seems to trap the others. Son first appears in the novel as he dives into the sea at night from a ship. He uses the night to hide himself from the Streets as he lurks around their house, almost like a shadow. Before he meets her, Son watches Jadine in the darkness as she sleeps. As his relationship with Jadine develops, Son increasingly emerges from the night. Eventually, at the end of the novel, Son escapes the restrictions of the day, returns to the sea, and recedes into the darkness. The dark tar that traps the other characters seems, in some ways, a home, a familiar and fluid medium for Son.
The Search for Authenticity
One of the central themes of Tar Baby is the question of authenticity. When Tar Baby was published in 1981, many African-American writers and intellectuals were questioning the meanings of blackness as a racial identity in the post–Civil Rights era. During the Civil Rights Movement, many activists attempted to define blackness in specific terms. These attempts were necessarily unsuccessful as no group of people can be adequately summarized by a list of characteristics. The effort to define people in these simplistic terms is sometimes referred to as essentialism. Essentialism is problematic because it can lead to a reduction of the complexities of human identity to simple qualities.
As some African Americans became upwardly mobile and became integrated into the dominant culture, some African-American intellectuals began to express concern about the potential loss of culture such changes might bring. The novel Tar Baby is in part Morrison’s fictional examination of the questions raised by the changes brought about in African-American communities by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.
The novel begins with an epigraph that pays homage to the “ancient properties” of Morrison’s female relatives and ancestors. By beginning the novel with this real-life reference point, Morrison roots the arguments of the novel in questions of authenticity in the actual lives of black people, specifically black women, that she knows. Although vaguely defined in several places in the novel, Morrison does not fall into the essentialist trap of defining her descriptive term, ancient properties, precisely. The character, Ondine, provides some illumination of the ancient properties of Morrison’s authentic black woman when she says, “all you need is to feel a certain way, a certain careful way about people older than you are. . .” (281). Ondine tries to show Jadine that understanding and appreciating one’s heritage and also one’s responsibility to that heritage is paramount in her definition of what it means to be a black woman.
Other sections of the novel expand upon Ondine’s foundation. When Jadine falls into the swamp, the narrator describes women hanging from the trees above Jadine’s head. These women are confident about who they are and know their value. Their value is not measured in terms that are quantifiable. These women have value because they understand that their existence and that of the women they come from has been and remains critical to human survival. As such, they possess an intrinsic self-worth that is entirely unaffected by evaluation by anyone else.
Jadine, the quintessential motherless child, is the character who seems to have lost, or perhaps never acquired, an identity grounded in a dynamic and vital context. Somehow she lacks the genuine feeling of care and empathy that she should have developed for her surrogate parents Ondine and Sydney. Rather, her motivations originate, for the most part, in her deep fears and insecurities. Jadine’s delight at Ryk’s gift of the fur coat while she is residing on a Caribbean island is a perfect example of her desire to disguise her real self in the trappings of wealth and status. The coat represents the shield of material success Jadine feels will gird her from the difficulties of life. The choice that Jadine makes to situate her value in tangible terms places her in contrast with many other black women in the text and this difference generates further insecurity and removes her from associations that might have helped her to develop the community and sense of belonging for which she yearns.
Although Therese is barely acknowledged by Jadine, who refers to the woman as Mary, Therese is more aware of her value and has a more accurate understanding of the world than Jadine. Therese is essentially blind, yet sees through her intuitive/ spiritual self. Beyond the age of potential pregnancy, Therese continues to lactate, which may suggest a kind of ever-lasting maternity. Therese’s role as eternal maternal is particularly important to Son whose loss of his mother leaves him without access to the ancient properties of black motherhood. Therese also could have been instructive to Jadine as well had not Jadine held the woman beneath her notice.
Another character Jadine cannot seem to forget is the woman in yellow. The woman in yellow appears in a grocery store in Paris as Jadine shops for ingredients for a celebratory dinner for herself. The woman possesses a kind of regal elegance and beauty that is unappreciated by the traditional standards by which beauty is measured. In spite of this seeming deficit, the woman, incomprehensibly to Jadine, is completely mesmerizing and selfcontained. Jadine feels slighted and judged by this woman and by the woman’s assertive voluptuousness. The difference between the woman’s self-presentation and Jadine’s highlights the superficial and flimsy supports upon which Jadine has constructed her life and her self-esteem. Even though this encounter with the woman in yellow lasts but a few minutes, Jadine is haunted by the experience, for it has the power to expose the insubstantial architecture of her illusions.
