‘Tar Baby’, Toni Morrison’s fourth novel, breaks new ground in more ways than one. Published in 1981, it is set in the recent past of the post-Vietnam 1970s and so is her first novel set in contemporary times. (In fact it is the first of four TM novels to date – the others being ‘Paradise’, ‘Love’, and ‘God Help the Child’ – set in the 1970s or later.) It’s the only one of her novels to date set outside of the continental United States; geographically speaking, it is literally an outlier. It’s her first novel to include significant non-black characters, something she won’t do again until ‘Paradise’ (with its famous opening line, “They shoot the white girl first.”). And I think it’s also unique in the degree to which the setting itself becomes a character, with the fictional Caribbean island being described in heavily anthropomorphic, feminine terms throughout. (In ‘Beloved’, of course, the house at 124 Bluestone Road is inhabited by the baby's ghost, but the house itself is just an inanimate structure.)
Driving the story of ‘Tar Baby’ is the passionate, taboo love between Jadine and Son – in many ways the archetypal union between the civilized city person and the wild child of the country. Their romance builds slowly and has everything working against it. Their relationship is stormy and difficult, like a lot of couples in real life.
In the 2004 Foreword, TM discusses the theme of the ‘tar baby’ in folklore, and its appeal to her own imagination. In the version of the legend she recalls, a farmer uses a figure of tar, dressed in feminine clothing, to entrap a troublesome rabbit. But the rabbit, after getting stuck to the tar baby, "now becomes the clever one" and employs reverse psychology to induce the farmer to throw him in the "briar patch" - the wilderness to which the rabbit desires to return.
The lead characters are Jadine and Son. Jadine is a young, successful model with a promising career and a scholarship. Following a moment of personal crisis, she leaves Paris to live with her aunt and uncle (who are parent figures to her) on Ile des Chevaliers, where Ondine and Sydney work as personal servants to the Valerian and Margaret Street, a wealthy retired white couple whose home is called Arbe de la Croix. Son, who does not appear on-scene until the end of chapter 3, is an Army veteran who has spent the past eight years as a fugitive. They are a study in contrasts: she, the epitome of civilization and culture; he, the archetypal wild man.
'Tar Baby' incorporates many of Toni Morrison's trademark elements. There is a sub-text of skin color (as distinct from 'race'): Jadine is a light-skinned African-American woman, which causes her some anxiety and friction with some of the other black characters, while Son is dark.
Jadine isn't the only one with skin color issues: Margaret, the Italian-American former beauty queen who is the wife of the candy tycoon Valerian Street, was blessed (or cursed) with flaming red hair and alabaster skin. In one flashback, she recalls the comical lengths to which her father went to prove his paternity to friends by summoning a distant red-haired relative, thus demonstrating the presence of the red-haired gene in his own DNA. Margaret also continues the Toni Morrison tradition of 'problem mothers', as we discover through revelations about her relationship with her long-awaited but never-seen son Michael.
Like many of TM's men characters, Son is a veteran, but he's the first lead character to come out of the military. (In 2012's 'Home', Korea vet Frank Money will take center stage.) And, as with so many TM characters, his unusual name has a story behind it.
Names and naming figure prominently in 'Tar Baby'. First, there's Son's name, with no more official status than any of the many aliases he has used over the years, but the one by which he knows himself. Then there is Gideon, who at first is known to the other characters only by his nickname 'Yardman', much to Son's disgust; and finally there is Alma Estee, whose name Son himself forgets.
Abortion is referenced by Therese (p. 151) in the context of her wildly distorted imaginings about life in America. ("Is it true? American women reach into their wombs and kill their babies with their fingernails?")
Folklore plays an important role in 'Tar Baby', as in 'Song of Solomon'. Here the legend of the blind horsemen from which the island takes its name proves crucial to Son's final decision.
Who or what is the 'Tar Baby' of the title?
Apparently it refers to Jadine, whom Son calls a "tar baby" (along with a string of other colorful terms) during a fight in their New York apartment. As TM explains in the Foreword, the tar baby legend implies a love story: "Difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman and clever, anarchic male, each with definitions of independence and domesticity, of safety and danger that clash."
I wonder, though, if there is another level to the role of the tar baby - the feminine, irresistible image that first seduces, then traps the rabbit. Both Son and Jadine are drawn toward the island by inexorable, almost supernatural forces: Son by the ocean's current in the prologue, Jadine by the mysterious figure of the African woman in the yellow dress. And it is Jadine who becomes trapped in the island's black, tarry mud in chapter 5. So I wonder if the 'Tar Baby' of the title also refers to the island itself.
The book's ending is unresolved; it's a frozen moment in time, again like 'Song of Solomon'.
Jadine has left the island and she's headed back to Paris. The girl Alma Estee reports having seen Jadine at the airport in the company of a white man. (However, the narrative later reports that she's on the 707 unaccompanied - having "free use of the seat next to her". She is headed for Paris, though.) However that may be, Son's stated intention is to track down Jadine, to which end he will first visit Sydney and Ondine at Arbe de la Croix and attempt to wrest from them Jadine's whereabouts.
But Therese (who, along with Gideon, is like family to Son) has other ideas. She boards him on the boat at night and pilots him, not to the island's port, but to the far side of the island, where he'll have to make a long and difficult overland journey through the island's interior. Her intent is to persuade him to abandon his pursuit of Jadine and join the mythical blind horsemen of the island's forests. The Tar Baby's function - as explained by TM in the foreword - is to cast the rabbit back into his native wilderness.
The island is personified, and certainly a character, in the story. I wonder if it's more as a rival to Jadine.
In any case, the ending is unresolved, but it seems to point toward Son taking Theres's advice. They are both blind - Therese from being sightless, Son from the darkness and fog. Son must trust his instincts and feel his way across the stones without the use of his eyes. (You can almost hear Therese urging him, "Use the Force, Luke!") He is at last returning to the briar patch - to the wilderness within himself.
Gideon and Therese creep into the story unobtrusively as seemingly minor characters (we don't even learn Gideon's real name until halfway through the book) but they end up being central to the story. As Son's adopted "parents", and at a lower social class as "servants of servants", they serve as foils to Sydney and Ondine. It's natural that Son bonds with them. Their Fall-like exile (for the crime of stealing fruit) precipitates the family crisis in the Street household. (The Biblical Gideon rose to prominence by defending his people's food supply from the predations of foreign colonizers. Shoftim 6:1-12.)
I remember 'Paradise' also ending with an image of ships on the sea at night, and I'm gonna want to go back and compare the two. Both passages hint at journeys to another world.