While every Toni Morrison novel contributes something unique to her body of work, Tar Baby stands out as singular among its sister novels for its flavor and atmosphere, largely due to the novel’s Caribbean setting. One of the ways that Morrison succeeds in evoking this tropical mood is by crafting an original yet richly realistic folklore, supported in places by real folktales and folk beliefs from the African diaspora and other sources. Folklore also contributes to one of the novel’s central themes, the question of “ancient properties,” and who her characters are with (and without) them. By employing these strands of existing and original folklore in the novel, Morrison explores various ways in which the novel’s characters become trapped and freed, as well as how and whether they succeed or fail in so freeing themselves.
A primary task to which folklore is employed in the novel is to explore and undermine dualities and binaries. While a critique of dualisms is common to most if not all of Morrison’s novels, here in Tar Baby is this critique most centered, indeed forming the structure of the novel’s main conflict between Son and Jadine. Because dualism is by its very nature a polarizing system of thought, it limits our ability to perceive reality, connect with, or understand the world, cutting us off from people or things that are unlike us.
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The island as Eden
Among the most significant ways the novel uses folklore in undermining dualisms is its retelling of the Judeo-Christian Eden myth. Morrison’s Caribbean setting serves as a second Eden of sorts, where the biblical story of Adam, Eve, God, and Satan is played out again in multiple ways.
Of course, the novel’s title Tar Baby is a reference to what is perhaps the most ubiquitous West African folktale. While Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus version is the most well-known version, the tar baby story can ultimately be traced to Nigerian and Angolan roots as part of a suite of tales starring the hare or the spider-god Anansi — although Morrison made it clear that she relied on her childhood memories of the tale rather than on any specific written version. Similarly, the novel’s reflections of Eden draw from multiple versions of the story: not simply the biblical account in Genesis, but also from story dynamics in Milton’s retelling in Paradise Lost.
Though it may not seem readily apparent, the tar baby folktale bears several links to the Eden myth, featuring the creation of a being from humble substance (tar instead of the biblical dust), forbidden food in a garden (belonging to a farmer in the folktale), temptation, and the consequence of being ejected from the place where the temptation and transgression occurred.
Further, the novel’s main setting, the fictional Caribbean island of Isle des Chevaliers, is depicted as a place of nature in a pre-fall state of innocence, only ruined by the responses of humanity and its desire to enjoy fruits that are not theirs to possess. Morrison depicts serene, paradisiacal images like champion daisy trees and “diamondbacks that slept in their arms,” clear parallels to the trees of knowledge and eternal life in Genesis and the serpent who invades Eden.
It is in this garden like paradise where the two main characters, Jadine Childs and Son Green (whose names reflect the childlike innocence of Adam and Eve), first meet and eventually fall in love. The site of their meeting is a house called L’Arbe de la Croix, owned by a rich white man named Valerian street, who spends his retirement in a greenhouse trying to be a gardener. Valerian’s paternalistic relationship to Jadine casts him as a sort of Miltonic God, presiding over the people of the house and the island, calling the shots, never in doubt of his detached authority.
True to a Miltonic reading of the Eden story, Valerian plays the role of oppressor, and those who resist him, rather than those who obey, are portrayed as heroes. Son Green is chief among these Satanic figures: an intruder in Eden, he at first terrifies its inhabitants and has snake-like hair. He tempts Jadine and is associated with stars, an allusion to Lucifer’s byname, the Morningstar.
Just as in Eden with the serpent, the garden island of Isle des Chevaliers is left disordered and in shambles in the wake of Son’s visit. To many characters, though—essentially everyone besides Valerian and his wife Margaret—this new dynamic seems a return to a freer, more natural state of things, with Valerian no longer dominating, but increasingly dependent on characters like Jadine’s aunt and uncle who are now able to assert new independence and tend to their own needs, not just to his. Just as in the garden of Eden, the knowledge that Son as a serpent-figure brings to the surface awakens all of the house’s inhabitants, to some degree, allowing them to take better stock of their lives and, in most cases, to make better, healthier decisions about their futures. Of course, a traditional reading of the Eden story casts the serpent as evil, knowledge of good and evil as sin, and exile from Eden as tragic fall. More liberal readings of the story, though, are more in line with Morrison’s treatment of the myth, suggesting that the only real fall or exile was the dualistic view that came with knowledge: a belief that we could ever be separated from the love, connectedness, or divine image that we are made in. To believe this is, to use a phrase of Morrison’s, to forget our ancient properties. Such dualistic consciousness is perhaps the very first trap, the very first exile we feel.
