Study Guide

Tar Baby Themes

By Toni Morrison

  • Race

    If you opened Tar Baby randomly and pointed to a sentence, chances are that it would be a sentence about racial conflict. Jade and Son argue about the best way to live as a black person in the modern world. The Dominicans Thérèse and Gideon loathe the black American servants, Sydney and Ondine, who have come to their country to serve white masters. And on top of that, the rich, white Valerian Street treats everyone around him (especially his black servants) with neglect, even though he thinks of himself as a great guy. Throughout this book, Toni Morrison shows us some of the problems that can arise not only between different races, but within these races.

    Questions About Race

    1. Do you identify closely with any particular character in this text? Which one(s)? Why?
    2. Is it fair to call Valerian and Margaret racists? Why or why not? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    3. Do you think Morrison offers any insight into how we might solve some of the racial tensions in this book? Please support your answer with evidence from the text.
    4. Why do you think Morrison decides to include Thérèse and Gideon in this book? How do they complicate her portrayal of racial tensions?

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison shows us that racial tension goes way beyond simple binaries like black and white; racism is actually a giant network of tensions that spread between and within different races.

    In Tar Baby, Morrison suggests that it's possible to judge people without concern for their race.

  • Family

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison calls into question a lot of things we might take for granted. One of these things is the cohensiveness of the family unit. For many of us, it's natural for parents and children to love one another. But that's definitely not the case with the Street family. Valerian and Margaret's son Michael wants nothing to do with them, and it probably has something to do with the fact that Margaret stuck pins into him when he was a baby. Yeah, you read that right. She also stubbed out her cigarettes on his tender baby skin. It makes us cringe just to think of it. Margaret is not going to win a Mother of The Year award any time soon.

    Questions About Family

    • Was Michael old enough to be traumatized by what Margaret did to him as a baby? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    • Do you agree with Valerian's plan for keeping Margaret away from Michael, or is he just being spiteful toward his wife?
    • Is Jade being irresponsible by not taking care of Ondine and Sydney in their old age? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Morrison shows us that there's no such thing as natural love when it comes to parents and children. If anything, parents and children tend to resent one another.

    In Tar Baby, Morrison shows us that family isn't about blood as much as it's about duty. Human beings have a responsibility to one another that they can't neglect.

  • Ambition

    Ambition pops up in Tar Baby as not so much as a theme as a debate, especially between Jade and Son. Jade always argues that Son is a fool for saying he doesn't want any money or fameand claims that he is just making excuses for being a lazy failure. Son, though, insists that he's just being true to his black heritage by refusing to go to white universities and chase the white man's definition of success. In the end, it seems like there's just no way for the two of them to reconcile their differences. Their relationship falls apart largely because of their different approaches to the idea of ambition.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. Do you side with Son or Jade when it comes to the question of ambition? In the context of this novel, who is being more reasonable?
    2. What are some of the consequences of Jade's following her ambition? Who gets left behind?
    3. Is Jade or Son the protagonist of Tar Baby? Why?
    4. What do you think Jade truly wants to do with her life? Where does she want to end up? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Morrison shows us that ambition can be a terrible thing when it makes you forsake your family and your roots for individual success.

    In Tar Baby, we learn that the only true way for people to move on from the past is to do their best and to be as successful as possible.

  • Identity

    Jade she spends a lot of Tar Baby stressing about whether or not she's an authentic person. Unlike many of the black people in her life, she was educated at an elite French university thanks to the financial help of the white man Valerian Street. Problems arise when she tries to impose her views on her boyfriend Son, who basically has no interest in living his life on her terms. By the end of the novel Jade has accepted her priorities, but the question of both individual and of black identity haunts Tar Baby.

    Questions About Identity

    • Why is Jade conflicted about her lifestyle choices?
    • How does the presence of the African woman in the Parisian grocery store impact Jade? What does the African woman come to symbolize for Jade?
    • Which character in this book has the most confidence in her/his identity? Why? Use evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison shows us that it's impossible to ever truly have a stable identity. We are changing every second of every day, and the person we are right now isn't the person we were a minute ago.

    Tar Baby shows us that our identities aren't based on anything biological, but on the choices we make as individuals.

