Tar Baby

by Toni Morrison

Hardcover, 1981

Call number




Alfred A. Knopf (1981), Edition: 1st, 320 pages


Classic Literature. Fiction. African American Fiction. Literature. HTML:Ravishingly beautiful and emotionally incendiary, Tar Baby is Toni Morrison�s reinvention of the love story. Jadine Childs is a black fashion model with a white patron, a white boyfriend, and a coat made out of ninety perfect sealskins. Son is a black fugitive who embodies everything she loathes and desires. As Morrison follows their affair, which plays out from the Caribbean to Manhattan and the deep South, she charts all the nuances of obligation and betrayal between blacks and whites, masters and servants, and men and women. "Morrison�s genius lies in her uncanny ability to immerse you totally in the world she creates.� �Newsweek.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
Tar Baby opens with an unnamed sailor jumping ship and swimming to the shore of a Caribbean island, and then the scene shifts abruptly to the residents of a large house on the island, and their preparations for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Valerian and Margaret are white Americans who have lived
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on the island since Valerian’s retirement three years earlier. Sydney and Ondine are a Black couple who serve as butler and housekeeper. Their niece Jadine has recently arrived from Paris, where she has enjoyed a somewhat successful modeling career. Margaret is eagerly anticipating the arrival of her son, Michael, but Valerian is convinced he won’t show up. From the outset you know there’s more to that situation than meets the eye. And then the sailor shows up and pretty much turns everyone’s world upside-down.

Valerian and Margaret are oblivious to the ways in which they marginalize Sydney and Ondine, and take them for granted. Jadine is caught between two cultures, enjoying independence in Paris but still struggling to make it in the world on her own, especially as a Black woman. She finds Son, the sailor, simultaneously loathsome and attractive. As often happens when too many people are thrown together for two long, tensions begin to rise, tempers flare, and family secrets are maliciously revealed. Christmas turns out much differently than anyone expected. Each character must try to heal themselves and, if they choose, their relationships with the others.

Published in 1981, Tar Baby was Toni Morrison’s fourth novel and explores themes of feminism and race. The first two-thirds of the novel felt fresh and unique, perhaps because it was set in the Caribbean and was the first of Morrison’s novels where white and black people shared the stage. The last third is set elsewhere and focused primarily on only two characters. My interest flagged a bit at that point as I kept wondering what had happened to the others. My questions were answered in the denouement, and I was ultimately satisfied with this book but enjoyed it less than some of Morrison’s earlier books.
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LibraryThing member kylekatz
Tar Baby was really good, but somehow less satisfying to me than most other Toni Morrison books. It seems to be almost contemporary, unlike all the others I've read so far which were mostly historical, with only Love having a part in the 1990s. So it takes place in the seventies in Dominique and
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Manhattan and in rural Alabama. Mostly in Dominique in the Caribbean. It involves a rich white couple, their servants and a prowler. The prowler is caught and becomes enmeshed in the community and highlights the contrast between the rich and poor somehow by his very existence, which makes it very uncomfortable since they all usually ignore all the messy implications of their situation. The question of respecting the servants as human beings or even thinking of them as human beings is brought forward. Also the veneer of smooth perfection the rich people usually maintain around their affairs is broken and the extremely messy truth creeps out about just how not perfect they really are. This exposure almost breaks them, may in fact have broken them, as the end leaves many questions unanswered. The writing is beautiful, but felt more uneven than some of her books. I missed a formal structure, like dividing it into clear parts or something. It seemed like that would have helped. But perhaps the nature of the tar baby is that messy, and should not be constrained in a formal way?
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LibraryThing member LindaLoretz
In 1983, Toni Morrison explained in an interview with Tom LeClair that a tar baby was a Black woman who held things together. Merriam Webster defines a tar baby as something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself. It also notes that it is sometimes offensive. It is definitely
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offensive when used to refer to a Black person.