In Eloe, Son’s hometown, Jadine’s deep-rooted anxieties reach a crisis. One night, while Son sleeps, Jadine imagines the woman in yellow and many of the other women in her life exposing their breasts at her in what she imagines is a kind of ceremony of derision. After this vision, Jadine feels she must leave Eloe and return to a setting that authenticates her, since her identity, seemingly, cannot withstand confrontation. Although she physically leaves Eloe, the images of the night women continue to plague Jadine. Their repeated appearances demonstrate her fear that she is somehow inauthentic and that she fails to measure up to the lives lived by these women.
Even though her search for an authentic self is most prominently articulated in the novel, other major characters also grapple with the questions that plague Jadine. When Valerian’s father dies, the only help for the overwhelming grief that the boy feels is found through the wisdom of the washerwoman who knows that a mindless repetitive task can bring some meditative solace. This real labor, connected as it is to Valerian’s first moments of self-awareness, is a state of grace, of authenticity that Valerian seeks for the rest of his life, including the construction of a replica of the washhouse from his childhood home on Isle des Chevaliers.
Valerian’s wife Margaret comes to encounter her authentic self much later in life. After the Christmas dinner confrontation where Ondine reveals Margaret’s secret abuse of Michael, Margaret begins to emerge from the façade she was born into and continues to assemble in her adulthood. Abandoning her role as the principal beauty, the revelations of Margaret’s ugly truths free her to walk through her world as a person rather than as a symbol or object.
Son, too, has doubts at times about his identify and its authenticity. On their first outing together, Son reveals to Jadine some of the many aliases he has cultivated throughout the years. Although his identitylessness may seem to be freeing, it is this absence of self that sets Son on his plunge down into the sea and, ultimately, back to his home, Eloe. In Eloe, Son locates his center, but even that reunion is short-lived. When he looks at Jadine’s photographs of Eloe that she leaves for him in their apartment, Eloe and its inhabitants appear small, insignificant, and unattractive to him. They no longer seem authentic. It may be that Son regains his compass and his authenticity at the end of the novel when he, presumably, runs of out of Therese’s boat to join the blind horsemen.
Tar Baby engages questions about the definitions of authenticity and about how an individual may remain true to an authentic, personal and/or cultural self-definition. The novel can never completely sum up or definitively answer the philosophical questions it poses. As with most Morrison quandaries, the reader of Tar Baby is prompted to participate, to ponder his or her own possibilities instigated by the questions the narrative raises.
Aisha is a friend of Jadine’s who lives in New York. Jadine distinguishes between her friends, including Aisha, and the night women who haunts her while she is in Eloe.
Alicia is one of the Buffalo great-aunts of Joseph Lenore, Margaret’s father. Joseph is anxious for her and her sister, Celestina, to visit his family in order to prove that red hair runs in the family, yet to his dismay, when the aunts arrive, their formerly red hair has gone white with age.
Alma Estee is a young girl who sometimes works with Gideon and Therese, and sometimes lives with them. She is very impressed with Son and asks him to fulfill her fondest wish by helping her get a wig from America. He does not do it.
Later, after Son and Jadine break up, Son sees Alma Estee again. She is wearing a terrible wig that he tries to remove from her head because he feels it makes her look ridiculous and that her natural hair is much more attractive. She sees Jadine before the glamorous model flees the island. Alma Estee later lies and tells Son that Jadine left the island with a man at her side. Alma probably is in love with Son. She is jealous of his relationship with Jadine.
Aunt Rosa is Son’s mother’s sister. Aunt Rosa lets Jade stay in a small windowless room in her house. The room was formerly a porch that Rosa encloses herself. When she finds Jadine walking around naked in the middle of the night, she loans her a slip in which to sleep. Rosa’s reaction makes Jadine feel obscene.
Beatrice is Soldier’s beautiful daughter. Jadine takes pictures of her while she waits for Son. When Son sees Jadine’s pictures later, he thinks that Beatrice no longer appears beautiful. Betty Betty is a friend of Jadine’s who lives in New York. Betty experiments with bisexuality for six months, but returns to heterosexuality when she meets Son. Jadine distinguishes between her friends, including Betty, and the night women who haunt her while she is in Eloe.
