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.