Study Guide on Toni Morrison's Tar Baby

Rather than give you study questions, I'll present an outline of relevant materials and my own thoughts on the novel.  Be prepared to discuss particular characters, Morrison's narrative technique, the relationship between Tar Baby and The Tempest and the relationship between Tar Baby and Une Tempete.

Tar Baby works on so many different levels!  It has a structure and rhythm of its own, but it also seems to be grappling with and reworking other texts, including the "Bre'r Rabbit and the Tar Baby" story (popularized in Joel Chandler Harris's Tales of Uncle Remus) and Shakespeare's The Tempest (with, I might add, an eye to the way that play had already been reworked by Aimé Césaire's A Tempest).  Here is an outline of my thoughts (not fully articulated as arguments, but presented as points of departure) on the parallels linking Morrison's text to those two works, each of which has been so historically influential.


I.  The Authors and the Narrators
Considering our study of Joel Handler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, particularly the relationship between Harris as white author and Uncle Remus as his black narrator/character, one comes to Morrison's book as a retelling that is more than a new rendition (like the one Lester produced by Lester -- see study guide from last time), but that has some goals that resemble Lester's.  Morrison, too, wants to restore Brer Rabbit/Wakaima to his place as a black cultural hero, and she too wants to replace Harris's narrator with a contemporary African-American voice that really speaks to a contemporary American audience.  Morrison's narrator tells the story in a voice that is not stereotyped in any way; but whereas Lester speaks of his narrative voice as that of "a people," Morrison's voice seems even a bit more expansive than that.  It seems to be the voice of an omniscient, god-like being who can see into people's dreams and tell what the trees and birds and rivers think and say.  It is, moreover, a woman's voice: see my further discussion of the narrator below, in the section on Tempest parallels.
II.  The Characters
Son is the Brer Rabbit figure; he is a trickster and a survivor; he was born in the US South, and he is endangered by the "Tar Baby," Jadine.  As in Harris's account of the story, the Tar Baby is female and looks like a black child in a big floppy hat; but she is actually a trap, an attractive decoy constructed by white society (Brer Fox, as embodied in the person of Valerian Street).  Son's attempt to establish a relationship with her leads to his extreme frustration; he even hits her once (as Brer Rabbit hits the Tar Baby).  But the more entangled he gets with her, the more he risks being destroyed.
III.  Further details to consider
The hats in Jadine's dreams seem connected with the hat the Tar Baby is wearing in the illustrations by A.B. Frost, which appeared in the second edition of Harris's first Uncle Remus book (1895).  Jadine's connection with the white world of European haute couture is part of what makes her the tar baby.

The word "tar" comes into the novel to describe the skin color of the African woman "who had run [Jadine] out of Paris" (48).  She is the opposite of Jadine, a woman whose beauty is really the color of tar (rather than a tar-baby pretending to be black while really serving the interests of white culture).  She drives out Jadine's brand of beauty, which is of the sort that European culture can handle because it defers to and aspires to European aesthetics.  (See Jadine's pro-European cultural hierarchy on p. 74 of the novel).

The "lickety-split"s at the end of the novel seem to be an allusion to the Harris stories and the way Brer Rabbit's running is described in them.

In the version of Harris's book introduced by Stella Brewer Brooks, Uncle Remus's story of the Tar Baby is divided into two parts, separated by another story.  The first Tar Baby story ends with Brer Rabbit still stuck to the Tar Baby and the outcome left unclear:

 "Did the fox eat the rabbit?" asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.
"Dat's all de fur de tale goes," replied the old man.  "He mout, en den agin he moutent.  Sme say Jedge B'ar come ‘long and lossed ‘im--some say he didn't.  I hear Miss Sally callin'.  You better run ‘long."
The end of Morrison's novel preserves something of that suspense.

Finally, I think one might pursue a very interesting possibility that the little white boy of the Uncle Remus stories is alluded to in the character of Michael Street, who never appears in Morrison's version of the story, but whose sufferings as a child were due in part to the racist societal structure that Valerian enforced and that damaged Margaret as a woman and a mother.


I.  The Artist-Figure in the Play and the Novel, and the Narrator of the Novel

In Shakespeare's Tempest, Prospero is the stand-in for the playwright.  He brings all the characters together on his island and uses his magic art to stage various spectacles (the fabulous meal and the harpies, the glittering clothes on a line, the masque, the unveiling of F and M playing chess); in Morrison, the figure who resembles Prospero is Valerian Street (see discussion in part II below).  But the narrator is a very different sort of person.  She does some of the same things Prospero does--for example, she brings the ocean-swimming Son to arrive at precisely the location that her plot required just as Prospero brings the ocean-swimming Ferdinand and the others to shore at the precise locations he desires--but Morrison's narrator resembles Nature herself, rather than the magical man who manipulates Nature.  In the prologue, for example, the narrator has much in common with the "water-lady" who inexorably forces Son onto Margaret and Jadine's boat and thus into the world of Valerian Street.  And in Chapter 2, she sees into the dreams of her characters rather than crafting a dream-vision for them to watch.