B. J. Bridges
B. J. Bridges is a poet and Michael’s former teacher. Margaret invites him to Christmas on the island as a gift for Michael. Bridges does not come because of a snowstorm. Valerian thinks that Bridges’s poetry is insignificant.
The blind race
The blind race are the descendants of slaves who went blind when they saw the island of Dominique. They were on a ship that sank and, according to legend, the blind slaves were carried by the current and tide to Isle des Chevaliers. The story maintains that the blind people hid from Frenchmen who came to return them to slavery and lived on the island, racing through the trees on the horses that had come ashore with them. They are said to see with the eyes of the mind instead of with their physical eyes. Gideon says that physical vision is not to be trusted.
The Brants are a family that live on the Isle des Chevaliers.
The Broughtons are a family that occasionally live on the Isle des Chevaliers.
Carl is the man who drives Son and Jadine from the bus depot to Eloe. Carl is amazed by the way Son and Jadine dress.
Celestina is one of the Buffalo greataunts of Joseph Lenore, Margaret’s father. Joseph is anxious for her and her sister, Alicia, to visit in order to prove that red hair runs in the family. To his dismay, the aunts arrive with their formerly red hair turned white with age.
Cheyenne is the girl Son marries after he returns to Eloe from the Vietnam War. He catches his wife sleeping with a teenager and drives his car into their house, killing her. When Son and Jadine visit Eloe, Soldier tells Jadine that Cheyenne had the best pussy in the state. Soldier’s unkind words make Jadine jealous and threatened.
Cissy and Frank
Cissy and Frank are Valerian’s sister and brother-in-law. Margaret dislikes Cissy because she tells Margaret to take off the cross she wears on a necklace, saying that only whores wear crosses.
Dark dogs with silver feet
Dark dogs with silver feet are the imaginary dogs that Jadine envisions herself holding tightly reined. The dogs represent Jadine’s natural desires, which she believes she has to keep always in check and subservient to her control and planning. If the dark dogs were unleashed, she would be swept away by something emotionally beyond her control.
Dawn is a friend of Jadine’s in New York who lets Son and Jadine use her apartment while she is out of town. Jadine makes a distinction between Dawn and the night women who haunt her while she is in Eloe.
Dr. Robert Michelin
Dr. Robert Michelin is a French dentist who lives on the neighboring island of Queen of France. Valerian meets him when an abscessed tooth drives him to travel by boat and taxi to the dentist’s house in the middle of the night. The dentist has been exiled from Algeria, and the two men are both elderly and in second marriages following disastrous first marriages; they have something in common, and a friendship develops between them. When the Streets entertain, which is seldom, Dr. Michelin is usually included.
Ellen is Soldier’s wife. Jadine finds it difficult to carry on a conversation with her. Son thinks she is pretty until he sees her in the picture Jadine takes while in Eloe.
Ernie Paul is another friend of Son’s. He has his own business in Montgomery, Alabama. He is coming to Eloe to see Son, so Son stays behind and sends Jade back to New York ahead of him. Son does not show up in New York until much later than he is supposed to. Since he has not called, Jade worries about him being in Eloe among the type of natural, motherly women that she does not feel that she is. It is Son’s extended visit with Ernie Paul plus her own dreams of night women that set the stage for the tension between Jade and Son that leads to their breakup.
Felicite is one of Jadine’s friends who lives in New York. Jadine distinguishes Felicite from the night women who haunt her while she is in Eloe.
The Filipino houseboy is the Streets’ neighbor’s servant. He steers the boat that takes Valerian to the dentist when the man has a terribly painful tooth abscess in the middle of the night.
Francine is Son’s sister, who is in a mental home in Jacksonville, Florida. Francine was a natural runner and one day, while she was out running, she was attacked by dogs who were tracking an escaped convict. This event begins Francine’s mental decline. Frank Green Frank is Son’s brother, who is killed while serving in the military in Korea. He is married to Cissy and is Valerian’s brother-in-law.
Franklin Green (Old Man)
Franklin Green is Son’s father. Franklin Green is nicknamed and called Old Man from the time he is seven years old. He has five children: Son, Horace, who lives in Gainesville, Frank G, who was killed in Korea, Francine, who lives in a mental home, and the baby girl, Porky, who attends Florida A and M on a track scholarship.
