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On Christmas Eve day, everyone prepares for Christmas,
and optimism is in the air. Valerian and Margaret have slept together
for the first time in a while, Margaret plans to cook the Christmas
dinner herself, and Valerian apologizes to Margaret for being insensitive when
Son appeared. In the kitchen Ondine complains to Sydney about the
elaborate menu Margaret has planned, and she worries about Jadine’s
relationship with Son. At night none of the invited guests arrive
and Michael has not called, but Margaret and Valerian still hold
out hope for Christmas Day.
In the morning there is still no word from Michael. The
characters exchange gifts in a casual, individual way rather than
in a group ceremony, and Margaret stops cooking halfway through
her recipes, leaving Ondine to finish with much irritation. Ondine
fears that Jadine has secret plans to leave the island. While Ondine
cooks, Margaret sits by the pool, and Son scares her when he approaches. She
tells him about Michael and about the work Michael does on an Indian
reservation. She thinks it is wonderful that Michael influences
the Indians to stay close to their heritage. As she talks she lets it
slip that Jadine plans to leave the island soon.
At night the Streets and Sydney’s family eat together
with Son, and everyone is trying extra hard to have a good time.
Margaret makes up excuses for Michael’s silent absence, and everyone
pretends Margaret cooked the meal. Son says he is disappointed Gideon
could not come, and Valerian asks who Gideon is. Son tells everyone
that they call Gideon and Thérése by the wrong names. Valerian says
he fired Gideon and Thérèse in the course of the day for stealing
some of the apples he imported for Margaret’s apple pie recipe.
Ondine is outraged that he fired Gideon and Thérèse without asking
her or Sydney for their opinion. Son fumes that Valerian can so
casually dismiss the people on whose labor and land he has made a
fortune. He thinks capitalism is a giant system of waste. He becomes
more furious when Jadine defends Valerian’s actions.
Son asks Valerian whether he would have given Gideon and Thérèse
some apples if they had asked for them, and Valerian says he would
have, but they chose to steal instead. Son says this is an absurd
response given that Gideon rowed the apples eighteen miles to bring
them to Valerian and that Valerian just wanted the apples so that
Margaret could play the role of an American mother. In his mind,
Valerian sees a hundred European knights of chivalry riding the
hills, while in Son’s mind, he sees a hundred black blind horsemen
roving the island, still connected to the land. Valerian demands that
Son leave the house, and Son refuses. Jadine tries to smooth things
over, but Valerian says he does not care about a cook’s hurt feelings.
He and Sydney argue, and Ondine insults Margaret, saying she is
better than her. Valerian says Ondine is fired, and Margaret throws
a glass of water at her. Ondine slaps Margaret, and the two women
grapple. Valerian demands that the harbor police be called, but
no one obeys his orders.
The two women are separated, and they hurl racial slurs
at each other. Then Ondine reveals the truth: When Michael was young, Margaret
used to torture him by sticking him with pins and burning him with
cigarettes. Ondine was witness to the ongoing practice. She gets
hysterical, and Sydney leads her away. Valerian is speechless and
horrified. Margaret is still and quiet; she does not deny it.
Jadine and Son go upstairs together to her room. Jadine
asks Son what the night means, and he says that white people and
black people should not sit down together. He tells her to go to
sleep, and she tells him he can stay with her but cannot have sex
with her. He takes off his shirt to get ready for bed, and she notices
that his hands are very big and powerful. They begin a sexually
charged conversation, with her saying she does not want sex, and
him saying he does not either, while both act the opposite. They
turn off the light. She asks what he would do to her, if he were
going to do something to her. He asks her to close her eyes. Then
Son has her imagine what it is like to be a star in the sky. He
says stars “throb” rather than twinkle and that when they can no
longer throb, they fall out of the sky.
The chapter begins with a description of the island that
is in sync with the personal experiences of the inhabitants of the
house. The whole island is in flower, and even Valerian’s imported
hydrangeas have bloomed. The implication is that there has been
a reconciliation between nature and civilization, or between the
island and its foreign visitors. The establishment of this reconciliation
makes the eruption of conflict later in the chapter all the more
dramatic and effective.
Michael’s absence on Christmas Eve foreshadows a conflict among
the characters. The repeated sentence “nobody was in his proper
place” not only refers to the characters’ state of mind, but it also
alludes to the fact that the different characters are in unusual physical
locations in the house: Ondine in the bathtub, Sydney in the greenhouse,
Margaret in the kitchen. This placement of the characters also refers
to the coming disruption of the established hierarchy. Ondine and
Sydney now join Valerian and Margaret at the same dinner table,
which indicates how much the hierarchy has already changed.
Son starts the confrontation that shatters the order of
the household, as befits his status as the catalyst for all of the
events in the novel. His fury over Valerian’s firing of Gideon and
Thérèse prompts Ondine to confront her masters and ultimately reveal
Margaret’s abuse of Michael. This act not only destroys the bond
of obedience that had tied Ondine and Sydney to Valerian and Margaret, but
it also demolishes Valerian’s authority. As long as he was indisputably
in charge of the house, no one would challenge him. His unheeded
demand that the police be called displays the beginning of his downfall
and loss of power. When Ondine reveals Margaret’s abusive behavior
toward Michael, Valerian can do nothing except sit there in shock
and silence, because for once he cannot control the situation. Son’s
confrontation begins a fight among all the characters and foreshadows
the way nature will come to dominate civilization.
The calmness between nature and civilization described
at the beginning of the chapter is quickly shattered when the two
main symbols of each side, Valerian for civilization and Son for
nature, come into conflict. Gideon and Thérèse have been fired for
stealing fruit, which is a product of nature. More important, Son’s
anger is not just directed against Valerian for this single discrete
act but against the whole system of industrial capitalism. To Son,
Valerian does not see his employees, who work with nature, as people.
Valerian has become disconnected from the natural world and from humanity’s
relationship to it. He is the emblem of a culture that lives utterly
cut off from the way humans have always lived, which is why he and
his class foul the land that they inhabit. In that sense, Son actually
sees Valerian and his ilk as lacking even “the dignity of wild animals.”
They are so civilized that they are cruder than nature itself. Valerian
embodies civilization in the way he imagines the wild horsemen,
who elsewhere in the novel represent a bridge between nature and
civilization. In Valerian’s mind, the horsemen are noble, European
knights in shining armor following the Napoleonic code of civil
law. In Son’s mind, and clearly closer to the truth of the myth of
the horsemen, they have become a part of the island, knowing it so
well that they merge with its natural environment. Son has “savanna
eyes,” while Valerian’s are like the “head of a coin,” which symbolizes
not just civilization but the importance of money in that civilization.
The conflict between Margaret and Ondine also parallels
the divide between nature and civilization. As she is led away from
the table, Ondine states that she is in charge of the house and
Margaret is not. Throughout Tar Baby, the narrator
clearly links feminine identity to nurturing, domesticity, and nature.
Ondine’s insistence that she is the only woman in the house is directed
toward Margaret, who perverted her natural role as a mother. In
contrast to Margaret, Ondine is more comfortable with nature than
civilization. Ondine has raised Jadine like her own daughter and
had an influence on her, even though Jadine chose to leave the island.
While Margaret, along with Valerian, has supported Jadine, she has
not served as a mother figure. Her relationship with Jadine resembles
a close friendship, and she was more concerned with helping Jadine
establish herself in society than mothering her. Jadine also struggles
with her feminine identity because she does not want to be nurturing
and domestic like Ondine. She is more similar to Margaret, who only
thinks about herself.