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"Tar Baby": Reception History
The following reception history is by Daniel Rosler.
Morrison’s fourth novel, , arrived four years after Song of Solomon, which had won her the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. However, reception for Tar Baby was mixed, generating less unanimous praise than its predecessor, yet still making a mark in its own right. Indeed, the actor Howard E. Rollins Jr. had even mentioned that he wanted to get a deal to film an adaptation of Tar Baby*(Foot note this). But the novel drew ire from several reviewers, including Susan Lardner in The New Yorker. The American novelist John Irving generally praised both the novel and Morrison in his review for The New York Times, but even he had his criticisms, notably of Morrison’s dialogue.
Literary critic Peter B. Erickson responded to these reviews, noting in a footnote to his 1984 article “Images of Nurturance in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby”(*Link to critical overview page once it's done) that he, unlike Irving, does “not think…that it is permissible to ask the question, ‘Will Son ever connect with Jadine again?’ Tar Baby seems to me conclusive on this point.” Further, he stresses that by Irving’s emphasis on the “Jadine-Son relationship…leaves out of account Jadine’s crucial relations with other black women.”
In response to Lardner’s sense that “Morrison’s use of omniscience” might amount to “evasiveness,” Erickson agrees that she “properly raises the issue of authorial location and stance,” but this “formulation prematurely settles the issue instead of pursuing it” and, Erickson continues, “fails to appreciate the richness of Morrison’s enactment of authorial conflict with regard to Jadine.”
These reviews, as well as disapproving reviews from Anatole Broyard in The New York Times and Darryl Pinckney in The New York Times Review of Books, and a short, unsigned blurb from Kirkus, are included below for you to decide.
Irving, John. “Morrison’s Black Fable.” The New York Times. 29 March 1981, p. 92.
Comparing Morrison’s ambitions in Tar Baby to Charles Dickens, and the 19th century novel more broadly, for being “rich” with “risk” and “mischief,” Irving speculates that Morrison is “returning such risk and mischief to the contemporary American novel, and never more extravagantly than in Tar Baby, her fourth and most ambitious novel.”
“[Morrison] mythologizes her characters almost as they’re conceived, at least as soon as they’re born, but she has the good novelist’s sense of detail that makes these mythic people live.” - John Irving
Similarly, while not making a direct comparison, Irving does suggest that the 19th century English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy “would have appreciated Miss Morrison's old-fashioned authorial intrusions, her wise counsel to her readers…Thomas Hardy, full of his own instructions to damaged mankind, would have loved this book.”
Irving commends Morrison’s “considerable gift for dialogue” and her descriptions of nature, which he argues is her “strongest prose,” though he does suggest she might push these details to excess: “At times the effort to see the world from nature's point of view seems precious, even cute…but the richness of the best of these passages…makes Miss Morrison's excesses tolerable.” However, despite praising her lavish and rich descriptions of nature, Irving argues that the dialogue is “excessive,” claiming that “too much of the story is told through dialogue.” Irving makes a somewhat contradictory statement, suggesting that the arguments between Jadine and Son “are lengthy and become tedious,” yet at the same time “vividly expose the novel’s racial tensions.”
Irving doesn’t shy away from observing these racial tensions. In fact, he offers his own thesis: “What's so powerful, and subtle, about Miss Morrison's presentation of the tension between blacks and whites is that she conveys it almost entirely through the suspicions and prejudices of her black characters.” Indeed, Irving praises Morrison’s ability to “uncover all the stereotypical racial fears felt by whites and blacks alike” and, as he suggests, is “unafraid to employ these stereotypes - she embraces the representative quality of her characters without embarrassment, then proceeds to make them individuals too.” For Irving, Tar Baby is “a black novel,” but, insofar as the text details “a woman’s anger at—and her denial of—her need for an impossible man,” Irving suggests that “in this regard it is a woman’s novel too.”
That said, like previous reviewers, Irving can’t help but comment on what he believes are the trappings of novels that center identity. In fact, he suggests that Morrison’s “greatest achievement” in the text is that “she has raised her novel above the social realism that too many black novels and women’s novels are trapped in.” For Irving, Morrison succeeds in “writing about race and women symbolically.” (Our emphasis.)