Old Man keeps in a cigar box, most of the money orders Son sends him over the eight years he is gone. He is very conservative and will not let Jadine stay with Son at his house because they are not married.
Frisco is the older man who pays Son a dime for his first gainful employment—cleaning a bucket full of fish. This dime is important to Son symbolically and becomes a bone of contention between him and Jadine.
Son values the five cigarettes and Dr. Pepper he buys with the dime. For him, those rewards represent working to earn the pleasures of life, but Jade thinks that Son lacks ambition for not wanting to make more money and for not desiring the power money would bring. When Frisco dies from working in a gas field, Son is unable to go to the funeral because he is on the run after killing his wife, Cheyenne.
George is the Streets’ butler before Sydney. George tells young Valerian to stay away from the washerwoman because she drinks and because he believes that she tries to use the boy to do her work.
Gideon is the black man who works around the Streets’ property and runs errands for them. He kills the chickens for Ondine when she is not able to anymore. They call him Yardman, never bothering to learn his real name. Gideon befriends Son and tells him all about his life. He houses Son for a night after Son is discovered by the Streets. He cuts Son’s hair and shows him around. While watching Gideon work one day for the Streets, Son is fascinated by Gideon’s bare back.
Gideon lived in America for a while, worked at a hospital, and married a nurse to become a citizen. Gideon tells Son that America is a bad place to die. When Son and Jade want to go to the United States, Gideon loans Son his passport. Son later uses it to get unemployment benefits. Gideon lives with Therese, and sometimes with Alma Estee. Gideon and Therese are fired after they are caught with Valerian’s apples.
Grandmother Stadt is Valerian’s grandmother, the candy queen, who used to make ollieballen for New Year. For Christmas dinner, Margaret cooks, since she thinks Michael is coming, and Valerian asks her to make ollieballen, which are similar to doughnuts.
Horace is Son’s brother. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Jadine Childs (Jade)
Jadine is the other main character of the novel. She is an orphan of her family and of her own culture as well. She is in debt to Valerian, who gives her the money to get an education. In return she accepts many of his perspectives and assumptions as her own. She does not seem to care much about her own family either, even though she lives under the same roof with her Aunt Ondine and Uncle Sydney for a while. She never gives back to her aunt and uncle even though they offer her a place to stay and take care of her like she was their daughter. She does not eat with them or sleep downstairs with them.
Jadine is a very modern woman. She is a model and has lived in Europe and in New York City. She sleeps in the nude and has a white boyfriend named Ryk in Paris. She treasures a baby seal skin coat he has given her.
Son is in love with her and, before they meet, watches her as he hides in the house when she is asleep at night. Later, when the two go on a picnic, Jadine fall into a tar swamp, foreshadowing the fall she is about to make into her relationship with Son.
Later, after the couple relocate to New York, Jadine goes to Eloe with Son. She feels like an alien in that town. Everything in Eloe is foreign to her: the way the people talk, their strict morals—she cannot sleep with Son at night—and their perceptions of women as subordinate to men.
Very light-skinned and beautiful, Jade has been pampered and spoiled not only by her aunt and uncle, but also by the Streets. She is used to things falling into her lap. While in Paris, she is chosen for the cover of Elle magazine. As pretty and polished as she is, Jade is really not a kind or compassionate person. She has no genuine concern for Ondine and Sydney, or the Streets, and thinks almost exclusively about herself.
She is very smitten with Son but is unable to adapt to his more humble lifestyle and make a real commitment to him. In the end, it seems that she loves Son’s looks and body, but is never in sync with his beliefs or personality. She abandons Son and her aunt and uncle when, at the novel’s end, she returns to Paris.
Joseph Lordi is Margaret’s father. His daughter’s red hair disturbs him and ruins his meals. He wonders if she is his child.
Leonora Lordi is Margaret’s mother. Lenora is not bothered by her daughter’s red hair or uncommon beauty.
Margaret Lenore Lordi Street (the Principal Beauty)
Margaret Street is Valerian’s wife, who at one time was Miss Maine. Ondine mockingly refers to her behind her back as the Principal Beauty of Maine. Valerian meets her when he sees her riding on a float in the Snow Carnival Parade, holding the paw of a giant fake polar bear. He falls in love with her instantly. She and Valerian do not communicate well and, at the beginning of the novel, are not even having sex.
