Tar Baby

The novel by Toni Morrison that I read in April. It was different from Morrison’s other novel that I’ve read. It’s very dense, has a bit of a slow buildup in the beginning and, for me, casts up a lot of questions and is very open ended. Or maybe I just didn’t understand it completely. It’s a harder novel to enjoy than the others, because none of the main characters are really all that likeable. It’s still complex and interesting, and like all Morrison’s novels I recommend it, but it’s a bit of a puzzle. Oddly, it even offers a kind of interpretation help with the foreword, which contains the folk tale of the tar baby. Anyway, spoilers under the cut.

The foreword tells the story of the tar baby (among other things): A rabbit eats a farmer’s cabbages. The farmer gets angry and tries to snare the rabbit with a female figure covered in tar. The rabbit greets this figure politely in the farmer’s garden and is ignored. This annoys the rabbit so much that he hits it and is then stuck to the tar. The farmer has caught him. But then the rabbit cunningly tells the farmer that he can do anything he likes, but just don’t return him to his ‘hood, the briar patch. The farmer sees the briar patch as torture and does return the rabbit, who is therefore saved.

The figure of tar, having done its work, falls out of the action of the tale, yet remains not only as its strange, silent center, but also as the sticky metaphor between master and peasant, plantation owner and slave.

From the Foreword of Tar Baby (1981), by Toni Morrison

The motto at the beginning of the novel also gives a pointer to the subject matter:

For it hath been declared
unto me of you, my brethren, by them
which are of the house of
Chloe, that there are
contentions among you.

1 Corinthians 1:11

After the foreword, the novel starts with a black man, who we later learn is called Son, an African-American from Florida, who jumps ship and ties to swim to a town on the island of Dominique. He doesn’t make it and climbs aboard a small yacht instead and is taken as a stowaway to the Ile de Chevaliers, where he secretly lives by burgling food from the mansion of a millionaire, a white man from Philadelphia, Valerian. Valerian lives there with his younger wife Margaret and the black butler Stephen and his wife Ondine, who is the cook. They also have two non-live-in servants Yardman and Mary, who are locals (they are really called Gideon and Thérèse, but none of the Americans can be bothered to find out their real names). Also currently living at the mansion is Stephen’s and Ondine’s niece Jadine, who is a successful model in Paris and New York. They are waiting to be joined for Christmas by Michael, Valerian’s and Margaret’s son, but he never turns up.

Instead, Son is found hiding in Margaret’s closet. This causes a huge fuss, but Valerian invites him to stay. As none of the people invited for Christmas dinner turn up, the group dines together (that is, employees with employers, as well as Jadine and Son). This very tense situation blows up, because Ondine is upset about Margaret using her kitchen and that Valerian has fired Yardman and Mary, because they stole some apples. Ondine airs her grievances and reveals that Margaret used to abuse Michael when he was a baby and toddler. Valerian is shocked by this revelation. He tries to fire Stephen and Ondine but ends up not being able to do it.

Jadine and Son, who have started a sexual relationship, leave the island and return to New York. They want to stay together but have a lot of differences. Son wants to return to his hometown Eloe in Florida, a very small town only inhabited by blacks (which they visit, but Jadine hates it). Jadine wants to stay in New York and for Son to get a college education. She wants to pay for this with money gifted by Valerian, but Son is absolutely against using Valerian’s money. They have serious violent fights and Jadine leaves him. She first returns to Valerian’s mansion on the island, where she picks up some of her things, checks up on Ondine and Stephen, and leaves for Paris. There she may be engaged with a rich white man. Stephen and Ondine, together with Margaret, have gained power at Valerian’s expense. He has declined in health and authority due to the shock of the discovery of his son’s abuse. Son regrets his breakup with Jadine and searches for her, landing also on the Isle de Chevaliers.

This the novel’s end (although this is a very rudimentary summary of a very complex novel).

So, who or what is the tar baby? I’m not sure.

  • The African woman who insulted Jadine in Paris?
  • Son for Jadine or Jadine for Son?
  • The island? There’s a lot of personification of nature in the novel. Jadine falls into a swamp and is covered in sticky, tar-like earth.
  • Someone or something else that escaped me?

The novel is also about class and power relations as well as racism. At first, Valerian is the person in power. He decides who can stay or who is fired. But later, after the Christmas dinner, he loses his authority. Stephen and Ondine do what they like. Margaret and Ondine have made a truce, as they are both implicated in Michael’s abuse. Margaret, because she did it and Ondine, because she kept the secret. Valerian is shocked out of his place of authority by his realization that he let this abuse happen.

Margaret and Valerian are polite but feel superior to Stephen and Ondine. All of the Americans (except Son) feel so much superior to Gideon and Thérèse that they don’t even bother to learn their names and don’t even notice that each “Mary” they hire is actually always the same person, Thérèse. Jadine feels superior to the inhabitants of Eloe, Son’s hometown (and they don’t care much for her either). Son is contemptuous about Jadines white connections. However, he is also disillusioned with the people of Eloe once he sees them through Jadine’s eyes. He regrets their breakup and tries to follow Jadine. To do so, he has to get her address from Ondine and Stephen, so he also returns to the island – with an open end. We don’t know what happens, but Stephen threatened to shoot him if he turns up. He may not even make it across the island, due to the hostile nature and mystic horsemen (not sure what they are about, either).

Gideon and Therese also find the American contemptuous. Stephen and Ondine become disillusioned with Jadine, as she seems to see their relationship like a monetary transaction — they brought her up, and in return she kind of offers to give them monetary support (if they should lose their jobs) but she doesn’t really seem to do it for love, only for duty. Jadine is also hounded by the memory of an African woman who spat at her and by dreams of her mother and other women who seem to find her not good enough for Son (this is also strange).

Even the land is rebelling against the invaders, that is, Valerian’s mansion. The grounds get more and more overgrown and the imported plants in the glasshouse may be taken over by the native ones.

Everything is in flux at the end of the novel. Jadine flying to Paris; Son on his way to Valerian’s mansion on the island. The relationship between Stephen, Ondine and Margaret to Valerian has completely changed. Jadine seems divorced from her roots, her identity; Son maybe too. Nobody seems to be in the right. Everybody is contentious in some way against everyone else and even nature is rebelling. The ending returns us to the motto from the beginning.

I’m sure there’s so much more to say about this novel. There are so many aspects that I couldn’t touch on in this short review. Very likely lots of things that I missed. Although it is in parts a strange novel, it is a very thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

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