Initially published by Toni Morrison in 1981, Tar Baby tells the story of two lovers who come from very different backgrounds – Jadine Childs a fashion model; Son a fugitive. The two spend the majority of their time together on the island where Valerian Street, who employs Jadine’s aunt and uncle as servants, lives with his wife, Margaret. Throughout the book tensions rise between the couples, seeing as Valerian and Margaret’s marriage is rocky, and there’s much that Jadine is yet to learn about Son. Tar Baby does not include proper role models for healthy relationships – the poor treatment of Michael by Margaret, Jadine and Son’s strained romance, and Valerian and Margaret’s secrecy all being proof.
One of the more prevalent relationships within the book is that of Margaret Street and her son Michael – ironic, considering he never actually makes an appearance in the story itself. Initially much is left in the open about why there’s this gap – this silence – between the two characters, and why Margaret is so desperately trying to get him to visit for Christmas dinner. While it could have been brushed off by readers at first as a mother anxious to see her son, it eventually is revealed at Christmas dinner that there’s a much deeper reason behind why she wishes to see him: to prove to herself that their relationship is healthier or “fixed” after years of her abuse towards him. It isn’t until Ondine calls her out for it that it’s brought to the reader’s attention, Ondine standing up for “a little boy [Michael] who she [Margaret] hurt so much he can’t even cry.” [pg.209; Morrison] When it comes to having healthy relationships, keeping true to oneself and being respectful of others are very big points. Another key to having a healthy relationship is not abusing the others involved – not mentally, not physically, not at all. Margaret’s abuse of Michael, and later her attempts to reach out to him and contact him when he obviously doesn’t want to talk, are very clear signs of an unhealthy relationship between the two, and sets a bad example for readers as to how to resolve, talk about, or attempt to move past previous forms of abuse or generally unhealthy relationships.
Alongside her poor relationship with her son, Margaret’s relationship her husband Valerian is weak. Valerian’s overpowering nature and tendency to disregard the emotions and opinions of others winds up leaving him “oblivious to a story within his own family,” [NYTimes] including Margaret’s former abuse of their only son, Michael. Their insecurities in both what they know about one another and the stability of their relationship show through the constant fighting that occurs, their dinnertime brawls “no longer seem[ing] merely the tiffs of long-married people.” [pg.68] It isn’t until he is told of the abuse by Ondine during a fight at Christmas dinner that he is forced to step back and begins to question what true authority he has within his family. A powerful man from an economic standpoint, Valerian lacks the compassion and awareness required to have the power he wishes for in his family life. After the truth about Margaret and Michael’s relationship is revealed, Valerian slowly disappears from the narrative, symbolic for his loss of power. The constant battle for a voice in their relationship – whether literal while seated for dinner, or figurative in their actions – displays just how unhealthy the way Margaret and Valerian’s dynamic as a couple is – not only for themselves, but for their son and the people around them.
The romantic relationship between Jadine and Son is perhaps one of the most troubling. In the novel, Jadine is a woman with an eye for art and the beauty of a model while her partner, Son, feels strongly about his heritage and tradition. The two are “a collision between a cosmopolitan sensibility and a provincial sensibility,” [University of Kansas] Jadine being more versatile than Son in the surroundings she finds comfort in. That being said, throughout the book Jadine struggles to find her place as a black woman, and often feels alienated due to her experience in the majority-white European modeling industry. In her old relationship with her white boyfriend Ryk, Jadine is left wondering if “the person he wants to marry is me [Jadine] or a black girl?” [pg.48], showing her insecurity with not only her self-image but the way she’s viewed by others. Son’s view of the world as being better off black and white, his comfort in being a black man, and his love for his hometown all push Jadine into a lifestyle she can’t handle. The couple tend to ignore one another’s values, especially while on their trip to the United States, where Son most pushes Jadine out of her comfort zone. In trying to find herself in Son, Jadine winds up leaving him after a visit to his hometown and retreats to Paris, where she had lived before with white values. Because of their drastically contradicting ways of living and looking at the world, as well as their lack of ability to empathize with one another, their relationship fails. The lack of communication throughout the relationship concerning boundaries and lifestyles sets their relationship up to fail, and the dramatic way in which it did is not the sign of a healthy relationship. Son’s inability to let Jadine go and give her space also shows how controlling he was during their time together, the reader is left with the question of whether or not he followed her to Paris being left unanswered at the end of the book.
The vast array of unhealthy relationships depicted throughout Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby sets a poor example for readers of all ages, and especially younger readers. However, it is also important to consider who Morrison’s intended audience is, which probably isn’t young children. While having representation of healthy relationships in media and literature is important for consumers of all ages and audiences, the fact that this book is geared towards the more mature reader allows for the reader to better interpret the relationships and their negative trends.
While they added depth to the story and played into the plot, the tense and controlling nature of the relationships – whether romantic or family-based – in Toni Morrison’s fourth novel, Tar Baby, set a poor example of what a healthy bond between two people is.
Beavers, Herman. “Tar Baby.” Language Matters II Reading and Teaching Toni Morrison, edited by © 2010 Project on the History of Black Writing, U of Kansas, www2.ku.edu/~langmtrs/lmII/discussions/tar_baby.html. This college website offered a really well-written analysis of each Toni Morrison book, as told by english professors University of Kansas. The page on Tar Baby discussed the relationships between the characters within various books by Morrison and provided an in-depth analysis of Jadine and Son’s relationship throughout the book, as well as Jadine’s affiliation with her race. I have found this a useful tool in assisting me with my own analysis of their relationship.
Burton, Zisca Isabel. How to Write About Toni Morrison. E-book, Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. This source considers the themes found within the novel Tar Baby, and highlights key character relationships, historical context, and ideas presented in Toni Morrison’s novel. Not only did it list them, but it brings forth new ideas for themes that the reader may not be able to articulate on their own (such as food being an important concept in the book, seeing as it’s the center of many arguments). The theme of food is one I would like to explore, seeing as it ties into the historical context and character development throughout the novel.
Irving, John. “Morrison’s Black Fable.” The New York Times, 29 Mar. 1981. The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/06/15/lifetimes/irving-tar.html. This article, written when the book initially came out, gives an in-depth analysis of the characters within Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, as well as a better understanding of the plot and symbolism that appears throughout the story. It gives another point of view on some of the more controversial points of the book, as well as a clearer description of some of the more secretive characters in the book to an unobservant reader’s eye. I will use this to help me critique Margaret and Valerian’s relationship, as well as to gain a fuller understanding of the significance of certain characters’ actions.
Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. New York, Vintage International, 2004.