Yet to represent Son Green only as a Miltonic Satanic figure is overly simplistic. Morrison’s understanding of the story is itself nondual. Son, after all, is not merely the island’s serpent, but a Christ figure as well—an association also suggested by his name. After he showers, bathes, and gets a haircut, he becomes a redeemer with the potential to rescue Jadine from Valerian’s limiting world. At the climactic Christmas dinner, Son’s challenge to his outwardly pious host ends up crashing the entire meal, an event that echoes Jesus overturning tables at the temple in Jerusalem, calling it a den of thieves. Son is rich and complex enough to play but serpent and savior within the bounds of this Eden, suggesting a both-and view of the story and of the wider world, rather than a limiting, dualistic either-or worldview.
Jadine, too, plays a both-and role of tempter and savior. Just as Son tempts Jadine, Jadine too tempts Son, so much so that he begs her to simply allow him to touch the bottom of her feet. Yet she is also as much Son’s savior as he is hers. Later on, in New York, when the couple enters an existential war of identities, Morrison writes that “She thought she was rescuing him from the night women who wanted him for themselves, wanted him feeling superior in a cradle, deferring to him… Each was pulling the other away from the maw of hell—its very ridge top. Each knew the world as it was meant or ought to be.”
Again, this dynamic resists dualism: both Jadine and Son are both savior and in need of salvation. Yet tragically, as befits a retelling of the Eden myth, neither succeeds in saving ultimately the other—a crucial fact, one I want to return to later.
Partially, this failure stems from the couple’s inability to overcome the dualistic consciousness they each display in different ways. Son sees the world in terms of black vs, white, educated vs. authentic, pure and ancestral vs. corruption and betrayal. Jadine sees the world in terms of victimhood vs. agency, obsession with race vs. healthy self-determination, and sophistication vs. backwoods ignorance. Neither seems to see the insights the other’s perspective offers, or considers that there might be a healthy way to incorporate elements of both experiences.
While Son and Jadine’s character arcs reflect certain dynamics and parallels to the Eden myth, there is one place in the novel where in which the actual Eden story is fully played out almost point for point. Surprisingly, in the minor characters of Gideon and Thérèse. Both are caretakers placed in the garden paradise of Isle des Chevaliers, as Adam and Eve were commanded to care for Eden. Thérèse has a “craving for apples” and gives thought to areas of knowledge that she lacks that others might have. The two steal apples from Valerian’s pantry and are punished by being sent away from the house and its garden.
The fact that multiple characters plays these mythical roles and are each judged and expelled in different ways supports a nondual reading of the novel. It’s difficult to firmly side with any one character in the book, since all of them have valid points yet also blindly ignore those of others in ways that limit the possibilities their lives can offer to them. Any hint of growth or potential the novel offers comes not as the result of following one polar worldview or the other, but of rising above clean-cut categories and definitions. An easy, moralistic reading of Tar Baby is thus nearly impossible.
Ultimately, even the traditional moral of the Eden myth is overturned. Knowledge is not the root of sin, but an agent of catharsis, a catalyst for revelation and reckoning. The novel’s real original sin, as scholar Lauren Lepow puts it, “is dualism, the either-or vision that deprives us of knowledge as it fragments and distorts the world.”
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Nature & African spirituality
While the island’s beauty and spiritual vibrancy mirrors Eden’s innocence and original goodness, it also draws on African spirituality to similarly undermine Western binaries of matter vs. spirit. These ideas are seen in the portrayl of nature as having thought, voice, and agency throughout the novel.
Morrison tells us the champion daisy trees ignore humans, the island’s river persuades the trees, and later on is ill and grieving. Clouds are confused, fish carry news, trees dream of dead comrades. The river, again, is insulted and brokenhearted and sits like a neglected grandmother. The moon is a watchful eye, mist is the hair of maiden aunts. Butterflies receive rumors from angel trumpets, an avocado tree believes Jadine’s use of “horseshit” is incorrect, and a swamp tree shivers and sways as if wanting to dance with her. Clouds descend to examine Son and Thérèse in the final chapter. Hills crouch on all fours and the rocks and sea are at their knees.
These and many other anthropomorphisms are typical of African-American folklore, which puts humanity and nature—as well as divinity and evil–all on the same level. In these stories, humans and other creatures can meet as equals, reminding us that our capacity to suffer, desire, and dream is shared with other forms of life around us. In effect, they allow us to see nature as sisters and brothers; or perhaps, to use Morrison’s terminology, as ancestors.
In doing so, we remove yet another dualism, re-entering a both-and mode of perception in which humanity, nature, and the sacred are fundamentally united. Such perception mirrors traditional African beliefs, in which nature is the primary dwelling for the divine. Particularly in Yoruba belief systems, sites where water, land, and trees meet — such as the river and the swamp of Sein de Vieilles — are places of spiritual power that require balance with one’s surroundings and sites of spiritual transition. Swamps in particular are, according to professor K. Zauditu-Selassie, sacred sites of the Ajé (or “Great Mothers”), figures who are embodied in the novel by the tar women who look down on Jadine from above. These tar women are also reflections of the African tar lady myth which Morrison speaks of in an interview as a primary influence on the novel.
