Valerian dominates the other characters. A wealthy man, he employs most of the black characters, including Sydney, Ondine, Gideon, and Thérèse. He plays patron to Jadine, paying for her education in Paris, and also sometimes acts like a father figure to Son. Margaret’s marriage to Valerian saved her from a hardscrabble life in Maine. Though she hates life on the island, Valerian refuses to return to the United States. These economic connections make the other characters subservient to Valerian: They must listen to what he says, because he controls the purse strings. Valerian’s high degree of power is symbolized by his greenhouse: There, he controls which plants live and which plants die. He seems to have created the life he has always wanted on Isle des Chevaliers.

But as Tar Baby continues, Valerian loses power and control. By the end of the novel, he has weakened to the point of vulnerability and senility. The news about Margaret’s abuse of their son totally incapacitates Valerian, in part because he realizes just how little control he ever exerted over people in his life. He was a powerful businessman, but he lacked the power to create a loving environment for his wife and son, and he was powerless to stop Margaret’s horrible tendencies. Morrison reflects his weakened position through the novel’s narrative structure. Whereas the first part of the novel explores Valerian’s memories and present-day perspective, the final section barely touches on Valerian. He becomes almost invisible, a representation of his diminished stature.