Margaret is thought of by her husband as one of his prized possessions rather than as a human being. She travels back and forth between the island and their home in the United States, staying for extended periods of time in the United States without her husband so that she can see their grown son Michael as often as possible.
Margaret has bouts of confusion during which her perception is not to be relied on. She forgets words for objects and she sometimes cannot remember what to do with things—like not knowing what part of the fruit to eat or what to do with a finger bowl, to drink out of it or wash her hands.
Margaret is also pathologically needy. She abuses her son in order to control and dominate him and ends up alienating him in the process. The Streets’ cook and housekeeper, Ondine, learns of Margaret’s treatment of her son and keeps the secret of her employer’s abusive motherhood until a stormy confrontation between the two reveals the truth to the entire household.
After her secret is revealed, Margaret seems freer to develop a self that is not rooted in her appearance. She also begins to connect with and take care of Valerian in a way that had never happened between the two. Margaret, interestingly, seems to shift the balance of power from Valerian to herself by the end of the novel.
May Downing (Mama)
May Downing is Soldier’s mother.
Michael Street is the 30-year-old son of Margaret and Valerian Street. Valerian does not really feel as if he knows Michael, but remembers him as he was at about two or three years of age. At that time Valerian would come home from work and find Michael huddled under the bathroom sink crooning to himself while Margaret stayed locked up in her room.
Michael is supposed to come for Christmas, but he has a history of not showing up for visits. He seems to have a social conscience and he urges Jadine to get involved in some kind of racial activism. Michael works for a Native American cause and, by the end of the novel, is accepted for graduate school at Berkeley. Michael never appears in the novel.
As a child, Son played Miss Tyler’s piano. At first his friends tease him about sleeping with Miss Tyler.
Mulatto is the term of reference used by the residents of L’Arbe de la Croix for the woman sent over by Dr. Michelin to do the work after Yardman (Gideon) and Mary (Therese) are fired for stealing apples.
The night women
The night women are a collection of the women that Jadine and Son know and who come to Jadine in a dream/vision while she is in Eloe, Florida. The women show her their eggs and breasts, threatening Jadine, but not Son. The dream makes Jadine feel inadequate and unworthy.
Nina Fong is the woman Ryk takes away for the weekend for a sexual rendezvous. Ryk is honest with Jadine about the incident, but she is still bothered by his infidelity.
Niommo is a girl in New York City with a shaved head and nose ring. Son encounters her on the street. When Son first sees her, she is cursing out a man. She looks mean, but Son sees from her eyes that she is miserable inside and puts his arms around her and holds her until she cries. Nommo reminds Son of his sister. He takes her home to Jade, and they feed her with their last money. Later she steals the change from them and leaves.
Ondine Childs (Machete-hair)
Ondine Childs is Sydney’s wife and the Streets’ cook. Ondine and Sydney have no children, but their niece Jadine comes to live with them as a girl when her parents both die. Ondine delights in mothering and loving the girl. Ondine is easily upset and requires Sydney to comfort and calm her. She has bad feet from a lifetime of standing on them and working in the kitchen.
She used to be able to kill the chickens, but now Yardman does it for her. When the Streets were first married, Ondine had a brief friendship with Margaret, but it did not last. She knows of Margaret’s abuse of Michael, but she does not say anything until the Christmas dinner when Margaret makes all the food and Ondine feels displaced. Ondine has a ham and a pie ready if Margaret’s meal fails. Ondine says her “crown” is Jadine. She wants Jadine to understand why she should want to care for her and Sydney as they grow older.
One hundred blind horsemen
The one hundred blind horsemen supposedly ride on the other side of the hills of the Isle des Chevaliers, giving the island its name. The legend of the horsemen states that they lost their sight when they arrived on the shores of the island where they were to be enslaved. Margaret thinks there is only one rider. Son heads toward the alleged home of these mythical men at Therese’s urgings when he gets out of her boat at the end of the novel.
Porky, also referred to as the baby girl, is Son’s youngest sister. She attends Florida Agricultural and Mechanical Institute on a track scholarship.
The night that Jadine leaves Son, she spends the night at her friend Raymond’s before leaving the next day for Isle des Chevaliers.
