“TAR BABY” – MYSTICAL IMAGES, CONTRADICTIONS

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"TAR BABY"

MYSTICAL IMAGES, CONTRADICTIONS

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By Nevin Ulusoy

Equality. It is a notion that is discussed a lot all around the world. Women and men, black people and white people, Mexicans and Americans. It is argued that there are lots of people, lots of white people in the U.S.A. who want to live as in 1950s U.S.A. It was a time much before the demonstrations and working for the equal rights of black people with the white people in the 1960s. The times when black and white people could almost never be in the same place, a black person had to give his/her seat to a white person on the bus. Also those were the years when women did not have much choice other than marriage, that they did not even claim their rights on their own bodies much. The people who miss these things. The differences that are rooted in our subconscious, discrimination.

When we read Toni Morrison’s novel “Tar Baby”, we cannot help wondering if one day  different races, nations, genders will be able to live in an equal world. “Tar Baby” was first published in 1981 and it is the writer’s third book. Toni Morrison died a very short time ago at the age of 88 and she was the first black American writer who took the Nobel prize in 1993. Morrison writes about the wounds caused by slavery, colonialism both in lives and minds. In this book, she investigates deeply this matter with different views maybe we have never thought about before, how people live with this colonial past by handling the matter with the woman and man problem as well. She makes us question the Western elements that are rooted in us, that we accept without noticing, on the process of a very successful black model’s shaping her life, so successful that she was on the cover of a famous fashion magazine.

However successful we may be, our life in this world will not have a meaning, the need for love will not end, it is felt deep down that maybe we are born for this and it can be understood too late as well. 

The writer makes us think deeply about the great problems of the modern world, reflects to us the contradictions of humanity from angles we have never thought of with unforgettable sentences and a mysterious style of expression.   

The writer terrifies us first. A black man whose hair looks like snakes, a runaway we do not know where he is from, without an identification, without a name secretly gets on a boat where there are only women. We expect a murder or at least a wounding incident and shudder with fear. You feel the fear experienced by the butler and the women in the house when he is found in the mistress’ closet deep down. But all your impressions of him change when he has his hair cut and his handsome face appears, stinking, shabby clothes are changed with clothes that are clean, expensive, close -fitting to his nicely-shaped body, just like all the characters in the novel. Yes, image is nearly everything. Dressing properly, looking proper, dining politely at a proper meal. When our characters see this man for the first time, they react as Christopher Columbus reacted when he first landed in America or when French people reached the island our characters live in and saw the savages(!) for the first time. Of course this man had clothes on, however shabby they were, the natives were nearly stark naked. One thinks of “The Lords of the Flies”, the confidence the boys have on the deserted island. They believe they would not do evil because they know how to dress properly, they comb their hair, wash their bodies, in short because they are civilized. However, in a little while, they become more brutal than wild animals, they can tear their friends to pieces. Outside and inside might not coincide, unfortunately. Son, our runaway hero, yes, he is called that where he was born, has not got a birth certificate, a valid identification card. He is free from all kinds of assurances, a person who has no registered ties, a vagabond, away from things we can identify with. But he is maybe the cleanest, deepest, most reliable one in all our characters. Our model Jadine leaves herself to the love shudder that this man makes her feel, who made her shudder with fear first, in a very short time. She disregards all the apparent warnings of the culture she has been grown into. However, the codes in the subconscious do not leave a person alone and the shudder might not resist the pressure.

Our characters live on an island around Dominique, a French island, of course it is an imaginary island. Valerian, who is the owner of the house Jadine stays as a guest, is also the owner of this island. He is a man in his seventies, very rich, owning candy factories. He lives in peace in his own way in his luxurious house, caring his greenhouse and listening to classical music. Jadine is Sydney and Ondine’s niece, the black couple who have been Valentine’s servants for a very long time. Jadine’s parents died when she was little, so they are like her parents. She has been educated at the best schools with Valerian’s help and she is a model who earns really well. She is a good friend of Margaret’s, Valerian’s wife who is twenty-two years younger than him and who prefers to stay at the U.S.A. They are all together for Christmas. Jadine dines with Valerian and Margaret, not with Sydney and Ondine, who dine at the back part of the house. Her uncle serves everyday, with ceremony nearly and they accept that Jadine’s place is Valerian’s table. Margaret is a woman whom Valerian married just because she was very beautiful, Margaret was only seventeen than, but she has not been able to adapt. She is from a lower class and the servants have fun of her actually. Even at meals she does things in the wrong way and Sydney criticizes her inside. Valerian is always authoritarian and strong, but ironically, Sydney and Ondine rule the house actually. Through the end of the book it gets more clear, when Valerian’s peaceful(!) world shakes.