Zauditu-Selassie also suggests that the water-woman who brings Son to the island in the first place may be the Yoruba orisha (deity) Oshun, since several of her symbols (the butterfly, the heart, blood, stars, and teardrops) are mentioned in this passage: “When he’d rested he decided to swim butterfly and protect his feet….All he saw was water, blood-tinted by a sun sliding into it like a fresh heart….Queen of France was already showing lights like teardrops from a sky pierced to weeping by the blade tip of an early star.”
Such usage and incorporation of African lore further blurs the dualistic either-or boundary between nature and divinity, but also between divinity and humanity. As literary scholar La Vinia Jennings reminds us, the loa (spirits) in Voudoun lore at least partially used to be people: those who lived so long ago that they “cannot be remembered as human beings” and have come to dwell in and among nature as spirits; they are “ancestors who entered the Zamani [the limitless past/the period of myth and prehistory] so long ago that all ties to a lineage have dissolved and they now watch over all in a specific area. Their absorption into nature constitutes the indissoluble relationship between the living-dead and the land they inhabit.” The spirits in Tar Baby, both the tar women and the blind horsemen, reflect this dynamic: divinities who were once human, and humans who carry divine and ancient properties.
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The trickster’s many faces
A native of the (also fictional) island of Dominique, the minor character Mary Thérèse Foucault is associated not only with these blurred boundaries between nature, divinity, and humanity, but also with a further aspect of folklore which critiques dualisms: the trickster.
In various moments, Thérèse alternates between mundane affairs at L’Arbe de la Croix and the otherworld of blind horsemen and swamp women; between blindness and sight; and between masculine and feminine roles. Because her firing from Valerian’s employ is the crux that finally drives Son and Jadine together as a couple, and her bringing Son to the entrance of the island’s spiritual realm allows for his crucial moment at the end of the novel, she is thematically tied to crossroads. All of which links Thérèse to the African trickster god Papa Legba, who is himself associated with crossroads, entrances, and doubleness.
Other links to trickster lore are fundamentally built into the story’s plot. The typical form of the tar baby story follows a trickster protagonist (usually a rabbit or hare, sometimes a spider) known for stealing food, as he encounters a figure made of tar, a trap set by the person whose food he has stolen. The trickster addresses the tar “baby” and strikes it in anger, first because it doesn’t respond verbally, then subsequently because he is stuck in its stickiness. The more he strikes, the more he is entrapped, until finally the trap-setter captures him; only to be tricked into setting the trickster free.
As literary historian Trudier Harris points out, the tar baby folktale, like many other trickster tales, is ambiguous about who exactly the victim and the aggressor are. The trickster—Br’er Rabbit or Anansi the spider god, depending on the version—is a victim of the farmer’s trap; yet the farmer is also a victim of the trickster’s theft, as well as of the trickster’s manipulation after he is caught in the tar. The tale avoids easy binaries and either-or dynamics, preferring a much more complex and realistic both-and ambiguity.
Similarly, in Morrison’s novel, it is unclear who exactly plays the role of the titular tar baby, Son Green or Jadine Childs. To a degree, both of them experience an invasion of their territory, both entrap the other, both need to be rescued, and both to some degree escape the trap.
The most obvious reading of the novel is Son as the Br’er Rabbit figure and Jadine as the tar baby. Son is a transgressor: first a stowaway (twice over), then a home invader whose presence, like that of many tricksters, disrupts the thin veneer of social order. Like the trickster in the story, Son steals food and manages to talk his way out of trouble.
This scene in chapter 5 deserves attention. When Valerian demands an explanation for why Son has hidden in his wife Margaret’s closet, Son slips into stereotypical Black dialect and behavior, a performance designed to exploit minstrel-show images of Black men as hapless, frightened, ignorant, innocent, and ultimately harmless — therefore no threat to Valerian.
Trudier Harris’ analysis of the encounter is revealing:
Valerian knows that Son is performing, and Son knows that Valerian knows he is performing, but the fiction of his own image as a white person unalterably in control of every situation will not allow Valerian to destroy this current fiction…. In order for him to retain a semblance of power, he has to accept Son’s explanation.Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, p. 122
Harris places this dialogue in the Black tradition of the dozens, as well as evidencing the trickster’s power of words. The effect, though, is that the expected power dynamic is overturned by the power of words and imagination: which is, more or less, a trickster’s entire job description.
But Jadine, too, plays the role of Br’er Rabbit later on, in Sein de Vieilles, when she falls into the swamp mud and becomes stuck in it. The swamp’s connection with tar (the substance that Br’er Rabbit is ensnared by in the folktale) is established not only by Margret later describing it as looking “like pitch,” but also by Morrison’s description of the swamp women and their “sacred properties,” which, tarlike, can “hold together the stones of pyramids and the rushes of Moses’ crib.” Essentially, the swamp women are the tar lady of African mythology which Morrison has cited as an inspiration for the novel.
