Toni Morrison: A Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

"Tar Baby": Critical Overview

[Categories/Possible Tags: Economy/Capitalism; Marxism]

The Economic Grotesque and the Critique of Capitalism in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
Author(s): Jean Wyatt
Source: MELUS, Vol. 39, No. 1, Rescripting Ethnic Bodies and Subjectivities (Spring 2014), pp. 30-55.
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
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Keywords: Capitalism, Economic grotesque, Economy, Marxism, Satire

Main Claim: “Morrison uses the economic grotesque to suggest the ways that capitalist practices saturate consciousness and distort basic processes of thinking and feeling. The philosophical principle operating here is that what people do for a living—their activity as economic agents—constructs their ways of being in the world” (30). 

Key Quotation(s):

“Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby (1981) contains a strong and multifaceted critique of capitalism. Although Morrison’s modes of attack on capitalist values are many and various… her primary weapon is satire” (30). 

“The follies and extravagances of her characters constitute an indictment of capitalism: their actions dramatize the ways that capitalist entanglements warp people’s feelings, desire, and thought processes. Because the characters in Tar Baby express the imprint of capitalist practices on their minds through concrete actions, the examples of commodified thinking are embodied and vivid; because these actions remain unexplained and cryptic, they involve the reader in puzzling out their meanings” (30). 

“Putting Morrison’ text into dialogue with some of the basic concepts of Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867-94)—such as the commodity, commodity fetishism, exchange value, and the labor theory of value—enables me to elucidate some nuances of Morrison’s critique of capitalism, as it ranges from Son’s polemic against the capitalist Valerian, a straightforward denunciation of capitalism at the very limit of satire, to the more subtle insinuation of Marxian priorities in the descriptions of commodities like Valerian’s house and Jadine’s fur coat” (30). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Collins, Patricia Hill. “African-American Women and Economic Justice: A Preliminary Analysis of Wealth, Family, and African-American Social Class.” University of Cincinnati Law Review 65.3 (1997): 825-52. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism: An Introduction.” 1914. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. Ed. James Strachey. Trans. Strachey and Anna Freud. London: Hogarth, 1957. 73-102. Print. 
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. 1867. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.
--. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 3. 1894. Trans. David Ferbach. London: Penguin, 1991. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. C. 1864. Ed. C.J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers, 1970. Print. 
Zizek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times. London: Verso, 2010. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Feminism, Black Feminism]

Images of Nurturance in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
Author(s): Peter B. Erickson
Source: CLA Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1 (September 1984), pp.11-32.
Published by: College Language Association
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Keywords: Nurturance, Identity, Black women, Maternal, Sula

Main Claim: “Despite the more prominent role played by white characters, despite the larger social and geographical range in Tar Baby, Morrison’s key focal point remains the identity of a black woman, Jadine. Particularly crucial are the issues of maternal sexuality and of generational continuity among black women” (11).

Key Quotation(s): 

“In Tar Baby we are made more aware of the disconnections rather than the connections among the principal black women: Therese, Ondine, and Jadine. This absence of connection, which in large measure is responsible for the ‘contentions among you’ to which Morrison alludes in her prefatory citation, is the subject of Tar Baby” (11). 

“Because Jadine more explicitly and decisively renounces the maternal role, Tar Baby dramatizes a pronounced crisis in cross-generational sustenance. Jadine achieves an independence not attained by Sula, but Toni Morrison concentrates on the cost and negative aspects of Jadine’s achievement. The result is that Jadine is less attractive and the novel’s rendering of her more ambivalent than might have been expected” (12). 

Key Citations in Works Cited: 

“‘Intimate Things in Place’: A Conversation with Toni Morrison,” The Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1977, p. 474.
Irving, John. “Morrison’s Black Fable,” The New York Times Book Review, March 29, 181, p. 31. 
Lardner, Susan. “Unastonished Eye,” The New Yorker, 15 June 1981, p. 147. 
Pinckney, Darryl. “Every Which Way,” The New York Review of Books, 28 (April 30, 1981), 24-25. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Feminism, Psychoanalysis]

Don’t Look B(l)ack: Spectatorship and Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
Author(s): Maxine L. Montgomery
Source: CLA Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1 (September 2010), pp.36-52.
Published by: College Language Association
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Keywords: Spectatorship, Cinema, Film theory, Psychoanalysis, Perception, Feminism, Scopophilia

Main Claim: “More than any other text in Toni Morrison’s evolving canon, Tar Baby not only foregrounds the award-winning writer’s concern with the specular arrangements governing perception and self-perception in a New World setting, but the novel also anticipates evolutionary changes in contemporary feminism film theory” (36).