  • Man and the Natural World

    What kind of rich old man decides to become a recluse in the Caribbean? A control freak. Valerian Street's control-freakiness comes out in force when he tries to interact with the natural world. Since Valerian can't control his son or wife, Valerian decides that he'll control the land by digging up trees, clearing swamps, and basically living in a greenhouse populated with non-native North American plants. Usually people build greenhouses to bring bright tropical flowers to cold climates, but ol' Valerian Street wants to bring boring old cold-weather flowers to the beautiful Caribbean. And Tar Baby underlines Valerian Street's imperialist tendencies by giving voice to the natural landscape of the island: the natural features of the island seem to have an opinion on the matter.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. How does Morrison uses Valerian's treatment of nature to make a bigger statement about white people and their desire to control the world?
    2. What provokes Valerian to build his greenhouse? What significance can you read into it? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. Why do you think Morrison uses so much personification when she's talking about nature in this book? What point does it help her make?

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison blames white people for destroying the environment with their violent, imperialist ways.

    Tar Baby reminds us that no matter how much we accomplish in our lives, we'll end up dying and returning to nature just like everyone else.

  • Memory and the Past

    Among many others things, Tar Baby is a novel about how the past always lives on in people's memories and forms a crucial part of their identities as individuals. And we're not just talking about people's individual pasts, but the past that they share with their relatives and ancestors. Ondine, for example, believes that Jade is betraying both her family and her race by choosing to live life only for herself.

    Jade doesn't make her decision lightly, as she is constantly plagued by personal memories, both of her mother's funeral and of the day she was insulted by an African woman who disapproved of her "white" way of dressing and acting. Son is also totally obsessed by memories of his hometown of Eloe, which goes to show just how strong an influence memory and the past can have on characters in this book.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. What specific characters in Tar Baby have present-day lives that are deeply affected by their memories of the past? Use specific examples to support your answer.
    2. How specifically do Valerian's memories of his son hiding in a bathroom cabinet change after he hears Margaret's confession of abuse? Why?
    3. How does Jade's memory of watching the tall African woman in the supermarket affect her actions in the novel?

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, characters use the fact that the past can't be changed as a way of dodging responsibility for the present.

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison shows us that all our memories (both good and bad) are simply obstacles that we need to overcome in order to have brighter futures.

  • Primitivity

    Over the past 400 years, white people have denigrated black people as being somehow more primitive or less advanced. This belief is reflected in the racial slurs that compare black people to animals, and we see several examples of this in Tar Baby. In many cases, it's not only white people using these slurs, but black people (like Jade) using them on other black people. Of course, the idea that any race is more primitive or animal-like than any other is totally ridiculous, but it still holds a lot of sway with many lazy thinkers. That's why Morrison thinks it's worthwhile to talk about this theme out in the open so that readers can see its damaging effects firsthand.

    Questions About Primitivity

    1. Who is victimized most by being called "primitive" in this book and why? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.
    2. What is Jade's reaction when she hears a white person (Margaret) refer to Son as a "gorilla"? Why does it bother her so much when she herself called Son a baboon to his face?
    3. Does the book actually reinforce the idea that any particular character is more "primitive" than others? Who and why?

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison shows us that thinking of certain people or races as primitive is just something lazy people do when they want the world to seem simple.

    In Tar Baby, we find that the term primitive can actually be a positive thing, since it can involve a deeper connection to nature and to people's true motives.

  • Gender

    With all of the emphasis that Tar Baby puts on race, it can be easy to overlook just how significant gender is as a recurring theme. When Jade worries about her status as a black woman, for example, the fact that she is a woman is just as significant as the fact that she is black. More specifically, she fears that sacrificing herself to Son's hometown of Eloe will lead her to become a stay-at-home mom with no opportunities to pursue her individual ambitions. In this case, she elects to go with a white, capitalist lifestyle because she thinks that it will provide her with more opportunities as a woman.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Do you think that gender plays just as big of a role in Tar Baby as race does? Why or why not?
    2. How might things be different if Jade held Son's views and Son held Jade's views? Would Jade's views be any more convincing if they were endorsed by a man? Why or why not?
    3. Is it possible to have sympathy for Son as a character after he has raped Jade, or does this action mean that Jade has automatically won the battle for readers' sympathy?
    4. How has being a seventeen year old bride affected Margaret's Street's life? What consequences has it had and why? Support your answer with direct evidence from the text.

    Chew on This

    In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison shows us that gender inequality is every bit as significant as racial inequality in the modern age.

    Tar Baby suggests that even though Jade turns her back on the black people in her life, she scores a win for women of all races by choosing to pursue her dreams.