Later, in Son’s hometown of Eloe, Florida, Jadine again takes on the rabbit trickster’s role: an outsider who becomes trapped in the tarlike darkness of his aunt Rosa’s guest room, where her imagination is beset by a throng of dark-skinned “night women,” themselves tar babies of a sort. In their Black femininity, Jadine’s confidence and sense of self becomes stuck and existentially threatened even after she escapes and returns to New York.
If both Jadine and Son can be seen as trickster figures, both can also be seen as tar babies as well. Each of them is irresistibly attractive to the other. Each becomes caught in each other, entrapped by their inability to freely live the life they want for themselves in the face of the other’s expectations. And each grows increasingly miserable as they try to convince and gain control over the other.
This deconstruction of the victim-trickster or victim-aggressor binary is part and parcel of trickster folklore, in which the hero can fluidly move between victim and victorious, powerful and powerless. Such lack of absolutes is central to this strain of lore, showing the limits of binaries and dualistic consciousness. It is the polarization of Son and Jadine’s positions, after all, not the mere fact that they fundamentally disagree, that ultimately dooms their relationship.
Another binary undermined through trickster lore in Tar Baby is that of gender roles. In an interview with Nellie McKay, Morrison has said that she views the conflict of genders as “a cultural illness,” so it is no surprise that she seeks to subvert ideas of gender essentialism, which both Son and Jadine tend to flout in certain ways.
Despite having been an exile from his home in Eloe for several years, Son is more invested than Jadine in home, community belonging, and inherited tradition, all typically seen as belonging to the realm of women. Son fluently speaks the language of family connectedness, which is notable since such bonding is one of the very feminine qualities of tar that Morrison emphasizes the swamp women possess, a trait which she says constitutes “their exceptional femaleness.” Son shows tenderness to his father in Eloe, as well as a sense of duty to at least perform modesty around his aunt Rosa.
Jadine, by contrast, is defined by her need for mobility and independence from family, traits that are more typically thought of as masculine. She is the one who ultimately leaves Son, and ending relationships is a prerogative traditionally associated with men. This pattern is repeated consistently in Morrison’s other novels: it is Frank who leaves Lily in Home, Joe Trace who steps out on Violet in Jazz, Milkman who breaks up with Hagar in Song of Solomon, as well as the ancestral Solomon/Shalimar who takes flight and abandons his wife and family in the same novel.
To illuminate this aspect of Jadine’s struggle against restrictive gender roles, Harris points to another tricksterlike figure of African American folk culture, the bad man or outlaw:
Our negative reaction to Jadine…is predicated upon the inability of members of the culture to applaud the traits she has when they appear in feminine guises; we would readily accept all that Jadine is, and most of her actions, if the doer of the action were male….We can applaud Milkman even when he is immoral because we have so many masculine models for the individual resisting the pressures of community. We can see traits of Stagolee in Milkman as well as in Son, but we have no models for accepting Jadine as a ‘bad woman.’Fiction and Folklore: The Novels of Toni Morrison, p. 128
Harris also argues that Jadine’s resistance to the night women who visit her is less a resistance to Blackness as it is a chafing against female gender roles. It is not their Black skin, after all, which threatens her and sends her into an existential crisis, but rather the breasts with which they aggressively taunt her. Nor is it meaningless that the first instance of this shame arises when she sees the African woman in yellow buying eggs; ie., symbols of fertility and femininity. It is yet another way of being trapped that Jadine fears: the fate of economic and political marginalization, which (she believes) is the plight of women in places like Isle des Chevaliers and Eloe.
These and other subversions of restrictive gender stereotypes are a further connection to trickster folklore. The trickster is nearly always an outsider in relation to society at large, able to move freely and comfortably outside of its limiting strictures, with a visionary ability to see alternative possibilities beyond easy binaries, embodying an autonomy that escapes easy categorization and preserves an ever-shifting, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory identity. As noted before, one of the boundaries that the African trickster god Papa Legba transgresses is that of male and female. To cast both Son and Jadine as tricksters in this sense, subverting traditional stereotypes of what men and women should be and care about, is to again blur lines and deconstruct dualistic boundaries.
Of course, the novel does this ironically. Jadine and Son, after all, despite being living evidence against easy, clear-cut binaries, are very much in the grips of dualistic thinking. The tension between the conscious beliefs that they act out of, and the much more subtle realities they embody, prompt the reader to observe on their own that the things Jadine and Son see as incompatible — nurture and freedom, loyalty to culture and a cosmopolitan cultural literacy, education and authenticity — are actually in no way contradictory or antithetical, and that the conflict between them is ridiculous, unnecessary, and destructive.
