Thesis Paper

Tar Tales

The stories our parents tell us in the days of our childhood etch permanent impressions in our minds. The traditional children’s story “Tarbaby,” for example, impresses on children’s mind the relationship between blacks and whites in American society through simple metaphor.  The tar baby in the story symbolizes the troubles created by white people in which black people tend to get stuck.  The set of symbols from this story can be seen in Morrison’s novel Tar Baby.  The novel revolves around the tensions created by discrepancies between modern culture and archetypal gender roles along with cultural tradition. Morrison uses the tar baby image as a metaphor for the way that modern black people entangle themselves in these discrepancies.

            In order to understand the references in Morrison’s Tar Baby, it is necessary to explain briefly the traditional story “Tarbaby.”  In the story, Brer Fox, representative of white society in Morrison’s Tar Baby, tries to catch Brer Rabbit, representative of black society, by making a baby out of tar and placing it in the road for Brer Rabbit to cross.  When Brer Rabbit crosses the tar baby’s path, he attempts several times to talk to it. Due to its insistent silence, he proceeds to give the tar baby the beating of its lifetime,  becoming stuck in the process.  He escapes from the trap by convincing Brer Fox that the worst possible punishment would be for him to throw Brer Rabbit back into the briar patch from which he came.  Once back on his home turf, Brer Rabbit can easily remove the sticky tar from his fur and escape Brer Fox.

            With that cleared up, we can discuss the implications of this tale in Morrison’s novel.  Jadine plays the most obvious role of the tar baby in the novel: modern white culture supercedes the black culture of her ancestors, giving her a  “sense of self [that] is based upon a denial of her own cultural heritage and an identification with one that is not her own” (Appiah 284).  Her wealthy Anglo-Saxon benefactor, Valerian, provides her with the funds necessary to acquire a French education in Paris, where she begins a modeling career.  Her education convinces her of the superiority of European culture over the culture of her African ancestors, and she attempts to justify why she distances herself from that culture (Appiah 288). She prefers Ave Maria over Gospel music and Picasso over Itumba masks, saying that “the fact that [Picasso] was intrigued by [the Itumba masks] is proof of his genius, not the mask-makers” (Appiah and Gates 288). Thus, she is a product of white society, endowed with white biases by a white benefactor.  This undermines her role as a woman by replacing the traditional ideal of womanhood-maternalism-with the modern ideals of magazine glamour and paychecks. 

Jadine’s westernization separates her from her African roots, a loss which she  feels acutely, albeit unconsciously.  This stirs formless thoughts from the depths of her mind to the point of surfacing into her conscious mind in the form of visions of archetypal African women.  They thrust their breasts at her, attempting to wake her up to the emasculated product of white culture that she has become: Brer Rabbit is unsuccessfully trying to tear himself from the tar baby. She understands that they are telling her that she is not a woman, but she does not truly understand because she tells them that “[she] has breasts, too!” interpreting their metaphorical message much too literally (Morrison 258).  She suffers from a confusion of social roles, “particular functions that a person plays as a member of a social group,” being sculpted into a role of educated paycheck-earning previously set aside for white males while her body and unconscious scream at her that she remains a black woman (Saroson 90).  Morrison considers the adventuresome spirit that drives one such as Jadine to travel from place to place a masculine trait (Guthrie-Taylor 27).  The presence of this masculine trait creates a sticky situation within Jadine. Through these visions, her unconscious, full of feminine archetypes that mismatch what she has become, tries to yank her free from this tar baby her westernization has made of her. The women in her visions are a warning about the dangers of rejecting her cultural heritage (Appiah 287).

            Conversely, the conscious part of Jadine gets stuck in the tar baby of the woman in the yellow dress that she sees in a supermarket in Paris.  Jadine describes her as having “skin like tar,” thus drawing a direct correlation to the tar baby story (Morrison 45).  The woman holds three eggs, the egg being a symbol directly associated with the mother archetype (Jung 81).  She goes on to describe her as “that woman’s woman-that mother/sister/she;” to Jadine, she symbolizes femininity and, like Brer Rabbit, Jadine wants to talk to the tar baby figure (Morrison 46).  However, the tar woman only spits at her, disrespecting her like the tar baby does Brer Rabbit.  This instance shakes the foundation of Jadine’s conception of herself, for here walks a woman that the “modeling agency would laugh ... out of the lobby,” that nonetheless transfixes her and everybody else in the store and regards her with contempt sufficient for the tar woman to spit at her (Morrison 45). 