Lardner, Susan. “Unastonished Eye.” The New Yorker, 7 June 1981, p. 147.
Lardner is quite critical of Morrison’s fourth novel, noting from the start that it’s an “unsettling book—no more than her first three, but not for exactly the same reasons.” For Lardner, Tar Baby “suffers from a lapse of style,” is “heavy-handed,” and “unintelligible, with or without prior knowledge of Morrison’s preoccupations.”
“Tar Baby is heavy with messages; some get delivered, others don’t.” - Susan Lardner
Lardner couches her review of Tar Baby within Morrison’s oeuvre, spending time detailing her first three novels both as a means of showing their similarities, such as similar emphases on eyes and names, or structure (“structurally,” Lardner writes, Tar Baby “resembles Song of Solomon”), as well as a foil: “Unlike Song of Solomon it is a thoroughly grim book, surpassing The Bluest Eye and Sula in hopelessness and harsh feeling. The question is whether this is a deliberate effect.”
Lardner appears to take issue with some of Morrison’s more experimental prose choices, such as her frequent personification of nature, noting that “neither apples nor eggs nor magic breasts nor ‘shamelessly single-minded’ soldier ants” can match the “liveliness and coherence of the more personal imagery of the other novels.” Indeed, Lardner accuses Morrison of “labored prose,” arguing that “momentous diction and arbitrary invention cover an absence of shape and purpose.” Moreover, Lardner finds fault in Morrison’s character development, suggesting that, rather than complex and human, they are relegated to paraphrase: “characters are summarized, paraphrased, and marooned in long stretches of spiteful dialogue.” Indeed, for Lardner, these deflated caricatures are “incapable of living up to the surrounding symbolism or…unable to survive it.”
But Lardner reserves her harshest criticism for what she believes is Morrison’s flippant handling of racial tensions. “One mystery is the title,” Lardner writes, describing a popularized version of the tar-baby story before moving to critique Morrison’s incorporation of, or allusion to, the tale. As Lardner argues, in this novel, the “tar baby serves as an oversimplifying image of manipulation and inadvertent seductiveness, making nonsense of the complicated racial, sexual, and social battles [Morrison] is trying to dramatize.”
Broyard, Anatole. “Two-Way Protest.” The New York Times, 21 March 1981, p. 10.
Not unlike Susan Lardner, Broyard not only dislikes Tar Baby, he too finds fault with Morrison’s prose and abstract, perhaps surrealistic, descriptions. He spends most of his review describing the parts of the novel that seem to puzzle him, yet many, if not most, of Broyard’s selected sections (vignettes which he uses to assemble a plot summary) also happens to feature many scenes that discuss race. This feels worth mentioning because Broyard concludes his synopsis and review by stating that “though Tar Baby may be described as a protest novel, the reader may have a few protests too,” or, at the very least, these readers might “feel that black folks should site down with white folks for a frank exchange about the reading and writing of fiction.”
The first two “protests” Broyard mentions are themselves in response to two of Morrison’s critiques within the novel, namely of race and the U.S. Broyard imagines his fictional reader (himself?) “wonder[ing] why the black characters in Tar Baby have all the passion while the white ones are fit only for sitting in greenhouses, manufacturing candy and sticking pins into their babies. He may question those unqualified fields that are spongy and those pavements that are slick with the blood of the best people.” At this point, after reminding the reader in the beginning of his piece that Morrison’s Song of Solomon won the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Broyard presents his final rhetorical question, one aimed specifically at Morrison’s artistry: “And, finally, the reader may ask himself why Miss Morrison, who won an important award with her last novel, has written so poorly in this one.”
Unsigned. “Tar Baby.” Kirkus, 1 March 1981.
This unsigned review suggests that the novel’s “fine-tuned, high-strung characters…may lack the psychic wingspread of Sula or Milkman of Song of Solomon,” they do something else. Noting the “dazzlingly mythic/animistic fancies, and dialogue sharp as drum raps,” this review posits that, within these, Morrison’s characters in Tar Baby “carry her speculations…as lightly as racing silks.”