Perhaps Morrison herself said it best when she opined in an interview that “Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure. They don’t see conflicts in certain areas as do white women. They are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both. We don’t find these places, these roles, mutually exclusive.” Son and Jadine may fail to see this possibility, but their resistance to traditional visions of what are or should be masculine and feminine things implies a better, more holistic, less dualistic way of looking at and understanding how men and women can live in the world, suggesting the possibility of a path toward nondual thinking for both of them may lie in their futures.
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The debate of Son and Jadine
The use of folklore to catalyze the deconstruction of dualistic thinking is appropriate, since the novel’s central conflict—the arguments between Son and Jadine that ultimately tear the couple apart—takes the form of warring binaries: the issues of sexism (male vs. female), racism (Black vs. white), and classism (rich vs. poor). Their debate over who each other should be and how is an existential one, since the stakes are both of their identities. Son believes Jadine should embrace a fully Black identity and return to her cultural roots, her “ancient properties,” as the novel puts it; while Jadine wishes to travel the world with the full use of privileges that being able to pass as white has afforded her.
Expressed in such terms, most readers would be likely to take one side or the other, but Morrison never allows the dilemma to become simple. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to say that any one pole or the other is essentially right and the other essentially wrong, for neither Son’s nor Jadine’s perspective is entirely without merit, and neither is entirely without problematic aspects.
This is defining a trait of Black literature, as Harris points out: “African-American storytellers feel little need to dichotomize their world view. As numerous scholars have pointed out, there is an established interweaving of the good and the bad, the secular and the sacred, in African-American culture.”
Indeed, the conflict itself may be inherently flawed since its fulcrum rests on faulty binaries. Jadine may reject traditional Black culture, but is still a “culture-bearing black woman,” a label Morrison herself as narrator, not any of the characters, applies to her.
Their conflict also seems to have problematic things to say about Blackness and whiteness. Although Son sees the former as inherently good, there is the suggestion in his perspective that education and authentic Blackness are incompatible. To become educated and successful would mean (in his view) that he has betrayed his Black identity and essentially, like Jadine, become white.
Expressed in such language, the terms of this conflict are distilled to a basic ridiculousness that is perhaps what Morrison wants the reader to be thinking about. While Harris claims Jadine’s failure to realize that “the faint duskiness in her skin” connects her to Son, Eloe, and the people of the Caribbean islands “makes her renounce them forever,” I find this far too easy and simplistic a conclusion.
It is true that by the end of the story, Jadine has rejected her traumatic relationship with Son. Yet the novel leaves her beginning to turn inward, not outward, for stability and a sense of her own value. And Blackness is a part of who she is, whether she admits and embraces it or not. After all, Thérèse does not say that Jadine has lost, or is missing, her “ancient properties,” but that she has forgotten them—suggesting that they remain a part of her, even if latent, and that they might at some point be remembered.
If anything, Jadine has rejected Son and his view of how Blackness is to be defined. As many in the Black community have said, Blackness is not monolithic; so surely it is big enough to include both Son’s valuing of racial and communal loyalty, and Jadine’s insistence on individualistic flourishing. Zauditu-Selassie points out that Kongo spiritual culture defines humanity as “consisting of two selves: collective and private. Any breakdown between the two produces a persona and social crisis.”
And, as Dr. Ann Rayson of the University of Hawai’i reminds us, “there are no pureblood African Americans….Both white and black society in America share, borrow, and steal elements from each other, yet are unable to acknowledge the degree to which they are intertwined.”
The novel’s ending leaves enough room to imagine that Jadine will perhaps find a new way of being Black that balances both ancient properties, community belonging, and a freer, more mobile way of living in the world, a way that feels truer and more comfortable to herself. Even if she doesn’t, the way Morrison handles the dichotomy between the many sets of false choices leaves the reader wondering what such a balancing might look like; and perhaps that is the point.
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Sight or blindness?
Besides undermining dualistic binaries, Morrison uses folklore in Tar Baby to reveal and explore new ways of seeing. Sight and blindness are recurring motifs in the novel, foregrounded most in the folklore of the island itself: the blind horsemen whose legends provide the name Isle des Chevaliers.
The lore holds that after a slave ship sank just off the coast, the enslaved people on it were washed ashore and blinded by the sight of the island. They hid in the forests along with horses that survived the shipwreck as well, and became a race of ghostly or spiritual beings who haunt the island, and whose descendants always go partially blind, too.
We would be wrong to pit these men and women their blindness, or to assume it is a limitation. It doesn’t stop them from riding wildly through the hills and forests on horseback, “racing each other for sport in the hills behind this white man’s house.”
Moreover, as Evelyn Hawthorne suggests, their lack of sight becomes a spiritual strength, an inward visionary gift allowing them to see the truth behind appearances. In the tale, the enslaved people who did not go fully blind were the ones who allowed whites to “rescue them” from the shipwreck, only to become re-enslaved. It took blindness, and the “second sight” it bestowed upon them, to save the others from their fate and preserve their new freedom.