As in most good literature, the title Tar Baby is multilayered and significant for many reasons. Some view Ondine, the Black cook for the Street family, as the tar baby since she held two families and a household together: the Street family, consisting of Valerian, his wife Margaret, and their son Michael, and Ondine, her husband Sidney, and their niece Jadine. Others believe that Son, the intruder who becomes Jadine's lover, was the tar baby of the title. Still, others thought Jadine, who seemed figuratively stuck in tar, educated by a white man, and alienated from her culture, was the title's tar baby. One might also use "tar baby" to describe how "stuck" some characters are in their social classes or societal roles.

The setting for the novel is primarily the fictitious Caribbean Isle des Chevaliers (Island of Horsemen) in the 1970s, where there is a noticeable caste system. The obvious class divisions are between Blacks and Whites, especially since the White Street family employs Black servants. But the more subtle class systems are those within Black and White cultures. Morrison explores race, class, and family structures in an engaging story that delves into male/female roles and the value of education.

Stereotypes and prejudices run rampant in the text. The plight of Blacks in the United States and on the island provides many plot points in this carefully constructed story. Significantly, some Black characters are addressed by their functions or nicknames rather than their names. Since Jadine, the educated Black protagonist, uses this terminology, her traitorous nature is exposed. It is also essential to consider the upbringing and self-improvement efforts of the characters as Morrison introduces us to people in New York City and Florida. While reading about intelligence and its relationship to "street smarts," one wonders which is most beneficial to survival in different circumstances.

Other themes and concepts included in the novel and worth pondering are the acceptance of sexual assault by some characters and the role of beauty and betrayal in relationships. The images of worldliness and lowliness being perceived differently among the main characters are thought-provoking. This work is probably one of the lesser-known of Toni Morrison's. It is truly worth reading and reflecting on some of the timeless topics.
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LibraryThing member pinkcrayon99
To me this book really is about *class* in the African-American community which is a topic that is missed by many that read it. The interaction of the characters of this book is amazing. Great read!
LibraryThing member lindseyrivers
Although I don't always understand Toni Morrison, or some of the struggles her characters undergo I always love reading her. Her language is poetic, her stories interesting and I always end up invested in the characters. This book was no different. The ending went totally over my head but I would
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still re-read this book for the rest of the story. What I did understand, especially the plight to understand and deal with racial boundaries by all the characters, is poignant and will resonate with me for a long time.
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LibraryThing member blondestranger
Many times throughout the book I thought "Who are these people?!!" The characters were so bizarre and did appalling things. The book, in a very strange and incoherent fashion, was portraying the struggle within black culture to choose progress (education and betterment) or tradition (a life of
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servitude and freedom from the "white man"). There was an unspoken caste system, self-sacrifice and selfishness, violence and many layers of ignorance and prejudice. The book does have some controversial social suggestions about black and white integration, but it never fully completes any of them. The ultimate choice (between progress and tradition) is left unresolved. Overall, I can't say I would recommend this book to anyone.
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LibraryThing member g0ldenboy
This is the fifth of six large works assigned to my college's Postmodern American Literature course. Toni Morrison and I got off on the wrong foot; Tar Baby crawls.
LibraryThing member LDVoorberg
Not a good audiobook to listen to in the car, unless you can do it in one or two long stretches. I don't think I got the full impact of this novel, because both the beginning and the ending seemed rather splintered to me. I liked the middle well enough, when everyone was on the island and I'd
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figured out who they all were. That part was good -- and the events leading up to and away from Christmas dinner. But then it got lost again for me.

