Although some important parts of the novel take place in the city or inside of L’Arbe de la Croix, Morrison also sets many scenes outdoors, and she frequently describes different aspects of nature. How do you think the natural world affects the characters in the novel?

The natural world serves a number of functions in Tar Baby. It both helps Morrison define characters and acts as half of one of the novel’s defining thematic oppositions: nature versus civilization. Those characters, like Thérèse and Son, who spend a lot of time out of doors and in the midst of nature, firmly value the ties of heritage, family, and race. They believe strongly in the importance of place, and they also believe in the power and reality of myth. These characters are so comfortable with the natural world that they often seem like a part of it: Thérèse’s preference for working out of doors, as well as Son’s blending in with the blackness of the ocean and the sky at the beginning of the novel, are two examples of this kind of harmony. Conversely, those characters, like Jadine, who are uncomfortable in nature, and who prefer the life of the city, struggle with their sense of identity. They hesitate to identify strongly with a particular race or gender, and they feel skeptical about the power of myths. When Jadine gets stuck in the swamp on Isle des Chevaliers, or when she feels threatened by the blackness of the night sky in Eloe, she shows readers just how scary it is for her to be stuck in the midst of nature and people of her race or people who are not educated in the same way she is. In both situations, she has a very negative reaction against nature’s power and scale.

At the end of the novel, Son has a choice between two possible courses of action. He can either join the wild horsemen of Isle des Chevaliers or follow Jadine to Paris. Why do you think he pursues the wild horsemen?

Tar Baby ends on a very ambiguous note, and it seems equally plausible that Son goes off into the wilds of the island as that he trails Jadine to Paris. Both the narrator and Thérèse described the horsemen as direct descendants of the first slaves to arrive at the island and as people who are so familiar with the natural world of the island that they can navigate its landscape blind. Son gives many indications throughout the novel that he values racial connection and the natural world, so it makes sense that he might choose to ally himself with such clear symbols of these things as the horsemen are. Yet Son seems to change his mind about what he values at the end of Chapter Nine, after Jadine leaves him. His feeling that the people of Eloe look stupid in her pictures, as well as his decision to follow her to Isle des Chevaliers, both suggest that he might now place a love for Jadine above a love of his race and nature. Still, by following Jadine to Paris, Son would affirm Jadine’s control over him. Soldier told Jadine in Chapter Nine that Son does not like being controlled, so it seems unlikely that Son will leave to find Jadine in the end. It is also evident in Chapter Five that Son wants to believe his actions are not influenced by anyone else when he reflects that he did not follow any women to the island. In the beginning of the book, Son believed that Eloe was his home, but his opinion has changed. And now Jadine is determined that Son not find her, which forces Son to realize that she is not in love with him anymore. By joining the wild horsemen, Son gets a fresh start. Son is a true man of nature, so uniting with the wild horsemen seems like the natural path to take.

Who do you think the most sympathetic character in the book is, and why?

This question can convincingly be answered in many different ways, in large part because the perspective of the narrative shifts frequently among many different characters. The changing viewpoints allow the reader to develop an understanding and sympathy for the actions and decisions of all of the major characters, and the reader also gets to see the limitations of each of them too. The reader can see how claustrophobic and oppressed Jadine feels in Eloe, but the reader can also see that she seems prejudiced and selfish when the view shifts to Son’s perspective. Conversely, Son is violent toward Jadine in New York after she tells him that he is not smart enough and that he is spoiled for wanting to stay ignorant and not attend school . But in his mind, these words insult his most basic values and beliefs. Still, Son’s violence is terrifying and inexcusable. Morrison typically works the pattern of shifting perspectives such that each event or person will have a direct point of opposition within a chapter or even within a section of a chapter. As such, the reader constantly gets to see the same comment or event through two sets of eyes. This technique makes the novel’s scale of sympathy seem very balanced throughout. Indeed, even when it comes to Margaret’s abuse of Michael, a pattern of behavior that seems absolutely inexcusable, we maintain some sympathy for her, because the narrator gives us both Margaret’s perspective and a sense of Valerian’s cruel past actions.