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The narrator describes the night’s fog as feeling like
the thin, wispy hair of “maiden aunts.” Jadine, Margaret, and Valerian
sit at dinner, and Sydney waits on them. Valerian gets irritated
at how slowly Margaret eats, but Margaret worries that if she eats
quickly she will make an etiquette mistake. Jadine tries to make
peace by changing the subject to Christmas. As she does so, however,
Margaret accidentally leaves the salad utensils on the table after
serving herself. Valerian, Sydney, and Jadine look horrified by
the mistake, and Margaret feels ashamed.
Jadine picks up the conversation in an attempt to save
dinner, but she is unaware that Christmas is a bad topic. The discussion
turns to whether Michael will come visit, and Valerian says that
there is no chance he will come for Christmas. Margaret asserts
that he will because she has invited his favorite teacher, the poet
B. J. Bridges. She says she hinted about her invitation to Bridges
to Michael by quoting a line from Bridges in a note, and Valerian
makes her doubt that she remembered the quote accurately. They continue
to fight, and Jadine tries to figure out whether their fighting
is more serious and mean-spirited than it was when she first arrived.
More important, she wonders whether this fighting is the kind people
of different ages who have been married for a long time engage in
or if it is something worse.
Valerian apologizes to Jadine and then is silent for a
while, and Jadine feels bored. When Valerian speaks again, he says
that Margaret is nervous that Michael will not come and that he
is nervous Michael will come. Jadine says she does not remember
Michael very well and then recalls that when she and Michael last
spent time together she was in college, and Michael suggested to
her that she was abandoning her racial history by studying art history
at the Sorbonne. Valerian expresses frustration at Michael’s view
of race. He ridicules in particular a scheme Michael had to get
black women on welfare to make and sell African pots, and he asks
if Michael’s criticism bothered Jadine. She says that it did a little.
Although she knew that her roots were not as wonderful as Michael
suggested, she still felt ashamed that she preferred forms of European
culture over African or African American cultures. Valerian remarks
that Michael has not grown up and references The Little
Prince. When Jadine says she has not read the book, Valerian
tells her to read it and pay attention to what it means and not
what it says.
Sydney clears the dishes and continues to serve. Valerian
tells Jadine she is much more sensible than Michael and adds that
he feels that Margaret made Michael into a loser. He then says he
thinks Margaret was too young when she had Michael, and he tells
a story about how when Michael was little, Valerian would come home from
work and find Michael hiding in bathroom cabinet, looking for soft
things and humming to himself. He thinks this indicates that Margaret
neglected Michael, and he wishes he had attended to him more. Now
she is ready to raise him, Valerian says, but Michael is too old
to be mothered. Jadine feels she ought to say something in response
to Valerian’s recollections, but she does not know what to say.
There is silence, and then Margaret enters screaming. Jadine and
Valerian both ask her what is wrong, but she will not answer. Sydney
and Ondine then come in, and Ondine yells at Margaret to tell them
what is going on. Margaret finally stammers that there is something
black in her closet, in her things. Valerian starts to tell her she
is crazy or drunk, but Ondine sends Sydney to investigate with a gun.
Sydney returns holding a black man with dreadlocks at gunpoint.
Valerian asks the man if he would like a drink.
Valerian’s criticism of Margaret at the dinner table emphasizes
the control and dominance he has over Margaret. By belittling Margaret,
Valerian maintains his control in the relationship and makes it known
that he is dominant over her. His control also implies that Valerian
will not consider Margaret’s argument that they return to the States.
He also does not let Margaret win the fight because he does not
want Jadine to think that Margaret is in control. When Margaret
makes a mistake after serving herself some salad, Valerian looks
at her as if she should be cast out of society. Yet Valerian seems to
expect this behavior from Margaret, which is why he reprimands her
and then acts as if nothing had happened. However, Margaret’s embarrassment
after the accident displays her deep insecurity, and the mistake
causes her to feel inferior and stupid. The more Valerian picks
on Margaret, the more she resents living on the island. Valerian
is aware of Margaret’s unhappiness but chooses not to notice because
he is happy there. By ignoring her, Valerian makes Margaret feel
imprisoned on the island, which leads to their fights getting worse.
Valerian’s story of Michael as a young boy suggests his
son’s troubled relationship with Margaret. Since Valerian was not
around during much of Michael’s childhood, Michael was entirely
dependent on Margaret as a parent and role model in life. Margaret’s
random interest and disinterest in her son demonstrates her uncertainty as
a wife and a mother. Since Valerian worked during the day, Margaret
could not take her frustrations over being a mother and wife out
on him, and the blame turned to Michael. When Valerian explains
the various incidents in which he found Michael beneath the bathroom
sink, he theorizes that Michael’s hiding implies that Michael was
afraid of Margaret. Margaret’s behavior has changed, and she is
continually interested in Michael now that he is away. She is convinced
that if she spends time with him, she will be happy. Although Valerian’s
story to Jadine proves that he knows Margaret is unhappy, he continues
to belittle and dominate their conversations and arguments.
Valerian emphasizes the importance of staying youthful
when he references Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book, The
Little Prince. Valerian tells Jadine to pay close attention
to what the book means so that she will not lose sight of what it
feels like to be youthful. The distinction he is drawing is clear:
In the book, lessons are offered about the narrow-sightedness and
selfishness of grown-ups, in contrast to the joyfulness and generosity
of children. Valerian’s point is that what the book actually means
is that children should never grow up. He says this statement because
he thinks Michael wanted to grow up too fast, and Valerian believes
this is foolishness. When Jadine tells the story of how Michael
wanted her to string cowrie beads or sell Afro combs, Valerian’s
disapproval with Michael’s suggestion indicates that he thinks Michael
was too young to have these ideas. He wanted Michael to have an
innocent childhood full of happiness, but instead he thinks Michael
matured too quickly and did not enjoy his youth.
Margaret’s description of “black” in her room reemphasizes
the racial concerns in Tar Baby. When the gathered
members of the household ask Margaret what is in her closet, she
can only reply that something black is there. She does not say that
a man is hidden in the closet. The implication is that she is scared
as much of the color of the man in her closet as she is of the fact
that he is a man. Her fear of a different race implies that she
is uncomfortable around any race that is not white. The relationship
she has with Ondine seems to be stale, and whenever she is around
Sydney, she barely acknowledges his presence. She relates to Jadine
because Jadine is tied to white culture more than black culture.
Margaret’s relationships with the black characters in the book explain
why she uses the color black to describe what is in her closet:
She is uncomfortable around black people, who make her a little