Study Guide

Ondine Childs in Tar Baby

By Toni Morrison

Ondine Childs

Ondine is Valerian's cook, and she and Sydney (the butler) are married. She has spent many years working hard, and, as we find out from the narrator, time has begun to catch up with her: "She didn't like asking Yardman to [kill the chickens] for her, but her feet were so tender and her ankles too swollen to manage" (4.90). We can tell from the way she acts that she has always been a very stern and serious woman, especially when it comes to commanding other servants. But once again, her age has made her too tired to be as professional as she once was. She is even "Too tired to fuss, too tired to even have to confront [another servant] with his sloppiness" (4.97).

Like her husband Sydney, Ondine sometimes gets worked up about her boss' (Valerian's) selfish behavior. But she also knows that she and Sydney have good jobs with him and that their other options for work are not as good, especially given their age. That's why she's pretty much willing to put up with anything Valerian does. On top of that, Ondine is a proud woman, but not as temperamental as her husband Sydney. When Sydney gets upset about certain things, for example, she usually has to calm him down by saying things like, "There's no point in gnawing it, Sydney, like a dog with a bone. Swallow it or drop it" (4.135).

Despite her patience, Ondine has a deep dislike for her boss' wife Margaret. We spend much of the book not knowing why this is, but we find out when Ondine reveals that Margaret used to abuse her son Michael when Michael was just a baby. Before she found out about this, Ondine had felt sorry for Margaret (since she was a seventeen year old bride with a thirty-nine year old husband!). They used to hang out and gossip together, but Valerian put a stop to that because he didn't want Margaret making friends with the help.

Ondine has a beautiful niece name Jade, who works as a model. However, Ondine expects that Jade will one day return to look after her aunt and uncle in their old age. At the end of the book, Ondine confronts her niece Jade about all the sacrifices that she (Ondine) and Sydney have made for her. She claims that Jade "has forgotten her ancient properties" (C.113), not only as a black person, but as Ondine and Sydney's niece.

Ondine claims that Jade has a duty toward her people; but Jade has embraced the world of individualism and capitalism, and she wants nothing to do with her aging relatives. Jade's not going to give up any of her ambitions in order to take care of people in their old age. In the end, Ondine can only watch as Jade leaves for France. Both Ondine and Sydney are left feeling bitter about how the young woman has deserted them after they sacrificed so much for her.