Full Title  Tar Baby

Author Toni Morrison

Type of Work Novel

Genre Postcolonial novel; African American novel; city novel; romance novel; historical novel

Language English

Time and Place Written  1980s, New York City

Date of first Publication  1981

Publisher Vintage Books

Narrator A roving anonymous voice narrates the novel.

Point of View Omniscient. The narrator speaks in the third person and tells the reader what many of the different characters in the novel think or feel, particularly Jadine, Son, Valerian, and Margaret. Sometimes the narrator describes scenes as they would appear to an outside observer.

Tone Poetic, factual, colloquial, angry, uncertain

Tense Present and past

Setting (Time) Mostly the late 1970s, but with flashbacks to different moments beginning in the early twentieth century and continuing into the seventies

Setting (Place) L’Arbe de la Croix, Isle des Chevaliers; Paris; New York; Eloe, Florida; Queen of France

Protagonist(s) Jadine Childs and Son

Major Conflict Jadine and Son represent two different ways forward for their race: a pursuit of culture and a pursuit of nature, respectively. The two characters come together as lovers and try to harmonize their oppositions, but in the end they are too different and cannot be synthesized.

Rising Action Son arrives at L’Arbe de la Croix and meets Jadine; the two of them make love for the first time after an emotionally violent Christmas dinner; they run away to New York together and enjoy a solitary life together for a time; they go to Son’s childhood home in Florida.

Climax Jadine is traumatized by a dream she has one night in Florida of women exposing their breasts to her; after her vision she loses interest in her relationship to Son and stops trying to relate to his vision of nature. She goes in search of civilization and culture once again.

Falling Action Jadine goes back to New York. Son follows her, and they fight often. After a particularly exhausting fight, she returns to Isle des Chavaliers and then goes to Paris; Son follows her to the island but likely stays there even though she has left.

Themes The shackles of femininity; nature vs. civilization; the connections between youth and power

Motifs The tar baby story; the myth of the wild horsemen; the blackness of nature

Symbols The greenhouse; hair; the sealskin coat

Foreshadowing The first chapter of the novel foreshadows its closing scene.