“Scouring contemporary insights—in prose as lithe and potent as vines in a rain forest.”
Pinckney, Darryl. “Every Which Way.” The New York Review of Books. 30 April 1981, p. 24.
“One wishes for the fierce concentration, the radical economy of the novels of Gayl Jones as they describe the inner world of black women in language that is harsh, disturbing, and utterly unsentimental.” - Darryl Pinckney
Not unlike other reviews for Tar Baby, Pinckney develops his review of Morrison’s fourth novel through allusions and considerations of this text in relation to her previous work, notably the sharp contrast between Tar Baby and everything else before it. As Pinckney writes, “There is no Ohio in Tar Baby.”
Although he believes “many of Morrison’s previous concerns are here,” Pinckney also considers “something else [that] has changed,” noting that The Bluest Eye’s “laboring poor,” Sula’s “self-sufficient women and men,” and “the avaricious middle class and defiantly marginal citizens of Song of Solomon” have been “replaced” in Tar Baby. In their stead are “the rick, their servants, their dependents, and the sans culottes who threaten their security.”
However, Pinckney makes brief allusions to other authors—not as a means of comparing Morrison to them but as successful examples of “evok[ing] unknown places poetically and to suffuse the work with a feeling of myth and magi.” These artists with “high, assertive styles…Carpentier, Asturias, [and] Marquez,” do what Morrison, according to Pinckney, fails to do. Tar Baby, Pinckney argues, suffers from a language that, at best, “is strained.” He also writes— being perhaps purposively ironic—that the “convoluted verbal conjurings make for a tone that is overreaching, taxing to the ear.” Quoting a long passage from the book, Pinckney suggests that it “seems closer to the lush, tropical, flamboyant flights of Ronald Firbank.” The “experience[s]” which Tar Baby wants to deliver “is inchoate, muffled,” according to Pinckney, who “wishes” instead for Gayl Jones novels.
Pinckney notes the difficulty of “picking out what happens in Tar Baby,” comparing it to keeping “one’s balance in a swamp.” The “elaborate” writing “distracts and obscures”; metaphors are “labored” and “phrases that are not quite true images occur.” The many moments of personification fall short of making “Isle des Chevaliers more interesting or more deeply felt”—and, not only that, the “narrative” portrays and describes the “thoughts of the characters” in similar fashion, which “only serves to make” these “feelings indecipherable.”
"Tar Baby" (1981): Overview and Links
Overview of Toni Morrison's novel "Tar Baby"
Tar Baby (1981) marks a significant departure for Toni Morrison. To begin with, the novel was Morrison's first novel published in the present moment -- the late 1970s -- and it is the first of Morrison's novel to look at the Black-white divide and the deep prevalence of anti-Black racism among both the white establishment and even within some segments of the Black community. Tar Baby also features a group of characters following life paths that look quite different from those of Song of Solomon, Sula, or The Bluest Eye. To begin with, Jadine is a New York-based fashion model considering moving permanently to Paris. Jadine's success in the mainstream fashion industry as a Black woman is seen as somewhat unremarkable in Morrison's novel, though in point of fact it was not: historically the mainstream fashion industry was intensely white (it took eighty years for a Black model to be featured on the cover of Vogue; Beverly Johnson first appeared there in August, 1974). Jadine's widely recognized beauty puts her in a very different path than Morrison's Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, and suggests Morrison's interest in a new set of opportunities for middle-class African American people starting in the 1970s. Morrison would return to the idea of a glamorous young Black woman in the fashion industry in her final novel, God Help the Child.
Sydney and Ondine are an elderly couple who have for many years worked for Valerian and Margaret Street, a white couple that made its fortune selling candy. The Streets are so wealthy that, upon retirement, they could buy their own private Caribbean island, the ficional Isle des Chevaliers, and move there with their servants. Significant sections of the narrative detail the back stories of the Streets, who have a troubled relationship with their only child, Michael; as the story begins, they are anticipating his return from the U.S. for the Christmas holidays. Michael studies anthropology and works closely with Native American communities; it is unclear whether he will actually return or not.