The voice of the reader was rather soft, too, which was awkward. She did accents well, but the cadence of her voice was too varied.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
Kind of a Six Degrees of Separation, but in reverse. The same concept of a young man of mysterious origins coming into the lives of an affluent family and changing everything. But Son changes things for blacks as well as whites. This young man is thought to be a thief and a potential rapist, but he
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turns out to be a good man. Neither he nor Jade really know themselves though, and through this lack of self-knowledge, they grow apart. Although the ending left their fates unknown, I somehow felt that they would once again find each other. What then, I don't know. The theme of black and white was complicated by the "yalla" Jade. She could enter either world, but in the end, she had no idea exactly where it was that she belonged. Son had no better idea upon realization that Eloe was a dream of things past. He, too, soon discovered that he didn't belong in that world. I suppose that's why I felt they would find each other again. They may not have belonged in the worlds they created for themselves, but they seemed to belong in the world they created together. A lovely book. I truly enjoy Toni Morrison's colorful, full-bodied writing.
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LibraryThing member noonwitch
I had to read this in college. It was really the first book I read in the "black literature" genre. I liked the two stories, and the balance of them-Jadine's story, and Margeret's story.
LibraryThing member KamGeb
Afrocentric book with fairy tale like quality. About white/black and female/male relationships. It's about 6 people; 1 white couple and a black couple that work for them and 2 other blacks on a plantation in Port of France. Interesting especially the fairy tale like qualities. Might read again.
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Let me start by saying, that's not at all what I expected. Yes, the quality of the writing was all Toni Morrison, but of the six novels of hers I have now read, this had the most contemporary of settings. I'd hate to say I had typecast Morrison as a historical novelist, but... I typecast Morrison
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as a historical novelist. So it took me a little while to get into the rhythm of Tar Baby. Even though I'd read the blurb and knew the setting was at least semi-contemporary, I couldn't shake the mention of hippies and Kotex in the opening chapter. My mind wanted to take this familiar tone of Morrison and plant it in more familiar ground.

Somewhere along the way, much too late I admit, it finally clicked—the rhythm felt right—and I became engaged in the story. I loved the characters and how they were placed on the stage. Valerian in the role of the powerful man who's indifferent to the wants of others, toying with hearts and relationships based on whims. Jadine, the young light-skinned black woman who is seen as a sellout by others—she doesn't act the way she “ought to”—but also is one of the few characters who seems to know who she is. The servants, Ondine and Sydney, Jadine's aunt and uncle, who walk a line between maintaining their strong voices and keeping their jobs. Margaret, Valerian's wife, a white woman who believes herself to be a friend of her black servants merely because she's earned the right by being “civil” with them. And Son, the stranger who arrives and throws all their pretentious role playing into disarray. He is a resilient, strong-willed man who may give one fuck, but never two.

Once it clicked, I enjoyed the story and the direction it was going. Everyone had something they wanted, yet it was often their own self in the way. The longer everyone struggled with themselves, the more the tension with one another built. Midway, the atmosphere is quite explosive. And I most certainly loved the language, a talent Morrison always has on display even when the characters or story don't follow. Morrison is a wordsmith, a weaver of phrases, a poet masquerading as a novelist.

Something about the conclusion just didn't work for me, though. Specifically, I'm talking about from the point of Jadine's return (Chapter 10) and on. I found my interests waning. Personally, I don't think it's where I would've taken the story. And somehow, to me, it didn't feel right. I won't go into detail, but I'll just say that despite the wonderfully written prose, I was underwhelmed with the direction of the story in these last thirty pages.

While I've read just over half of Morrison's complete catalog of novels, I stand by my previous assessment of the quality of Morrison's novels pre-Nobel and post-Nobel. While Tar Baby has been my least favorite of the pre-Nobel works, I do like it considerably better than those I've read published after 1993. I'm sure there will be an exception eventually and I'll be outed as the not-so-know-it-all pretentious literary snob that I am, but so far I really do like her earlier works better. With that in mind, Song of Solomon is next, and with that I'll have completed every novel Morrison published in her first twenty years of writing.

Postscript: What was with the phrase “blue-if-it's-a-boy blue”? Why was it repeated so many times? It grew tiresome and I didn't see that it added any significant meaning to the story to be repeated as often as it was. Anyone have any insight on this phrase or know if it holds extra significance I might have missed?
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LibraryThing member Othemts
Tar Baby was the first novel I ever read. It was part of the reading for a course I took as a college freshman on African American folklore in literature. I was required to take a writing course as a William & Mary freshman, but as they were all filled up I was allowed to chose from a new series of
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writing-intensive seminars, and this was the one I picked. It was a good choice as I got to discuss some excellent literature with the professor and eleven other students and I have to say it was a very meaningful point in my education and life.

The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn't like Tar Baby when I first read it. This time I liked it a lot better. The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island. Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia. Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.

Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook. Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine's niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.

