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Jadine and Son travel to Eloe, Florida. When they get
there, Jadine cannot believe how rural and small the town looks.
The first stop is at the home of Son’s friend Soldier. When Son
talks to Soldier, he uses a lot of slang and a different language
pattern than the one Jadine is accustomed to hearing. Son asks Jadine
if she will stay with Soldier and his wife, Ellen, while Son goes
to see his father. She is reluctant because she has trouble understanding
the style of speech that Eloe’s residents use and because she is
upset at the division she notices between men and women. Eventually
she agrees to stay behind, and Son goes to see his father, whom
everyone calls Old Man.
As he approaches Old Man’s house, Son thinks it looks
smaller than he remembered it. While he waits for Old Man to get
home, Son thinks about his brothers and sisters, all of whom have
scattered. When Old Man returns, he looks at Son and drops some onions
onto the floor in surprise. Son asks Old Man if he received the
money orders Son sent, and Old Man says he did but that he was reluctant
to redeem them, out of fear of drawing attention to Son’s whereabouts.
Old Man tells Son that he and Jadine cannot stay together in Eloe
because they are unmarried and that Jadine should stay with Aunt
Rosa. Son initially objects to this plan, but Old Man replies that
since Son told him the truth, he must obey the rules. He also tells
Son that Cheyenne’s mother is now dead and that Son should be safe
in Eloe. As Son leaves, Old Man asks Son why he never wrote any
messages with the money orders. Son is embarrassed and makes an
excuse that he did not want to give away where he was.
Back at Soldier’s, while Son was gone Jadine grew bored.
To amuse herself, she began taking pictures of Eloe residents. But
when Son returns, he angrily grabs the camera away. Jadine is hurt
and also unhappy to learn that she must sleep at Aunt Rosa’s. They
go to a dive joint with music, and before Son drops her off for
the night, they manage to have sex in the car. She thinks no one
knows about it, but he knows everyone does.
At Rosa’s, Jadine falls asleep right away, but in the
middle of the night she wakes up feeling claustrophobic. She thinks
that Eloe is blacker than any place she has ever been and loud with
plants and animals. Rosa appears, having been woken by Jadine’s
movements, and she finds that Jadine is naked. She gives Jadine
a nightgown and refers to her as her daughter. She makes Jadine
feel ashamed about her nakedness, and Jadine looks forward to Sunday
when she and Son are supposed to leave Eloe. In the morning Jadine
finds Son sitting in the kitchen. She thinks he is beautiful and
wants to sit in his lap but feels constrained by the presence of
Drake and Soldier, who look at Son with the same admiration she
feels. They admire him and Jadine both.
Sunday arrives, and while Son drives Aunt Rosa to church, Jadine
stays behind with Soldier. Soldier tells Jadine about Cheyenne and
says that Son should never have married her. He asks her if she
and Son will get married, and she says she does not know but that
she guesses so. Jadine feels uncomfortable and tells Soldier that he
asks too many questions. He tells her that she has a temper and then
asks if she or Son is controlling their relationship. She responds that
neither of them is controlling it. Soldier tells her this is a good thing
because Son does not like being controlled. Soldier then tells her
that she should plan on staying longer in Eloe because Ernie Paul is
on his way to visit, and Son will want to wait.
When Son returns, Jadine wants to leave, but he persuades
her into staying by telling her that he will sneak into Rosa’s to
sleep with her. She reflects to herself that the people of Eloe
think sex is dirty and strange, but she decides to stay. They go
for a drive, and she takes pictures until she runs out of film.
At night Son sneaks into Jadine’s room, and while they make love
Jadine feels as if she is somehow in competition with Cheyenne.
Son falls asleep, and Jadine realizes that she left the door unlatched
when she let Son in.
She imagines that all of the black women from her life
and from Son’s have crept through the open door and stand in the
bedroom. This feeling unnerves her, and she tries to wake Son so
he will go shut the door, but he will not wake. Finally she yells
at them, and the women bare their breasts to her. One of the women
present is the woman with the yellow dress, and she holds out the
eggs Jadine had seen her with in Paris. Jadine begins to cry, and
Son wakes up. He holds her until morning arrives.
In the morning, Jadine feels like Eloe is “rotten,” and
she reflects that all those stories she heard about southern small
towns being pleasant and romantic were lies told by those who could
not live anywhere else. After she arrives back in New York by herself,
she waits for Son to arrive, but he does not return when he had
said he would. At first Jadine does not mind his absence, but as
time passes, she begins to feel angry and like an orphan again.
In the meantime, she looks for a place for them to live and analyzes
the nightmare she had in Eloe.
When Son finally returns to the city, he and Jadine fight
frequently. She wants him to get an education or to run a store
with her, and she suggests taking financial assistance from Valerian,
but Son rejects the idea of asking Valerian for anything. They fight
physically, with him hitting her and her biting and slapping him.
