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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Morrison refers to the tar baby story repeatedly, particularly in relation to Jadine and Son. According to the folktale, a farmer sets out to catch a cabbage-stealing rabbit by building a baby-shaped scarecrow out of tar. When the usually clever rabbit encounters this tar baby in the cabbage field, the rabbit tries to shake hands. Not knowing that the baby is fake, the rabbit gets angry and starts to hit it, only to get caught in the tarry surface. The rabbit continues to hit the baby until more and more of their limbs are entangled, and in this way the rabbit gets totally trapped.
Morrison has noted that she reads the tar baby story as a “love story.” In her foreword to the novel, Morrison explains that she finds the mysteries and ambiguities of the story particularly compelling. The encounter between the rabbit and the tar baby, Morrison theorizes, might represent a seductive woman and clever male who face off and then find themselves bound together. In the novel, Son sees Jadine as a tar baby figure. He imagines that she was set in his path by the hands of white people to arrest his progress, but, like the rabbit that also gets caught in the tar, Son cannot resist temptation, so he too finds himself trapped. On their way back from the picnic, Jadine falls into a swamp and literally gets stuck in tar. This experience shows that although Son too has the potential to entrap Jadine, she has the strength to resist and escape.
The wild horsemen represent people with a pure relationship to nature and to their race. These men supposedly roam Isle des Chevaliers. In the version of their history that Thérèse tells to Son, the men descend from the first slaves who landed on the island. Like these slaves, who lost their vision when the island came into sight, the wild horsemen also are blind. But their blindness does not cause them problems, because they are so familiar with the island’s terrain that they can navigate it sightless. Thérèse and Son, in particular, admire the horsemen, since they descend directly from Africans and live in the wild. While Son finds them appealing on these grounds, Jadine finds the men frightening for those same reasons. When she gets stuck in the swamp, Jadine worries that the horsemen or their female companions will do her violence. At the end of the novel, Thérèse drops Son off at a foggy part of the island, somewhat encouraging him to join the horsemen, but readers do not know whether Son ultimately becomes a wild horseman or tries to find Jadine.
Morrison often uses the color black to describe nature and the elements of the natural world. At the beginning of the novel, Son swims in the black ocean, beneath the black sky. The swamp where Jadine nearly gets stuck has at its center a pit of black tar. Similarly, Jadine complains about and fears the darkness of the night in Eloe, a manifestation of how overwhelmed and out of place she feels there. Those characters like Son and Thérèse, who are most comfortable with the natural world, often seem to blend in with the black parts of it. The wild horsemen take the association between a comfort with nature and a comfort with blackness to a logical extreme: Black themselves, they competently navigate the island’s wild hills in the darkness of their blindness. In contrast, Jadine’s experiences show how characters who prefer civilization to nature or who reject their roots find nature’s blackness disquieting.