“He Mought, en Den Again He Moughtent”: The Ambiguous Man in Toni Morrison’s <i>Tar Baby</i>


  • Tuula Kolehmainen University of Helsinki




African American, stereotypes, trickster, tar baby, racism


In this article, I discuss Toni Morrison’s 1981 novel, Tar Baby, through the lens of a trickster tale on which the novel is loosely based. Tar Baby invites one to choose sides between Jadine, the African American female protagonist with a European education and worldviews, or Son, the bearer of a more traditional African American cultural heritage and values. Son is initially constructed as other, and his representation is based on negative stereotypical notions of the African American male. First impressions need to be revised later, as the text plays with the readers’ sympathies about Son. Even his survival is left open at the end of the novel and the range of options of how to categorize Son would seem to reflect the readers’ perceptions back on themselves. In this way, Morrison sets up a trap in which any reader making too easy or essentialist definitions of the character will fall. Thus, the most important expression of the trickster tale is the novel’s name: the novel itself is the tar baby. Moreover, the most important construction of tar lies in the ambiguous representation of Son.

Author Biography

Tuula Kolehmainen, University of Helsinki

Tuula Kolehmainen is a doctoral student in English Philology at the University of Helsinki. The title of her doctoral thesis is “Like Men They Stood: Marginalized Men and Stereotyping in Fiction by African American
Women.” While in her dissertation she focuses on fiction written by African American female authors during the 1970s and 1980s, she has also published an essay on Jhumpa Lahiri’s short fiction in the Keltaiset esseet collection (2016). Being an up-and- coming stand up comedian herself, she is passionate about humor in all of its forms. She can be reached at tuula.kolehmainen@helsinki.fi.




How to Cite

Kolehmainen, T. (2018). “He Mought, en Den Again He Moughtent”: The Ambiguous Man in Toni Morrison’s <i>Tar Baby</i>. American Studies in Scandinavia, 50(1), 63–82. https://doi.org/10.22439/asca.v50i1.5694