The one character in the novel who perhaps does resemble some of Morrison's other early lead characters might be Son, Jadine's love interest. Son arrives on the island by stowing away on a boat owned by the Streets after jumping ship in the harbor of a nearby island (presumably Dominique). Son comes from a fictional all-Black town in Florida called Eloe, which he had to leave when he was involved in the death of a woman. As a jazz musician with a troubled past, Son has some similarities with characters from novels like Jazz; he also resembles the character Booker Stearborn from Morrison's God Help the Child.
Tar Baby is also Morrison's first and only novel to be set, for a significant chunk of its plot, outside of the U.S. The island featured in the novel is described as being close to the island of Dominique (also fictional, though "Dominique" may be an alternative name for the real-life island of Dominica). Within the novel, the locals describe a mythical history where the "horsemen" in the island's name ("Chevaliers") were a group of blind slaves had escaped centuries earlier; the locals say their descendents continue to roam free in the otherwise unpopulated hillside. In addition to Black-white race relations, Tar Baby explores how American tourists exploit low-paid Afro-Caribbean workers, and generally have a colonialist orientation to the Caribbean.
The novel's title, "Tar Baby," is an allusion to an African American folk story that is well-summarized here. The best known version of the story involves a doll created by Br'er Fox to entrap Br'er Rabbit. The doll is covered in sticky tar; when the rabbit touches it, it becomes stuck. In mid-20th century usage, the phrase "tar baby" was also a euphemism for an African American person, sometimes derogatory. Morrison herself alluded to this usage of the phrase in her novel Sula, with a light-skinned boarder in Eva Peace's house ironically dubbed "Tar Baby."
In her Foreword to the 2004 paperback edition of Tar Baby, Toni Morrison recounts hearing this story told by her grandmother as a child. In the version her grandmother told, the Tar Baby is gendered female, and there is a degree of sexual tension between the rabbit and the doll. The doll has also been created by a farmer, not by Br'er Fox:
Very funny, then scary, then funny again. Yet puzzling. At some level the tar baby story begged and offered understanding beyond “outlaw peasant outwits inventive master with wit and cunning.” It’s clear why the rabbit ate as much lettuce and cabbage as he could. It’s clear why the farmer had to stop him. But why a tar figure? And why (in the version I was told) is it dressed as a female? Did the farmer understand the rabbit so well he could count on its curiosity? But the rabbit isn’t curious at all; he passes by the tar baby, casually acknowledging its presence with “Good morning.” It is his being ignored and her being ill-mannered that annoy, then infuriate him. He threatens, then strikes her. Now he is stupid; if one of his paws sticks, why try another? The inventive farmer has succeeded but gets involved in a form of punishment, and having understood motivation so well earlier, now misunderstands completely. Now the stupid rabbit becomes the clever one, pretending that the punishment he fears most is being returned to his own neighborhood. He knows the farmer would reckon this return to the ’hood as supreme torture, worse than death, so into the briar patch he is unceremoniously, gleefully thrown. The figure of tar, having done its work, falls out of the action of the tale, yet remains not only as its strange, silent center, but also as the sticky mediator between master and peasant, plantation owner and slave. Constructed by the farmer to foil and entrap, it moves beyond trickery to art. The principal relationship is not limited to the rabbit and the farmer; it is also between the rabbit and the tar figure. She snares him; he knows it, yet compounds his entanglement while demanding to be freed. A love story, then. Difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman and clever, anarchic male, each with definitions of independence and domesticity, of safety and danger that clash. The novel signals this conflict at the beginning: “He believed he was safe.” “Believed” rather than thought in order to stamp doubt, suggest unease. (Toni Morrison, Foreword to "Tar Baby" )
On the one hand, the suggestion here seems to be that Jadine represents the "stuck up" Tar Baby that the rabbit strikes, and indeed, there is a scene in the novel involving partner violence that supports this reading, where Son strikes Jadine late in the novel. But the framing of the story might also be reversed: the "Tar Baby" might also be Son -- a Black man with strong connections to a historically Black community in the south -- and the powerful pull he exerts on the more mainstream-oriented Jadine. But who exactly is the farmer in this framing? Does the rabbit escape? In the end, the title of the novel has a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the novel's characters and plot.