II.  The Characters
Valerian is the Prospero-figure, the white lord and master of his Island realm, a business tycoon who has gone into self-imposed exile to escape the responsibilities of his "rule" over the candy company he inherited.  Prospero's magic involves the manipulation of  the forces of Nature (the storm, Ariel, etc.) and recalls various myths of death and rebirth--as I noted on my earlier handout--including the myth of the hanged man/crucified redeemer; Morrison's Prospero-figure has named his estate after the cross of Christ ("L'Arbe de La Croix" means "The Tree of the Cross"), and his house is a magnificent harmonizing of Nature and Art; but Art has something of an upper-hand in his day-to-day magic, which is the art of greenhouse-gardening, judged unnatural and maybe even devilish by Ondine.  Prospero's art serves to establish what he sees as a benevolent hierarchy, to restore order, to effect reconciliation, forgiveness, and renewal.  But in Morrison, Valerian's art and his rule are more like those of Prospero in Cesaire: selfish, hedging against the encroachments of Nature and Old Age, oblivious of how oppressive he often is, and in many ways self-destructive.

Margaret Lenore, the Principal Beauty of Maine, is Valerian's wife; she was a child-bride, and in many ways she may be thought of as the Miranda of Morrison's story, warped by her relationship to a domineering father-husband who molds her and warps her so that she is unable to function as a healthy woman ought to, but remains infantile.  When Son--the Caliban/Ferdinand figure-- comes to the Island, Margaret fears him terribly but is also fascinated by his beauty.  She fantasizes that he wants to rape her.  I have also toyed with the idea that Margaret is something of an Antonio figure.  Under Valerian's neglectful rule, she has abused her own powers and harmed her own flesh and blood.

Sydney and Ondine are the Ariel-figures.  They serve Valerian/Prospero faithfully, but dream of freedom and retirement.  They have very clear-cut and dignified standards for themselves as professional servants, but they are also critical of the "master" and do not hesitate to give him advice and criticize him.  Still, they find themselves pitted against the Caliban-figure (Son); like Ariel in Cesaire's play, they are not willing to commit to the kind of revolution he represents.

Son is both a Caliban (like the Caliban in Cesaire; he is dread-wearing, defiant, and a challenge to all that Valerian represents.  But he's even freer than Cesaire's Caliban; he is never under Valerian's power except insofar as he becomes entangled with Jadine).  He is also something of a   Ferdinand (the love interest, the experienced man of the world who is wafted ashore by the ocean and reborn (see p. 138) and who finds a gorgeous goddess waiting for him on the island.  His past history also recalls (though it does not duplicate) the history of another Shakespearean character, Othello.  He is closely associated with a whole network of mother-figures (see p. 258) who are, like Sycorax, close to the earth and to African culture and meaning.  The most powerful of these Sycorax-figures are the tar woman in Paris and Therese, but one may also consider the "Seine de Veilles" as a version of the Mother reminiscent of the swamp in Cesaire's play.

Gideon and Alma Estee????  I see no obvious parallels between these characters and Shakespeare's.

One odd addition: Dr. Michelin is, like Sycorax, an exile driven out of Algiers.  But he is a man, and he proves a friend and ally of Valerian's rather than an enemy.  Is this just a little joke?  I'm not sure.

Jadine is a combination of Miranda (daughter-figure educated by the Prospero-figure and thus "made" by him, given his values) and Caliban (insofar as she is a black protégé of the Prospero figure, cut off from her dead mother--i.e., from her actual mother and from African culture and values--who has been taught to speak Prospero's language).  She also incorporates a bit of Ferdinand (who becomes an adopted child of the Prospero-figure, and who is a sophisticated member of a European cultural elite).  The danger that this mixed-character poses to Son (who is a true son to _his_ black mothers) is that she will try to entangle him in her Prospero-oriented world.

Michael Street, though he does not appear, is a male Miranda gone native; rebelling against his father and the Western values that (whether he realizes it or not) shaped his childhood so terribly, he flees to non-Western culture and tries to embrace it.  He is not taken very seriously by his father, by Jadine, or by Sydney (who thinks he's spoiled) and by Ondine (who resents his "coming in my kitchen to liberate me every minute); but he has done his best to escape from the world that was defined for him.