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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Tar Baby explores how being a woman imprisons the female characters. The novel’s male characters tend to see the women as stupid or inferior, simply because they are women. Gideon constantly criticizes Thérèse for her ignorance, while Valerian ignores Margaret’s desire to leave the island. Son insults Jadine by asking her how many sexual favors she had to perform to be given expensive presents and modeling jobs. The men do not see the women as individuals.
With the exception of Jadine, the women in the novel are associated with motherhood and fertility, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Ondine mothers Jadine, Thérèse mothers Alma Estée and Son, and Thérèse once worked as a wet nurse. Margaret longs to see her son, Michael, but it turns out that she abused him when he was a child. Thérèse believes that white women kill their babies, in part because Valerian’s first wife had a series of abortions. Margaret’s actions and Thérèse’s beliefs show that being a mother does not always bring fulfillment to women and can sometimes imprison them as well. Margaret’s unhappiness as a wife and mother led her to abuse her child. Over the course of the novel, Jadine tries on the different options available to women: a career woman in Paris, a daughter on Isle des Chevaliers, and a mother figure to Son in New York. But none of these roles leads to satisfaction, and the constraints of her gender continue to bind and frustrate her.
The conflict between nature and civilization runs throughout Tar Baby. Most characters embody either nature or civilization/culture. For example, Son, Thérèse, Gideon, the residents of Eloe, and the wild horsemen represent nature. These characters value racial and familial connection, and they demonstrate the importance of places of origin. They have a strong belief in the past and in the reality of myth, and they believe that no actions in the present can be divorced from the actions of the past. In contrast, Jadine and her urban friends believe in the importance of education and European forms of culture, and they deny the values associated with nature. For them, nature is something to be mastered or overpowered. They appreciate the idea of a kind of cosmopolitan rootlessness, where people are free to separate from their racial, familial, and geographical pasts. Nevertheless, Sydney seems to blend values from both nature and civilization: He places a lot of importance on family and believes in the importance of education. But he rejects the natural world in favor of the lively Philadelphia of his youth and young adulthood. He shrinks from anything, or anyone, that seems wild, including Son, and this makes Sydney unyielding and a little unlikable.
To some degree, the black characters align with nature, and the white characters with civilization. As she struggles to figure out what it means to be black, Jadine moves from the civilization side to the nature side. She goes to rural Florida to visit Son’s hometown, and together she and Son seem to reject the material trappings of civilization. But, at the end, Jadine chooses civilization and white culture by returning to Europe. Son too must choose between nature and civilization at the end of the novel; readers do not know which he chooses. The novel itself argues that, despite the character of Sydney, nature and civilization cannot be synthesized, but it does not seem to favor one over the other either.
When a character looks young or beautiful, that character tends to have a lot of power. Son looks magnificent after he showers and goes to charm Valerian in the greenhouse. Margaret’s beauty also once captivated Valerian. Likewise, aging reflects a character’s loss of control or influence. As Valerian loses power, he becomes exhausted and begins to age rapidly, and he has become an invalid by the end of the novel. Jadine starts to look old as she and Son fight constantly in New York, but, having abandoned Son and the compromises she was forced to make with him, Jadine begins to look young again when she boards the plane for Paris. Conversely, some characters seem ageless or of indeterminate age. Thérèse and the wild horsemen exist in perfect harmony with nature, and they remain untamed. Ondine, a servant, has always seemed old to Margaret, and Old Man’s age is reflected in his nickname. These ageless or old characters seem able to withstand the impact of other people or change on their physical beings. The faces and bodies of characters reflect their personalities and the outcome of decisions they once made.