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

Tuula Kolehmainen


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.


African American; stereotypes; trickster; tar baby; racism

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