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On a dark night, a black man stands on the deck of a ship,
looking into the harbor of Queen of France, near the island of Dominique. After
looking around and making sure he has not forgotten anything, he
jumps overboard and swims parallel to the island, intending to first
put distance between himself and the ship and then to head toward
land. But when he tries to turn toward the island, a powerful current
seizes him and turns him away. The force of the water is described
as the gentle pressing of a woman. He tries again, and again the
current pulls him under and then away. Instead of fighting the water,
he decides to float, and as he does he contemplates the night sky
and the darkness of the water around him. He seems to blend into
the water, because both it and his skin are very dark. Then he sees
a boat anchored not too far away. The “water-lady” releases her
grasp, and he swims to the boat. Climbing aboard, he hears voices
belowdecks and hides himself in a closet, where he quickly falls
Awakened by the sound of women’s voices, he tries to listen
to their conversation. The man has not heard a women’s voice in
so long that the sound stirs something within him. A woman drops
a bottle from the upper deck, and it rolls to the door behind which
he is hiding. A beautiful, very manicured white hand covered with rings
reaches into his hiding space to fetch the bottle and then disappears.
He senses that he is the only man aboard. In the closet, he finds
miniature oranges from decorative trees and eats the bitter fruit.
He notices that the boat is heading out, away from Queen of France,
and he hears the engine cut when it draws up to a pier. The women
go ashore, and the man scavenges for food. He finds only empty white
takeout containers, some condiments, and Norwegian flat bread. He
cannot see much land beneath the star-filled sky. The narrator recalls
a legend: 300 years ago the first slaves
brought there went blind upon seeing the island.
The narrative style of the prologue portrays Morrison’s
love of storytelling. She reveals facts slowly and through the accumulation
of detail, rather than through blunt exposition. The man’s identity
is not revealed, although important details can be gleaned from
his context: He is black, accustomed to lying about his identity,
and has not heard a woman’s voice for a long time. Similarly, Morrison
only indirectly hints at the history of Isle des Chevaliers by revealing
that the sight of it struck slaves blind 300 years
The prologue emphasizes a major theme in Tar Baby:
the conflict between nature and civilization. Morrison establishes
the conflict initially by personifying nature—that is, by giving
nature human qualities. Morrison describes the strength of the water
in the harbor as the assertive push of a women’s hand. The water
even has a feminine name: the water-lady. In fact, the water-lady
appears to be leading the man along a certain path because the current
remains forceful when the man tries to fight it back to shore and
sets the man free when he sees the boat. Nature seems to be telling
the man that he must swim to the boat and board it. In Tar
Baby, nature is not just an abstract, impersonal force;
it possesses personality and desires, which it then acts to fulfill.
In the prologue, the man’s desire to swim to the island, and nature’s
insistence that he cannot, previews the conflict between nature
and civilization that will appear throughout the rest of the novel.
Morrison also introduces a key motif in the prologue:
the blackness of nature. Black characters tend to have a closer
relationship to nature. For example, when the man jumps into the
water, he is so dark that he blends in with the waves. He connects
at this moment with the natural world in a direct way. In contrast,
the white women on the boat have clearly lost touch with nature.
On the boat, the man finds a decorative orange tree, a natural object
that has had its usefulness bred out of it. The women have polished
fingernails and need suntan oil; they do not work, and they must
protect themselves against the natural force of the sun. Most strikingly,
the women have not cooked dinner and instead warm up takeout they
brought from shore. The white, wealthy class has lost touch with
the most natural of human functions: preparing and eating food.