Margaret is very excited for Christmas, their only child Michael has promised to come with a friend of his. Michael works for a charity which helps Indians, Valerian is not happy with this. Among four brothers the person who had a son was Valerian’s father at that time, naturally he had everything, what would girls do with factories and stuff like that, Michael is the natural heir, but he is not interested in the world of business. Margaret even tries to cook in the kitchen where she does not even enter. Ondine believes the kitchen belongs to her, naturally does not want her in her own kitchen. As Michael does not come, Sydney and Ondine join the meal, which turns out to be the nightmare that the residue of violence, lack of communication and lovelessness in the deep down go to the surface. Son comments that white and black people should not dine together. As long as Sydney and Ondine serve them, work for white people there is no problem, however, when they are at an equal position, the darkness in the subconscious appear, it is the doomsday then. Jadine is different, her job is respected by the white people and her complexion is fair. Valerian’s gardener, Gideon, says to Son that black people with yellow complexions are not natural black people, that they have to choose and most do not choose. Women who have been grown up with the white culture, not white, but not black, either. Jadine’s photograph on the cover of a famous fashion magazine reminds one Rihanna’s pose on the cover of a famous fashion magazine again. Lips parted, a very fair blackish complexion, bright eyes. Beyoncé’s father explained in an interview that his daughter had more luck to become famous because she had a fair complexion. Famous tar babies. The island that the novel takes place reminds us the island that Robinson Cruose lived, one cannot stop thinking that it might be the same island. How Cruose struggled to make a living space for himself! The writer mentions even the riverbed has been changed, the trees have been mostly destroyed and as a result the climate of the island has degraded. Tropical climate of the island makes life more difficult after this destruction of nature. Every new thing that has been  invented creates new problems, everywhere is filthy in a way. Whiteman wounds everywhere he goes in a way that cannot be healed, wherever he passes by, he makes that place unfit to live for himself as well. Some part of the river is swamp now of course, there are places covered with tar. Naturally we remember the name of the book. “Tar Baby” is one of the famous folk stories of American Black people. It is about a fox who makes a tar baby to catch a rabbit that is his enemy. As the rabbit touches the baby, tar sticks to him, as he struggles to get free, it sticks more to him. This image of tar appears from time to time in the book, symbols, imageries fly around us in the novel. The writer loves to write in a mystical way, she asks us to use our imagination.

We feel how slavery is in everybody’s subconscious. There is also the matter of men and women in the subconscious of course, and these two make us think deeply. However disgusted by Son Jadine is at the beginning, she cannot find anybody else to take shelter in at that Christmas night, she feels herself an orphan again. Son is a very different man compared to her former partners, a mysterious man from a lower class. Jadine understands how loving and trustworthy he is that night, a man women dream of getting rid of all their fears in his broad chest, unconsciously maybe, a man who will turn a woman into a “star”. But their backgrounds are so different, their relationship nearly turns into a battle of races. How long love alone can be enough for Jadine if she is away from the sparkling world she is in? A white man who proposed to her sent her a seal fur coat as a gift. Jadine, in a way, desires that coat, which was made from baby seals torn from their mothers’ wombs as they were asleep before they were born, caresses it like a lover, touches it at the beginning of the book. She does not leave the island without taking it. Son, as he underestimates the matter of money, criticizes Jadine’s education as well, asks her whether she has learned the necessary things or not. We have another problem of the western world here, how much solution do all the things that are learned offer to the problems of humanity, do they help us improve our characters, respect nature? Zadie Smith says there is a problem when the white man mentions education, there is a bad intention in her book “White Teeth”. They make the people in the lands they exploit like themselves, but they never behave them as their equals. Crusoe educated Friday in his own way, but Friday could only be his good slave.

When they go together to Florida, Eloe where Son was born and lived before, Jadine sees how different they are, she cannot build any identification with them. She feels that she cannot talk about it with Son in whose arms she forgets all her nightmares. She is a very strong woman of course, she can be alone, she does not need anyone. Here the writer tells us in a way, however successful we may be, our life in this world will not have a meaning, the need for love will not end, it is felt deep down that maybe we are born for this and it can be understood too late as well.  The writer makes us think deeply about the great problems of the modern world, reflects to us the contradictions of humanity from angles we have never thought of with unforgettable sentences and a mysterious style of expression.     

4 thoughts on ““TAR BABY” – MYSTICAL IMAGES, CONTRADICTIONS”

  1. great post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

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