She says that she has taken every opportunity presented to her in
her life and worked to make the best of it, while he has been consistently
lazy. In response, he holds her out the window by her wrists, and
she is so scared that she wets her pants. She does not apologize,
however, and instead asks him if he wants to be “a yardman” all
his life. He yells that Yardman’s name is Gideon and that all her
education has been useless if it has not taught her about the world’s
racial realities and the hardships faced by people like Gideon and
himself. Once he has gotten his say, he pulls her back in the window,
and they sweetly make up.
Later, Son proposes going back to work in the shipping
industry, and Jadine accuses him of wanting to escape now that things
are hard and of being afraid of New York. He says he can make it
in New York and that he is not afraid. He also tells her that she
cannot understand where he is coming from because she is not from
anywhere, whereas he is from Eloe. Jadine tells him that she is
fine not being from anywhere if it means not being from Eloe, since
Eloe is terrible. They continue to fight about the future, but he
asks her to marry him and she says yes, on the condition that he
goes to school. He agrees to this proposal but asks that they get
their own apartment. Jadine begins to fill out applications for
schools for Son. She is starting to look old and as a result has
trouble getting modeling work. She talks about Eloe as a cradle
to Son, and it angers him that she makes living in Eloe sound easy,
when in reality life in Eloe is very hard. He tries to imagine what
kind of woman Jadine will be in fifty years and wonders if she will
grow to be like Thérèse, Ondine, or Aunt Rosa as she ages.
In September, with two weeks to go until registration
for school, a dividend check arrives in the mail with interest from
a stock Valerian had given to Jadine. Son refuses to put money from
Valerian toward his education, and his refusal angers Jadine. They
both feel that their efforts to save each other are failing, and
Jadine realizes she is not saving Son from the women who appeared
in her nightmare, while Son realizes he is not rescuing Jadine from
Valerian. Son tells Jadine that there is no such thing as mixing
races and that people either abandon their own race or choose it.
He says that a black woman who raises her child as white is robbing
him of his culture. As he talks, he gets increasingly angry and
physically aggressive and invokes the story of the tar baby before
leaving the apartment for a few hours.
When he returns, Jadine tells him that to move forward
they need to forget the past and that he needs to give up his slave
mentality. She then tells him that anything traced back far enough,
including his first dime made, is soiled with the taint of a history
of racial and sexual violence. She says further that if he pursues
the past, he will only ever get stuck. Furious, Son leaves, and
when he returns, Jadine is gone. He opens an envelope that contains
Jadine’s pictures from Eloe and finds that his friends and family
members all look ridiculous and stupid. He determines that he must
The narrator shows the distinction in returning to a slower
place when switching from Isle de Chevaliers to Son’s small hometown
of Eloe. Whereas in New York experiences flowed over and through Jadine
and Son, in Eloe time slows down. Every event of the days is noted,
and the passing of the hours takes time, especially when Jadine
longs to return to New York. The slowing of time implies the obligations
Son still has in Eloe. In New York, Jadine and Son were free to
create a relationship that was in many ways a fantasy, free from
responsibilities to family, history, or anything other than their love
for each other. In Eloe, though, they must confront the fact that they
are from different cultures and that they value different things in
Son’s values are clear from his deep pleasure in returning
to Eloe and his willingness to embrace the town’s rules. The soundless laughter
and the fierce hug he gives to Soldier when he arrives signal a
deeper joy than he has shown in the rest of the novel. Son instantly returns
to the rural black slang, which Jadine finds incomprehensible. This
switch in speech patterns shows how Eloe has stayed with him through
all these years. The social codes of the place also have real weight
with him. For example, he is not bothered by having to leave Jadine
with the women and children while he goes off with the men, nor
does he put up much of a fuss when his father insists that she must
sleep at Aunt Rosa’s and not with him. These codes are part of everyday
life in Eloe, and the codes must be respected even when they are
broken, such as when Son and Jadine fool around in the backseat
of his car on the first night of their stay and when he sneaks into
Jadine’s room to sleep with her on the second night of their stay.
Although Son seemed to fit in on Isle des Chevaliers, in reality
he was just changing his outward appearance to match his circumstances,
whether it was gardening with Valerian, eating with Ondine and Sydney,
or even flirting with Jadine. None of those experiences altered
his true self, the one that grew up in Eloe and remained there,
even during his absence.
The relationship between Son and his father demonstrates
how much Son considers Eloe his true home. In particular, the significance
of their names implies that Eloe was an entirely different kind of
place to grow up. Old Man has been called “Old Man” since he was
seven years old, and no one calls him Franklin Green. The implication
is that Old Man is his true name, the one that emerged organically
from the course of his life. When Old Man had a son, it was also
natural that the baby was called Old Man’s son until the second
child was born and the first became simply Son. Franklin Green and
William Green are the names that the outside world uses for these
men. In Eloe, the only place where they are truly known, they are
just Old Man and Son.
For Jadine, Eloe is a nightmare of restriction and oppression.