Jadine’s preoccupation with her various tar babies causes many of her conflicts with other characters; in particular, Son.  He receives the bulk of both Jadine’s positive and negative feelings that spring from her inner conflicts, and this is to be expected: he has all of the qualities that Jadine is missing and unconsciously desires.  Son is the total opposite of Jadine: he is very black (all the way down to the dreadlocks), he comes from a very small, rural, all black town, and he has the unequivocal contempt for whites that characterizes isolated Southern blacks.  This connection to his roots intrigues Jadine, luring her by both inviting her conscious self to shape him out of his lazy and old-fashioned ways and perking the ears of the women within her with the possibility of bringing the archetypal woman out in her.  In effect, she becomes stuck on him. This is yet another example of Morrison using allusion to the original “Tarbaby.”  Her European mindset tries to blind her conscious self to her obvious attraction to him all the way up to when they start having sex.  The part of her that conjures up the visions of femininity also causes her ultimately irrepressible fascination with this archetypal African man.  Her attraction to him surfaces through the filter of her education: in his face she saw “spaces, mountains, savannas,” images of Africa that resonate deep within her, but that she explains away by telling herself that she has taken “too many art history courses” (Morrison 158).  The conscious, tar baby part of her mind rationalizes itself into denial of this resonance.  This attitude of Jadine’s conscious self eventually causes the fights that lead to their split, for modern ideals are too deeply rooted in her to remove and they disagree venomously with Son’s more traditional ideals 

Just as Jadine falls victim to Son’s stickiness, so does Son get stuck on Jadine. He is also aware of Jadine’s shortcomings as a black women, and he attempts to mold Jadine into his own image with his background and ideas.  On instance of Son wanting Jadine to have the same foundation as him is when he yells at her, “You’re not from anywhere.  I’m from Eloe” in one of their many fights while in New York (Morrison 266). Of course, Jadine’s will and background make her about as moldable as a concrete pylon.  Even at the end of the novel, after Jadine goes to Son’s “briar patch,” Son is still stuck on Jadine and searches for her. 

Morrison uses Jadine and Son to “illustrate the consequences of rejecting one’s cultural heritage” and by using the “Tarbaby” story, she becomes a “cultural archivist” (Appiah 291).  By creating a protagonist that cannot grow into the archetypal woman in her mind, Morrison gives the reader a way to understand the contradictions of the traditional verses the modern within Jadine and, by extension, within society (Appiah 290).  To become this woman, Jadine feels she would need to become one of the “fat black ladies serving pies in the church basement,” betraying the modern woman that she has become in the process (Bloom 111).  Regardless of humanity’s past and the archetypes sculpted by this past, Jadine’s modern environment, with all of its magazines and paychecks, sculpts her conscious mind.  By considering this dilemma common to nearly all modern people, the reader can understand the cause and effect of a tar baby in one’s life. 


Works Cited

Appiah, K.A. and Henry Louis Gates Jr.  Toni Morrison:  Critical Perspectives Past and Present.  New York:  Amistad Press, Inc., 1993.

Bloom, Harold.  Modern Critical Views:  Toni Morrison.  New York:  Chelsea House Publishers, 1990. 

Geis, Darlene.  Walt Disney’s Treasury of Children’s Classics.  New York:  Disney Press, 1995.

Guthrie-Taylor, Danille.  Conversations with Toni Morrison.  Jackson:  University Press Of Mississippi, 1994. 

Morrison, Toni.  Tar Baby.  New York:  Penguin Books USA Inc., 1981.

Sarason, Barbara R. and Irwin G. Sarason.  Abnormal Psychology:  The Problem of Maladaptive Behavior.  New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996.

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