Morrison, Toni - Tar Baby

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2001

6 Pages

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Toni Morrison - Tar Baby

Date of publication: April, 1982


This is a novel about contentions and conflicts based on learned biases and prejudices. These biases exist one a race level and a class level. The central conflict is the conflict within the main character, Jadine. It is the conflict of the "race traitor".

The story mainly takes place on a fictive Caribbean island called "Isle Des Chevaliers".

Margaret and Valerian Street are the long married couple who own the beautiful house.

Valerian Street is a former candy factory owner, wealthy as he is, he has decided to retire on an island and spend the rest of his life there. The relationship to his wife is merely strange. Margaret wants to go back to the USA in order to be with their only son but Valerian intends to stay. But the people who actually run the household are Sydney and Ondine Childs, the butler and the cook. The Child are very proud of their position in the Street house- they are industrious and hardworking. Their niece Jadine is a guest over the Christmas vacation. She is a successful model who lives in Paris. Suddenly there is an intruder found in the house. An American black man called Son. He is discovered in the bedroom closet of Margaret who goes into near hysterics. She thinks he intended to rape her. Her reaction is not suprising what is fascinating, however, is M.'s depiction of how Sydney and Ondine react to the man, revealing their own prejudices. Sydney is ready to shoot Son where he stands suspecting him of being a thief, killer and rapist. Jadine's reaction to Son is the most revealing one- she is immediately classifies him as a criminal. When he comes into her room she assumes that he wants to rape her. Son is somehow disgusted by her behavior and makes fun of her. But he falls in love with her.

"You rape me and they'll feed you to the alligators. Count on it, nigger. You good as dead right now."

"Rape? Why you little white girls always think somebody's trying to rape you?"

"White?" She was startled out of fury. "I'm not ... you know I'm not white!"

"No? Then why don't you settle down and stop acting like it."

"Oh, God," she moaned. "Oh, good God, I think you better throw me out of the window because as soon as you let me loose I am going to kill you. For that alone. Just for that. For pulling that black-woman-white-woman shit on me. Never mind the rest. What you said before, that was nasty and mean, but if you think you can get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be..." "I can tell you." (121)

Son is the exact opposite of her, he even believes that people from different races cannot live together and that there is no way to overcome the racial difference between people. Christmas is coming closer. Michael, the only son of the Streets, announces to come and visit his family for Christmas. Margaret is so excited about it and looks forward to it whereas Valerian remains cynical and does not believe in his arrival. Christmas Eve comes and we learn that Michael , the long-awaited but always-absent son of Margaret, is not going to come.

Margaret's desires and warm memories turn into explosive disappointment. At a climactic moment we hear that Valerian has fired their house helpers because they had stolen some apples that were meant for Christmas dinner. Sydney and Ondine are disappointed and furious on Valerian because he did not intend to inform them. Their conversation erupts in a fight. And finally Ondine screams at Margaret and we learn that their only son was abused by his young mother, who burned him with cigarette tips and pricked him with pins. Everyone is somehow implicated in Michael's trauma by keeping the secret, bearing the knowledge or staying ignorant. Margaret admits her abuse and Valerian is absolutely broken by this secret. Margaret tries to talk to her husband about it but he is unable to bear this fact so he always escapes her and cannot recover from his shock. Jadine and Son have come very close to each other. They decide to got to New York to lead a life together. For a short time they are very happy. But time goes by and both are molded by such different standards that a life together seems to be impossible. Jadine has totally embraced white culture and has had Eurocentric education whereas Son want to "rescue" Jadine from the white world and bring her back to Eloe, Florida-his hometown and the Afro-American history it stands for. Jadine is shocked by this small and bizarre town. He attempts to make her understand her heritage and culture. He wants her to become a "tar baby", a black woman who can hold things together. Jadine begins to understand that she is never going to be able to make it up to his expectation of a black woman so she flees out of Eloe. During a final confrontation Jadine wants to convince Son to go to college and she wants to ask Valerian for the money. Son refuses and tells her Valerian owed her her education, considering that he had "shit all over your uncle and aunt". But still refusing to see the truth, Jadine defends Valerian. Son finally sees Jadine for who she really is . He renounces Jadine's education as Eurocentric and Euroamerican. Son sees Jadine, her rejection of her native culture as well as of her family, and is filled with desperate rage. He leaves and as he comes back he finds the apartment empty. Jadine escapes to Isle des Chevaliers where she rejects her family and culture one final time. As Jadine leaves her aunt and uncle to return to Paris, they even doubt that she will bury them. Son remains on the far side of Isle des Chevaliers where he can be free.


- Jadine

She is definitely the main character. Her inner conflict is somehow even the conflict of the whole novel. It is the conflict of the "race traitor". Jadine is a young Sorbonne educated model who is unable to cope with her heritage and culture. She embraces white culture so willingly that she become literally its cover model. But Jadine is the lost character of this story she is the one who has discarded her own authencity, she is the inauthentic tar baby.

- Son

He is a handsome knockabout with a strong aversion to white culture. He wants to breathe in the "shiny consistency of tar". Son is heedless in love and he wants to rescue Jadine from her inauthencity. But he is unable to see who Jadine really is. Son on the other hand is is molded by something that can be considered as african-american culture. He is very aware of who he is. He does not believe that people can bridge abysses between races.

