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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.