The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret's closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate. Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship. They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son's home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.

The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and "wild" ways. And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison's set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.
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LibraryThing member DrFuriosa
This would have better to read over a long weekend afternoon than to listen as an audiobook. The setup is long and slow. Very difficult to gain any momentum. Worth reading, but not my favorite Morrison.
LibraryThing member thorold
It's a little disconcerting to open this book and discover that we've been whisked away from Morrison's normal core territory of small industrial communities on the Great Lakes into the house of a wealthy white American on a "private island" in the Caribbean. But of course it soon turns out that
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notwithstanding the exotic scenery, we are still very much in Morrison's old territory of the interaction of race, class and gender in American society.

The retired confectioner Valerian Street uses the security of his position of wealth to play with the lives of his working-class wife Margaret, his black servants Sydney and Ondine, and various islanders whose real names he doesn't even bother to learn. There is also the superb Jadine, an orphaned niece of Sydney and Ondine whom Valerian has quixotically sponsored through an expensive education, now a model with the fashion worlds of Paris and New York opening up before her. And now there is a random black seaman, Son, who turns up at the house to steal food and is invited in by Valerian just to stir things up and see what will happen, like the rabbit in the traditional story Morrison refers to in the title.

Of course, Son falls heavily for Jadine, who has never seen anything quite like him and is simultaneously fascinated and disgusted. Son's past life in the South enters into things, as does the real background to Valerian's difficult relationship with his own (offstage) son, and there is a constant background rumbling from the ghosts of the island, obviously all tied in with the history of slavery (it's not an accident that Valerian is a confectioner) and the oppression of women.

I enjoyed this, there are some fantastic passages of description and dialogue, but I didn't get as much out of it as Song of Solomon, it felt a bit too much like routine reworking of fairly predictable themes. Perhaps Morrison didn't do quite as much as she might have to capture the special Caribbean character of the setting: it mostly just felt like an exotic showcase for mainland American stories.
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LibraryThing member addunn3
Stranger appears on a Caribbean island in a household of a rich, retired husband, wife and black support staff, and the beautiful niece of one of them. Seemed like a lot of writing for not accomplishing much.
LibraryThing member ThatsFresh
I love Toni Morrison. I think her writing is like candy, and when you read a poetic sentence or moving chapter, you can just feel it. So when I picked up this book, I actually decided to put it down, to pick up the audio book. It’s narrated by Lynne Thigpen and makes the book all the better.
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had never listened to an audio book before, so I wasn’t used to having the book read to me, and at the beginning found myself spacing out. But in no time, I learned to love it found listening to it was more convenient that reading the actual book (sometimes). I would often lay on the couch and listen to the book through my computer and would find Lynne’s voice so soothing that I’d be forced to take a nap after thirty minutes (not that that’s a bad thing).
For those of you who don’t know, the book is about a rich, older white couple living on a tropical island in the Caribbean with their longtime servants. The servant’s daughter, a successful model in Paris, comes to spend the winter at the mansion and is included in the family’s drama. The white couple is growing apart in their older-adult age and the wife is left to obsess about their son coming home for Christmas.
A strong African-American man, who we know nothing about, appears at the mansion one day. Everyone but the white homeowner immediately loathes him. He ends up staying at the house, only to cause drama, and be part of everyone else’s.
The story weaves love, race, class, identity, family, hate and obsession all into one.
Toni Morrison does a beautiful job, once again.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
I finished this book 2 days ago and have been thinking about what to write about it, and I'm coming up empty. I don't think I fully "got" it, and I didn't find it nearly as compelling as almost every other work of Morrison's I've read. It started very slowly for me, and even once it became a bit
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more engaging, I just couldn't find that I cared about any of the people or relationships depicted in it.

Morrison's usual themes of male-female, female-female, black-white, black-black relationships in all their complexity were present, as was her incredible prose. The characters, though, remained inscrutable to me, and some of her narrative choices prevented me from fully sinking into the story.

All that said, I'm not sorry I read it, as there is always something worthwhile in reading Morrison. I would rate this at the lower end of the spectrum of her novels (along with God Help the Child).

3.5 stars
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