Further, it is Thérèse, one of the blind race, who sees Son’s plight at the end of the novel most clearly. She intuitively knows what he needs, as well as how and where he can get it. As if to confirm this link between physical blindness and spiritual sight, when Son reaches the back of the island and runs to join the blind horsemen in the jungle, Morrison tells us that his own sight begins to wane. In its place, Son begins to develop a new, more heightened mode of perception that will allow him to reconnect to the spiritual power of the ancestors: to see himself as he really is, and to escape the toxic bond that his relationship with Jadine has become.
The idea of transformed sight is connected not only to Morrison’s original folklore of the blind horsemen, but also to African lore and spirituality. A professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, Judylyn Ryan writes of a Yoruba ritual in which efun, a type of ritually-prepared chalk, is used for the purpose of cleansing, and “is said to have the power to transform negative energy within an entity into a positive potential.”
Efun is thus an apt metaphor for the transformational ways in which things and people in Tar Baby are given new attributes, and thereby are allowed to grow and recover, or to renew their power and ability—among which the second sight bestowed by blindness is only one example. Another is the reference to tar as having “sacred properties” and being a positive agent of binding and holding things together, despite the negative associations with the tar baby as an agent of entrapment and deception, and with tarring and feathering as a method of punishment. Similarly, the swamp women, though they dwell in a backwater morass, are held in respect and devotion by the island’s Black inhabitants.
The efun effect is perhaps the same process which allows Black people (and Black people alone) to reclaim and transform the hatred and dehumanization of the N-word into an expression of affinity and affection in certain contexts. As Ryan notes, “the transformation [of efun] does not erase the opposing signification. It simply clears a partial space to allow for an additional meaning, one that, moreover, remembers the history of contestation and the attempted distortion.” Of course, this doubleness (suggested also in the idea of “second sight”) also aids in breaking down dualisms, since it invokes both-and rather than either-or dynamics.
Tar Baby also provides space for Morrison to explore how seeing can itself be a limitation, and she does so partially by subtly invoking the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Jadine is first linked to the Greek myth when Margaret compares her to the actress playing Eurydice in Black Orpheus, and Son’s connection to Orpheus, the most gifted musician and singer in Greek mythology, lies in his musical inclination and his brief role as an itinerate jazz musician.
In the myth, Orpheus seeks to be reunited with his wife, Eurydice, when she is killed by a snake. He journeys into the underworld of Hades to bring her back to the land of the living, a quest which is successful up till the moment he violates the god Hades’ sole stipulation that he must not look back at Eurydice until they have returned to the mortal world. It is the act of beholding his wife that causes Orpheus to finally and permanently lose her.
If Son and Jadine are Orpheus and Eurydice, then Son’s return to Isle des Chevaliers in order to be reunited with Jadine is his journey into Hades. What, then, is his act of looking back?
In fact, several instances of seeing in the novel suggest themselves as possibilities. Though Son is enamored by Jadine’s beauty, his beholding of it prevents him from engaging with her as a fellow person, the first time they are alone together while both of them are awake. Instead he gazes at photos of her in Elle magazine.
“Why don’t you look at me?” Jadine demands. “I can’t,” he answers. “…The pictures are easier.”
Son beholds her outward form — seeing her with physical sight — but does not see her as she really is, in all her weaknesses and strengths. In other words, he objectifies her.
Jadine herself enters into this subject-object dynamic in Eloe, when she uses her camera to evade having to be fully present with Son’s friends and their families. In doing so, she reduces flesh and blood people to photographs — ie., objects — that look lifeless and stupid even to Son.
Ultimately, the subject-object relationship is one of control: an attempt to perceive a person in a context that only the beholder has control of, and thus to define (and thereby control) the person being seen.
If the desire to define, control, and rescue Jadine—rather than seeing and accepting her as she really is—is Son’s fatal error, then it is fitting that the blindness (whether figurative or literal, in the fact that he cannot see through the fog) which he enters into at the end of the novel is perhaps a redressing of that mistake. Merging with the blind horsemen, Son can no longer “look back” at Jadine, but is given the opportunity to partake in a truer way of seeing.
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Rites of initiation
In this final scene, Son enters the realm of myth and folklore in a twofold way: not only in seeking out the blind horsemen, but also in the way the narrator refers to him using the language of Br’er Rabbit:
Then he ran. Lickety-split. Lickety-split. Looking neither to the left nor to the right. Lickety-split. Lickety-split. Lickety-lickety-lickety-split.
Son’s merging with these stories can be seen as an initiation ritual, a common element in many traditional folk cultures worldwide. In fact, both Son and Jadine experience initiation rites at different points in the novel. Son, arguably, experiences two. Each one bookends the novel, is recounted in an unnumbered chapter, and occurs in moments of arrival at Isle des Chevaliers.