Key Quotation(s): 

“In ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ [Laura Mulvey] identifies two contradictory aspects of the looking scenario—one, involving scopophilia, or the pleasure of using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight, and the other, relevant to narcissism, or ego development through an association with the image seen. A key aspect of Mulvey’s argument is her insistence upon a ‘split between active/male and passive female’” (36).

“Morrison’s re-inscription of proscribed looking arrangements is coded in ways that demand a reexamination of the relationship between spectator and subject. As if to anticipate the changing emphasis within feminist film criticism regarding the need for a de-stagnation of the relationship between the female spectator and ‘the look,’ Tar Baby disrupts the identity politics underlying the looking scenario that Mulvey presents and encourages a critique of the active/male, passive/female binary” (36-7). 

“Nowhere is the spontaneous relationship between spectator and subject more evident than with Son’s pursuit of Jadine” (37). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: New American Library, 1969.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. 
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Ed. Patricia Erens. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. 28-40. 
Ryan, Judylyn S. “Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 597-621. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Blackness, Black feminism]

Blackness and Art in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
Author(s): Linda Krumholz
Source: Contemporary Literature, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Summer, 2008), pp. 263-292. 
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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Keywords: Blackness, Art, Black art, Gender, 

Main Claim: “Morrison immerses readers in competing concepts of blackness to show the pitfalls in constructing meanings of blackness, while at the same time asserting the urgent need to engage with those meanings” (265).

Key Quotation(s): 

“In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison explores blackness to show readers that we are all implicated in the construction of blackness and to propose ways that black art can reveal and transform those constructions” (263).

“In Tar Baby, Morrison reveals the temptation of singular and correct definition of blackness, as well as the high stakes people see in their own beliefs. Son and Jadine embody concepts of blackness, and they also exemplify the investments people have in their own definitions of blackness; when each struggles to ‘rescue’ the other, Morrison writes, ‘Each was pulling the other away from the maw of hell—its very ridge top. Each knew the world as it was meant or ought to be’” (264-5). 

“Morrison provokes readers to grapple with both the desire to know and the dangers of knowing ‘the world as it was meant or ought to be’” (265). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Erickson, Peter B. “Images of Nurturance in Tar Baby.” Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K.A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. 293-307. 
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. 
—. “Memory, Creation, and Writing.” Thought 59 (1984): 385-90. 
Ryan, Judylyn S. “Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 597-621. 
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. 
Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. 83-109. 

[Categories/Possible Tags: Diaspora, Gender]

The Gender of Diaspora in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
Author(s): Yogita Goyal
Source: Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Summer 2006), pp. 393-414. 
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Keywords: Gender, Diaspora, Nationalism, Tradition

Main Claim: “Skirting the simplicities of Afrocentrism as well as traversing the anti-essentialist ground of black Atlantic studies, the novel delineates complicated, shifting, and deeply equivocal interactions between nationalism, gender, and diaspora” (393).

Key Quotation(s): 

“The idea of tradition has always been central to Toni Morrison’s fiction. While each of her novels presents a different way of understanding (in increasingly complex ways) the importance of memory, heritage, and history for African Americans, the much-neglected novel, Tar Baby, offers perhaps the most interesting and internally complex meditation on the meaning of tradition” (393). 

“In its explication of diaspora, the novel’s narrative form reveals two distinct generic strains, those of myth and realism, that may be mapped on to ideological conflicts about the meaning of diaspora. The first strain opens the novel in the fictional setting of Isle de Chevaliers, a Caribbean island, depicted in a mythic mode…the novel uses this mode…to accrue a sense of diasporic presence that exists beyond the particulars of time and space. Allied with nature, and powerful in its mythology, this idea of diaspora offers a way of rejecting the norms of white culture, and is linked to the history of resistance to slavery” (394).

“This register of myth is in tension with a second mode, which uses realism to embed an understanding of diasporic encounters as fraught with conflict. Used primarily for the action set in the cities, New York and Paris, the realism mode is represented by Jadine…characterized largely by snappy dialogue rather than by lush evocations of everlasting nature, this mode works against the sense of diaspora constructed by the earlier mode, as the realist representation of multiple diasporic encounters…reveals nothing but incessant misunderstanding, suspicion, and prejudice” (394). 

Key Citations in Works Cited:

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Ryan, Judylyn S. “Contested Visions/Double Vision in Tar Baby.” Modern Fiction Studies 39 (1993): 597-622. 
Werner, Craig. “The Briar Patch as Modernist Myth: Morrison, Barthes and Tar Baby As-Is.” Critical Essays on Toni Morrison. Ed. Nellie Mckay. Boston: Hall, 1988. 150-67. 
Willis, Susan. “Eruptions of Funk: Historicizing Toni Morrison.” Black American Literature Forum. 16.1 (1982): 34-42. 

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