Rosa was a friend of Son’s grandmother. Together the two women built a cowshed. While Jadine and Son are in Eloe, they are not allowed to sleep together in Old Man’s house because they are not married. Rosa offers Jadine her closed-in porch to sleep in and Jadine spends two hot and miserable nights there. While she sleeps on the renovated porch, Jadine has her encounter with the night women.
Ryk is a white Frenchman who wishes to marry Jadine and sends her a sealskin coat as a gift at Christmas.
Sadie Brown Sally Brown is Cheyenne’s mother. Son is both shocked and grateful when Old Man tells him about Sally’s death. Before she dies, Sally sleeps with a shotgun, waiting to exact her revenge on Son for killing Cheyenne. She is one of the night women who come to haunt Jadine in Eloe.
Because she speaks French so well, Jadine places Margaret and Ondine’s orders for food and other things from the United States with Solange.
Soldier is Son’s friend in Eloe who is so glad to see Son that he jumps up and down when Son returns. Soldier tells Jadine that Son does not like to be controlled by anyone.
Son (William Green, Herbert Robinson, Louis Stover)
Son is one of the main characters of the novel. Tar Baby begins as Son jumps ship and swims to the Streets’ boat that unknowingly takes him to the Isle des Chevaliers. Son hides out in the Streets’ huge house, eating their food and sneaking around at night. He hides in Jadine’s closet and then in Margaret’s. Margaret discovers him there one night when she storms away from the dinner table after a fight with her husband, Valerian.
Unpredictably, Valerian treats him as a guest, inviting him to dine with the family at their table and to sleep upstairs in the guest bedroom, much to the disgust of the other members of the household. During the eight years preceding the novel’s beginning, Son has held seven identities. He has unusual abilities, such as a gift for knowing how to make Valerian’s flowers grow. Initially, for Valerian, Son is no more than an exotic being to amuse him rather than a person he is intimidated by.
While he hides in the darkness of the Street home, Son begins to fall in love with Jadine, but, at first, she is frightened of him. While at the house, Son becomes infatuated with Jadine. He watches her at night and tries to fill her mind with his dreams. After the confrontation between Ondine and Margaret at Christmas dinner, Son and Jadine leave for New York together and share an apartment. Son does not like the people there. He discovers that this is not the New York he has imagined: All the people are unrecognizable and unfamiliar to him, even the children.
Eventually, the couple return to Eloe, Son’s hometown, for a visit. The differences between Jadine and Son are accentuated here and this visit to Son’s home leads to their eventual breakup. But even at the end of the novel Son is trying to find Jadine and get her back.
Son and Jadine’s relationship is doomed to failure from the beginning. Son is defined by his black heritage. He believes in the importance of understanding his culture. He realizes the importance of home and Eloe, the all-black town where he is from originally. He is also very concerned with his family and feels dedicated to them. He even sends his father (Old Man) money orders. On the other hand, he kills his first wife, Cheyenne, for sleeping with a 13-year old boy by driving through the house when the two lovers are inside.
Jadine does not feel in debt to Ondine or Sydney and usually does not write letters to them or let them know where she is staying. She believes there is prestige in an education and having a high-paying job. Because of these fundamental differences Son and Jadine try to change each other, which only forces them apart.
When their relationship falls apart, Jadine leaves Son. The novel concludes with him looking for her. Son is always looking to rescue people, especially Jadine. He is also looking for what he believes is authentic truth. Perhaps at the novel’s end, while he is climbing up the rocks on the far end of the island, Son realizes and accepts his cultural heritage, much like Milkman’s ambiguous leap into the air at the end of Song of Solomon. Son also may choose, with the help of Therese, to become one of the blind horsemen, racing through the rainforest.
Stacey is Valerian’s niece, the daughter of Cissy and Frank.
Sydney Childs is the Streets’ butler, who has been with the Street family since before Margaret and Valerian were married about 30 years prior to the present time of the novel. Sydney is a black man from Philadelphia who is very knowledgeable about his employers’ needs and prides himself on serving them impeccably.
He is very fond of his own wife, Ondine, and they are in much closer communication than the Streets. They share most things with each other, and he shows his tenderness by rubbing her sore feet when she is tired. Sydney does not have a lot of sympathy or empathy for the black people who are native to the island. He seems to feel superior to them, as a Philadelphia Negro, and does not even know the real names of the people who work at L’Arbe de la Croix—he and Ondine just call them by generic names.