She does not understand the rules that keep her set aside with the women
or prevent her from sleeping in Old Man’s house. To her the rules
seem arbitrary, sexist, and unfair. In a sense Jadine is uncomfortable
because of her specific familial history. As an orphan, raised by
Ondine and Sydney but educated and patronized by Valerian, she has
never had a true family, one that could tie her down and teach her
the complex sets of obligations and responsibilities that make up family
life. Instead she has learned to value her freedom above anything
else. Her values could be described as cosmopolitan—that is to say,
she values being a part of a general global community defined by
tolerance and opportunity, instead of being part of a specific, local
community defined by obligation and history. Placed in the deeply
rooted world of Eloe, therefore, she feels oppressed. This sense
of oppression is also tied to her desire to be free of the burden of
blackness. Jadine clearly does not identify with the residents of Eloe,
nor does she want to. Therefore, Eloe is a dreadful place to her, and
she cannot understand why Son is so drawn toward the town when she
cannot stand it.
Throughout Tar Baby, the narrator has
emphasized the connection between blackness and nature, a connection
that is stressed again in this chapter, when the blackness of the
night in Eloe frightens Jadine. The narrator also emphasizes the
connection between nature and a woman’s role as a mother, implying
that motherhood is a woman’s most natural state. Jadine cleary does
not identify with these traits and her nightmare brings all of these
forces together. All around her, black women from her past and from
Son’s past assemble and show their breasts to her. The women are
insisting that Jadine should accept her role as a nurturer and propagator
of the black race, an interpretation reinforced by the eggs that
the woman in the yellow dress holds. When Jadine rejects this role
of motherhood, she is also by implication rejecting her blackness.
The morning following the dream, she rejects Eloe’s ties to the
past as well when she reflects that Eloe is not full of life and
does not have a future. Jadine does not want to look back. She wants
to look forward, and she wants to be free to create her own identity
outside of the confines of nature, race, sex, and history.
Jadine’s and Son’s different experiences in Eloe show
that they have irreconcilable values. Just as when Son shared his
dream of his original dime and Jadine found it to be contemptible
for fulfilling black stereotypes, the two of them interpret Eloe
differently. To Son, Eloe is home. To Jadine, the place is a lie
and a joke, the epitome of rural blacks embracing backwardness and
closed-mindedness. The arguments between Son and Jadine emphasize
a difference in their values and upbringings. Their violent argument
in which he hangs her out the window is a good example of this irreconcilable
clash. Jadine insists that Son should be educated because that is
the only way that he can succeed in the real world. This is the
way Jadine was raised, and she believes that everyone should go
to school as she did when she was in Paris. However, because Son
was brought up in a different environment, he does not understand
the importance of school. Therefore, Son insists that education
is nonsense because it does not include people like Gideon, Old
Man, and him in it—“true” black people, in his mind, people who
represent his roots. By telling Jadine that he does not want to
give up his roots, Son is saying that he cannot live in her “civilized”
The connections between youth and power are emphasized
when Jadine begins to look old while filling out Son’s school applications. Her
tiredness reflects her loss of control and influence in her relationship
with Son. Although Son decided to go to school, Jadine—and not Son—is
filling out the applications. Despite her influence on Son, Jadine
knows he is not happy with their agreement that he attend school,
and she sees that Son is only considering it because Jadine will
marry him if he does. Her aged face also displays her unhappiness.
Though Jadine tries to convince herself that she will be happy when
Son is in school, she knows he will not want to be there and this
knowledge makes her unhappy. Even though Jadine does not voice her
fears to Son, her worries wear on her face, and the modeling jobs
are not coming as quickly as they used to because of her tired and
older appearance. Now, Jadine does not have control over her professional
and personal life.
Jadine and Son have differing interpretations of the tar
baby story. The narrator presents fully empathetic characters with
different points of view, and these views are seen here clearly.
In the story of the tar baby, a white farmer makes a figure out
of tar to catch a wily rabbit that wants to steal his cabbages.
When the rabbit hits the scarecrow, it gets stuck in the tar. The
more it struggles to escape, the more ensnared it becomes in the
sticky substance. Son thinks that he is the clever trickster and
rabbit, and Jadine is the tar baby that has enticed him with fake
blackness until he has become caught in her and cannot free himself.
The reason Son cannot free himself of Jadine is because he loves
her. However, for Jadine, Son is stuck in his imagination of the
past, unable to free himself and clinging to the tar baby when he
could just let go. What Jadine does not want to realize is that
Son is tied to his roots and will never let go. The tar baby story
helps to identify Son’s and Jadine’s true differences.
Both Jadine and Son argue from a place of honesty that
is grounded in their personal experiences. In that honest grounding
is the impact of Tar Baby’s underlying argument:
that one cannot simply choose to be either rooted or rootless, white
or black, rich or poor. Jadine and Son are both black, but this
does not make them the same. While Son is comfortable with his roots
and has worked hard all his life, Jadine feels more comfortable
in the white European culture. She does not work hard, since she
knows Valerian will support her. Therefore, even though Jadine and
Son understand one another, they cannot completely understand where
the other is coming from because they were raised so differently.