- Ondine & Sydney Childs

They are hardworking and very proud of their position. Both of them love Jadine as if it is their own child. We never learn why they never had children themselves. Both of them believe in their principles and are very proud. They get very angry when they hear that Valerian has fired their helpers without even telling them. They are not too obedient and that is what makes them likeable.

They are sympathetic with Jadine's behaviour towards them because they are very well aware of the fact that Jadine is very young and selfish. Her uncle and aunt are getting old and need her but she is only intending to lead her own life and visit them every now and then. But both of them remain very tender and caring to her.

- Valerian Street

He is named after an imperial roman ruler and that suits him very well although he is a good man he is very dictatorial. He is slightly arrogant and patronizing but he is not hurting people intentionally. He feels superior to his servants but still feels liking for them. The abuse of his son is the turning point in his life-when he hears it something inside of him breaks. He seems to lose all love for his wife and his will to live. But somehow we realize that is was somehow his fault too. He kept his wife stupid and idle. Maybe he was staying ignorant to the enormous problems of is wife. We never know why she did it and Valerian never even dares to talk to her about it although she tries too. He is too scared of being maybe not innocent. He is a very convincing character because he is a white, wealthy and educated man who has failed in having a happy life.

- Margaret Street

Although she is a prejudiced white woman, a veritable stereotype, she is a very broken figure. She is unable to find out who she is. The only thing she has is her own beauty. Nobody ever supported her in challenging herself-she married when she was very young. She did not know what kind of responsibility it would be to have a child. She is the lonely and ornamental young wife of an older, wealthy and dictatorial man. When her socializing with the servants, is discouraged, she vents her frustration and powerlessness on her young son- the only being less powerful than herself. In hurting her baby she lashes out at Valerian's control. That is certainly no excuse but by being pushed into something that she is unable to handle - she goes mad. On the one hand she abuses her son but on the other hand she loves him obsessively. She is very ashamed of herself because she knows what she has done to her own child. In explaining her misery to her husband she tries to free herself but he does not want to listen.


The center conflict is Jadine's conflict of cultural and ethnic heritage. It is about the "yalla" who is whitened by her education. It is Jadine' s dilemma of identity and choice. Somehow Jadine can choose whether she want to be "authentic" or "inauthentic". In addition to that she is often critisized for her refuse to take care of her aunt and uncle. She views her aunt and uncle merely as servants- useful, but servants nonetheless, lacking sophistication- and separates herself from them. Her conflict is also about maturity and "parenting" in a wider collective and cultural sense.

,,A girl has got to be a daughter first... and if she never learns how to be a daughter, she can't never learn how to be a woman... good enough even for the respect of other women You don't need your own natural mother to be a daughter. All you need is to feel a certain way, a certain careful way about people older than you are." (242)

(Ondine to Jadine)

She represents white American values whereas Son resists them. In some way his thinking can be regarded as primitive, as Jadine calls it "white-folks-black-folks" primitivism" (275) but he is somehow right. He seems to have better understanding of the whole situation than Jadine. He despises Valerian' s "superiority" but is on the other hand intelligent enough to treat him respectfully in order not to annoy him. Besides Valerian `s behaviour towards his servants witches from friendship to demanded obedience. Sydney and Ondine are treated respectfully as long as they exactly do what their employer wants them do. In the beginning of the novel we think that the relationship of the servants to the white people is rather relaxed and friendly but then M. reveals the anger, frustration and hatred on both sides.

Another aspect of the story is nurture and betrayal. Margaret gives the story a whole new meaning. It is somehow showing something else. This novel is also about people who have everything but still cannot be happy. This is very well shown in the character of Margaret. She is physically beautiful but mentally destroyed. Michael, their son is always absent and never speaks but he is the symbol of the victim of this betrayal.


I liked this story for several reasons. On the one hand I liked it because places where always shifting and once the story took place in New York, the Caribbean or Paris. On the other hand I liked some characters very much. I mean I liked the way they were described not themselves. E.g. Margaret I can imagine her so well. She was somehow a kind of stereotype but she was very individual at the same time, too. The characters were very well depicted but furthermore they were very understandable in their reactions towards each other. But sometimes the story got too complicated for me and I could not follow until something happened that me understand the action. The character I could not stand was Son and Valerian because both of them pretended to be wise. They acted as if they knew everything. Valerian was arrogant towards his wife and servants. Son was conceited too. He always wanted to teach Jadine. I suppose that she needed some teaching but I did not like the way he did it. He always forced her to be something that she was not. I think she really tried to be a "tar baby" but I guess she could not make it up to his expectations.

What I did not like was the too intense complexity of some parts of the story. Sometimes I was very confused and I understood only some parts of the story after reading Secondary Literature. E.g. the ending of the story was not very clear to me.

All in all I liked this book very much and I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in cultural and ethnical identity.

Secondary literature:

-Toni Morrison, Contemporary World Writers" by Jill Matus Manchester University Press
- Internet:

5 of 6 pages


Morrison, Toni - Tar Baby
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ISBN (eBook)
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Morrison, Toni, Baby
Quote paper
Aisan Fekri Afschar (Author), 2001, Morrison, Toni - Tar Baby, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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