Both Jennings and Zauditu-Selassie have pointed to the ritual symbolism in these scenes. At the beginning of the novel, when Son is carried toward the island by the ocean current, described by the narrator as a “water-lady,” he moves in a counter-clockwise direction, a pattern of movement significant in Voudoun rituals. This passage can be seen as a rebirthing ritual, Jennings writes, in which “Yemonja, the mother of life [in Yoruba religion,] allows Son access to a new life and identity.” The downward direction that the current pulls him in also hints toward the influence of the orisha Olokun, associated with the bottom of the ocean, and known as a force of salvation and restored spiritual unity.
Son’s second initiation ritual occurs when Thérèse tricks him by taking him to the back of the island where he can be seek the blind horsemen and become one of them. Again, the element of rebirth is present here: the boat is “rocking on baby waves,” and Son must first crawl across the rocks, listening to the nursing sound of the ocean behind him, then walk like a toddler, and finally run as a man, symbolically re-enacting the growth from infanthood to maturity.
Whether or not his first initiation initially succeeded, it is clear by this point that Son needs to be restored, to be given the space to rebuild himself. The fact that the trees part way before him to make room suggest that the island, and perhaps the blind horsemen, have accepted him. Among them he is offered a chance at divination: fusion with the island’s mythic world, and a new awareness of the sacred that dwells already within himself, which only he can bestow upon himself.
For Jadine, initiation is both less obvious and less successful, but a specific initiation moment does occur for her. If Son’s initiation is in joining the blind horsemen, Jadine’s crucial moment comes, fittingly, with the swamp women as witness. In chapter 5, when Jadine falls into the swamp, her “yalla” skin is dyed black by the tarlike mud, reversing the white-washing effect of Valerian and Margret’s influence on her.
This scene is rife with many subtle details that point to Voudoun ritual. In chapter 1, Morrison describes the swamp as “a shriveled fogbound oval” and draws the reader’s attention to the tree which Jadine grasps in order to save herself. As Jennings points out, this tree in an oval is an instance of the Yowa, the symbol of a cross or tree within a circle which represents the four moments of the sun. Additionally, Jadine considers lying horizontally to keep herself from sinking into the muddy water. Had she done so, her body would have mirrored the posture of the hounsi or vodunsi, Voudoun initiates who stretch out on mats during their initiation rites. The swamp women above her can be seen as loa hoping or waiting to mount her as a horse, and the shimmying dance Jadine does backward satisfies required movements for Voudoun ceremony.
Jadine is thus offered in this scene the potential to reclaim or recover the ancient properties Thérèse claims she has forgotten, by participating in an initiation rite based in African spirituality. It is an opportunity for her to gain awareness of the divine within herself, and the inherent kinship with nature around her—the swamp women, after all, are confused that she wants to “be something other than they were,” suggesting she already is one with them and is only denying it.
While this denial (both here in this scene, and throughout most if not all of the rest of the novel) suggests Jadine’s initiation has failed, this doesn’t make her failure a permanent one. After all, Son is given the opportunity of not just one, but a second initiation, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that Jadine, too, might get a second chance at some future point outside the scope of the novel.
As Zauditu-Selassie says, Jadine has been marked by the river of tar, signaling her “connection to her spiritual personality as a child of Oshun who controls the ajé and the rivers that bind the nation” and the ancestors. She also reminds us that the Xhosa and the Zulu people of South Africa “believe that future sangomas (female priests) receive their calling by being submerged under bodies of water or a river pool for many hours, days, or years,” which suggests that it may take more than one singular ritual moment for Jadine to accept her calling.
The end of the novel finds her realizing that safety and stability are to be found inside herself, not in other people, and this significant growth gives us hope that she might respond differently next time, even if not in an explicitly or even implicitly African way. There are many roads, after all, to the divine.
* * *
The sealskin coat
A final strain of folklore suggests the way forward for Jadine and Son both. Though unexpected, and perhaps unintentional on Morrison’s part, a small element of Jadine’s plot arc bears an instructive resemblance to the Scottish folklore of the selkie.
Selkies are seals with the ability to transform into human beings. They do so by removing their seal skins, which they must put on again before they can return to their homes in the sea. The typical selkie folktale pattern, at least for those involving female selkies, features a fisherman who secretly observes the sea maidens dancing naked on the shore. He steals one of their skins, making it impossible for one of them to escape, and she is unwillingly forced into the role of the fisherman’s wife. Sometimes in these tales, the selkie is even happy as a human wife; but invariably, she eventually finds the hidden seal-skin, recovers it, and returns to the sea to be with her own people.
Significantly, no prince or other male hero rescues them; the selkie must take matters into their own hands. This folklore highlights an important theme in Tar Baby: the necessity for self-rescue and self-determination rather than rescue by the hands of others, which can actually be stifling and counter-productive.
