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MonkeyNotes-Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
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This chapter introduces the reader to the Caribbean island of Isle des Chevaliers and its inhabitants including the flora and fauna. Mostly it reveals the dynamics of the Street household and the many occupants' attitudes towards each other. The island's Nature is described in colorful detail by the author as well as personified. The reader sees the invasion of the island from the natural environment's perspective. The conquest of the island was cataclysmic as can be seen in its reaction to the occupation by humans. The river turned into a swamp and the birds and trees were destroyed. The conquering of this island by white men hundreds of years ago is described quite poetically.

Tar Baby makes use of myth and legend in both the Caribbean and African-American culture. Morrison sets both the historical and mythical background against which the characters live and react. In the first part of this chapter, the history and geography of the isle (where most of the drama will take place) is recounted. This is the isle that supposedly struck slaves blind the moment they saw it so dazzling was it. This legend is an important part of the story as seen later. Another reason why Toni Morrison includes this description of the island (that is conquered by man) is to introduce the conflict between man and nature in the novel.

The owner of the villa is one of the major characters in the novel: Valerian Street. He is white and eccentric; his idiosyncrasies are odd yet endearing. A person mentioned often as 'Principal Beauty' soon becomes Margaret, Valerian's wife. Valerian is in the greenhouse listening to some classical music when Sydney, the black butler, enters with iced tea. He notices that the liver spots have faded from his employer's hands and that he is becoming "darker" since having moved to the Caribbean. This is the first indication of the close relationship that Valerian shares with his butler.


A unique feature of almost all of Toni Morrison's novels is that there is a constant engaging dance between the present and the past. This is especially true of Tar Baby where the present narration is often interspersed with the recounting of past events and thoughts. Here, after Sydney enters the greenhouse and notices the fading liver spots, there is a passage about the hotel-like quality of the house and a recounting of a conversation between Sydney and Ondine that had taken place only six months after they had come to Isle des Chevaliers from Philadelphia. By employing this method, the author succeeds in creating scenes that are closer to reality and do not get monotonous. The readers learn quite a bit about Valerian and his past, his hobbies and his pastimes but much of it is through the eyes of his servants.

The division of labor is shown here to be classified by race. Whereas Margaret and Valerian are allowed to pursue their interests and pastimes, Sydney and Ondine, who may be just as old as them, are seen to be laboring on their behalf. They do not have the option to retire but must continue to work in order to survive. Jadine has designs on setting out on her own to make a fortune and this will provide Sydney and Valerian an opportunity to leave the Street household and live on her largesse.

Sydney and Valerian are friendly and indulge in casual banter. Small yet significant details into characters are given to the reader that will have greater relevance later. Margaret appears to be obsessed with calories and is probably anorexic or at least has an eating disorder. Valerian's suspicion that she drinks secretly prevents him from seeing that she is often bored and that when her son was barely a baby, she would torture him. Later, when Valerian learns the truth, he holds himself guilty of innocence. It then seems to him that it is easier to accept the fact that his wife drank than to know that she hurt their own baby.

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