Sydney advises Valerian about his health and holds a gun to Son’s head when Margaret discovers him in the closet. He is disadvantaged because he does not own any property or very many belongings, but he has a sense of empowerment much stronger than either of the Streets. He is characterized often as noiseless when he serves the Streets.
Therese Marie (Therese Foucault, Mary)
Therese is Gideon’s half-sister, the woman whom the Streets and the Childs refer to as Mary. She worked as a wet-nurse for many years because her breasts never stopped making milk, until the development of Enfamil put her out of business. She does the Streets’ laundry, outside of the house in a separate wash shed. She does the laundry for the Streets by hand instead of using washing machines and dryers. The Streets and/or the Childs occasionally fire her and tell Gideon to get another woman to come instead, but he waits a while and then brings Therese back again. The residents at the Street house believe he is bringing a succession of women all named Mary—they do not see her clearly enough as a person to see that she is the same woman.
Therese’s eyes are weak—she is going blind— and she has to move her head around to try to see things. Despite her eye problems, she is able to get around and work as if she has a supernatural means of seeing. Gideon teases her about being one of the blind race. Therese takes Son back to the Isle des Chevaliers at the end of the story, but she urges him to forget about Jadine and go to the men in the hills.
Valerian’s first wife
Valerian’s first wife is described by Valerian as an “unlovable shrew.” Valerian is married to her for nine years; then the couple go through a prolonged and painful divorce. After she dies, Valerian believes that she visits him in his greenhouse at L’Arbe de la Croix.
Valerian Street is a former candy businessman from Philadelphia who owns Isle des Chevaliers, where most of the story takes place. He spends time communicating with his dead ex-wife. He waits for the mail and never gets the message he is waiting for. He spends most of his time sitting in his greenhouse drinking wine and eating baked potatoes for lunch. Valerian never really recovers from the early death of his father and the sudden adulthood that is forced upon him as a result. Valerian’s devotion to his family’s candy business is sustained by his dreams of retiring to an island in the Caribbean. As soon as he retires, he relocates to Isle des Chevaliers permanently.
Margaret is Valerian’s second wife. The two have a son named Michael. Valerian buys a chandelier in celebration when Margaret becomes pregnant with their son. After Ondine’s revelations about Margaret’s abuse of their son, Valerian gradually loses control of the island paradise he spent his life fanaticizing about creating.
The washerwoman does the wash for Valerian’s family when he is a boy. She begins every conversation with Valerian by asking him “What your daddy doin’ today?” When his father dies, Valerian reports “He’s dead today” to the washerwoman. She then lets him wash the clothes, which he scrubs until his knuckles bleed. The washerwoman’s actions allow Valerian to do something practical with his grief. She is the only one who lets the boy own his feelings. She is fired for her kindness.
The Watts are a family who occasionally live on the Isle des Chevaliers.
The Willys are a family who live on the Isle des Chevaliers. They often loan their boat and their jeep to the members of the Street household.
Winnie Boom is Drake’s grand – mother.
Woman in canary yellow dress
The woman in the yellow robe is a tall, statuesque African black woman that Jadine encounters in a Paris grocery. The woman is full of dignity and has a natural grace and commands respect. She is dressed in bright yellow and, against store rules, purchases only three eggs. She seems to symbolize womanliness in a traditional role. Jadine is very impressed with her and is shocked when the woman looks her in the eye and spits, as if to belittle Jade’s modern, chic, highfashion persona.
Aithal, S. Krishnamoort. “Getting out of One’s Skin and Being the Only Person: Toni Morison’s Tar Baby,” American Studies International 34, no. 3 (October 1996): 76–86. Emberley, Julia V. “A Historical Transposition: Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby and Frantz Fanon’s Postenlightenment,” Modern Fiction Studies 45, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 403–432. Moffitt, Letitia L. “Finding the Door: Vision/Revision and Stereotype in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby,” Critique 46, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 12–27. Ryan, Judylyn S. “Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby,” Modern Fiction Studies 39, no. 3/4 (Fall/ Winter 1993): 597–622.
Source: Gillespie, C. (2008). Critical companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Facts On File.