Morrison doesn’t dwell heavily on the selkie elements in her novel, but they are there. In chapter 4, Jadine luxuriates, naked, in a gift given to her by her French fiancé, Ryk: a coat made of “the hides of ninety baby seals stitched together so nicely you could not tell what part had sheltered their cute little hearts and which had cushioned their skulls.”
Her nakedness within the skin marks her as a selkie figure, since she is comfortable and at home in its physical, sensate pleasures. She later notes that there is something seductive about the coat, and when Son is finally discovered hiding in the house (as the fisherman hides, observing the selkie), Jadine sheds the coat and Son focuses not on her, but on it.
Though Son never actually steals the coat, it is significant that Jadine’s sealskin remains on the island when they leave, safely hidden there for the entire time that they are together. As their quarrel reaches its lowest point in chapter 9, there is “sealskin in her eyes,” and when the relationship does finally implode, and Jadine leaves Son to resume her single life, Morrison suggests that it is mainly to regain the sealskin that she returns to Isle des Chevaliers a final time.
The theme this folklore points to is the need for self-rescue and self-actualization. The fact that Son and Jadine try to find rescue in each other rather than in their own selves is one reason for their ultimate disintegration as a couple. Son sees the relationship “all as a rescue…[an] escape from the plantation,” and believes he must protect Jadine’s “birdlike defenselessness” with “a world of steel and down for her to flourish in.” Jadine is just as committed to rescuing Son from a life of poverty and irresponsible blame-assigning, “feeling superior in a cradle,” wishing to gift him with a larger world where he can make something of himself that the entire world can respect.
For a little while, this works. Jadine is happy, content, feels “cherished and safeguarded” now that Son has “unorphaned her completely.” Both feel happy and fulfilled even when life is not what they wish it to be.
But this strategy is ultimately untenable. While it is not the cause of their relationship’s breakdown, it does more to hasten it than anything else. “Each was pulling the other away from the maw of hell—its very ridge top. Each knew the world as it was meant or ought to be.” And each ultimately drives the other away with their inability to compromise on their vision of what the other’s rescue should look like.
Lauren Lepow accurately diagnoses the problem: “Both Jade and Son know, long before they know one another, that the individual’s only possible redeemer is self. They lose their grasp on the knowledge when they try to become one another’s Messiahs.”
Finally, Jadine leaves Son in New York and embarks on a new life, alone. As she collects her sealskin from the island, it is as if she is returning to a more solid, perhaps even a more mature sense of herself, as she has clearly learned something from her ordeal with Son: “No more dreams of safety. No more…. A grown woman did not need safety or its dreams. She was the safety she longed for” (emphasis mine).
As with the selkie, Jadine rescues herself by reclaiming herself and her ability to define what her life should be on her own terms, apart from a lover who would control her and keep her in his own narrow view of life.
Again, this is something Jadine already knew before Son. She was not rescued from the tar swamp, but dragged herself out. Redemption, as Lepow writes, “must involve the discovery or rediscovery that, to be truly meaningful, the voice of authority must come from within; it must not arise from some arbitrary system.”
Son, too, seems to have made this discovery, or at least to have begun to make it, by the end of the novel. When he runs into the island’s forest toward the blind horsemen, he does so with a new sense of purpose, “looking neither to the left nor to the right,” suggesting the beginning of a new clearheadedness. Perhaps he, too, is beginning to reclaim himself.
Both Son and Jadine already have everything they need. While she may deny her ancient properties, they are within her already, resources waiting to be remembered and drawn on.
In choosing the safety and stability of herself, Jadine unknowingly takes a step closer to African spirituality—the very ancient properties she has supposedly forgotten—since the spiritual forces of Oshun, Shango, and the Ajé, among other things, “represent the potential for self-realization,” as Zauditu-Selassie says.
Son, on the other hand, assents to the solitude of the island that Thérèse offers him, as well as the chance to rebuilt and reclaim himself that it provides. Suffering has helped both of them to grow, to reclaim their selves as their own, knowing that others neither will nor can save them: that they alone are the only rightful and healthy sources of their own self-esteem and self-regard.
* * *
The novel ends in a moment of dynamic motion, suggesting that life for Son and Jadine, like the tale of Br’er Rabbit and his many trickster brethren and sistren, remains unfinished, and is always “to be continued…”
Tar Baby avoids neat, convenient conclusions, solutions, or morals, but rather invites us to explore complexity and tension and to become comfortable and at home in such things. Perhaps, we might conclude, these tensions are not conflicts at all, but the raucous quality of life resulting from diversity and unpredictability — in short, from life as it really is.
Throughout the novel, folklore aids in this project of Morrison’s, showing us why folklore is such a stable source of cultural unity. It draws people together without eliminating difference or variety—rather encouraging these things—and allows us to see the underlying connectivity, unity, and commonality that we as people share with each other and the rest of the sacred universe. Folklore, in other words, is a kind of tar, the sort of ancient property that we may seldom think about, but is impossible for anyone to entirely forget.