Tar Baby

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Ravishingly beautiful and emotionally incendiary, Tar Baby is Toni Morrison’s reinvention of the love story. Jadine Childs is a black fashion model with a white patron, a white boyfriend, and a coat made out of ninety perfect sealskins. Son is a black fugitive who embodies everything she loathes and desires. As Morrison follows their affair, which plays out from the Caribbean to Manhattan and the deep South, she charts all the nuances of obligation and betrayal between blacks and whites, masters and servants, and men and women.
Curriculet Details
60 Questions
64 Annotations
3 Quizzes

This free digital curriculum for high school students contains interactive videos exploring imagery and irony, as well as annotations describing tone, dialogue and character development. Students will explore the themes of racial identity and nature vs. civilization. The Common Core aligned questions, answers and quizzes in this free online unit will increase student engagement in the book while supporting reading comprehension.

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He believed he was...

Have you noticed that the author, Toni Morrison, uses many references to women in her description of the water. Watch for Morrison's use of female personification of nature elements throughout the book. (This annotation contains a video)
Which of the following phrases illustrates Morrison's use of female personification? 

Chapter 1

Again, Morrison personifies nature in the first paragraph when she uses the perspective of the clouds and fish and their feeling that the world is over to describe the development of the Carribbean island . 
The character of Valerie Sheridan clearly takes great pride in his greenhouse and his flowers. In fact, he provides them with _____________ that also irritates the butler, Sydney.   
Blanc de Blancs is a type of Champagne made only with special white grapes and with specific production techniques. This makes this particular champagne very exclusive and expensive. What does this reveal about the character of Valerian? 
Based on the dialogue between Valerian and his butler, Sydney, how would you characterize their relationship? 
Postum is a coffee substitute that was used during WWII because coffee wasn't available. Many people dislike the taste saying it tastes like a combination of burnt toast and molasses. Clearly, Valerian does not care for it.  (This annotation contains an image)
Give your first impressions of the character of Valerian so far.  
Yardman is considered a derogatory term for an African-American man who does odd jobs and yard work. Notice that Valerian does not use his first name, just the term Yardman. This is the first clue Morrison gives the reader that the book will explore identity and stereotypes with race. 
What are Valerian's wife, Margaret's, feelings about the staff they employ? 
When an author uses a great deal of dialogue in a story, the reader must use inferencing to figure out the dynamics of the relationships. Watch the video below about textual evidence and inferencing. Use these skills throughout the novel to help you understand what is going on between characters. (This annotation contains a video)
After reading a substantial portion of the breakfast conversation between Valerie and Margaret, how would you characterize his treatment of his wife? 
Pray doesn't mean a religious act in this sentence. It is a more old-fashioned way of asking someone something earnestly. 
Make a prediction about who the character of Jade is in the story. How is she connected to Valerian and Margaret based on their conversation so far? 
Margaret calls her African-American servants "Kingfish and Beulah." The names are an allusion to two characters in television comedies. Both shows depicted African-Americans in a stereotypical and derogatory manner. Are you starting to notice a pattern here? (This annotation contains an image)
What is meant by this section of dialogue "Don't push me into my last and final hour, Margaret. Let me saunter toward it"? 
Margaret's need to have a traditional Christmas dinner symbolizes her extreme desire to go back to the United States and have her son Michael visit. It's clear that she is not happy in the Caribbean and wants desperately to be near her son and her friends. (This annotation contains an image)
This first chapter establishes the dynamics of many of the relationships. How does Ondine feel about Margaret at this point? 
Authors structure their books in different ways. Morrison uses a great deal of dialogue to showcase the characters' interactions. While this can be sometimes confusing, it also allows the reader to feel like they are part of the action and make some authentic conclusions about the characters. 
How does Ondine treat Jadine's request for food in contrast to Margaret's? What does this say about the two relationships? 
Here is another example of how Morrison examines the roles of black identity on the island. Sydney and Ondine seem to rank higher in the black help hierarchy. The women Yardman brings to help around the house are all called "Mary" and choose to work outside and not inside the kitchen. Even Ondine considers this act "nasty" and "common" further complicating this complex issue. 

Chapter 2

Which of the following phrases is an example of a simile? 
As a young black woman working as a model in Paris, Jadine identifies more with her European white friends. The woman in the yellow dress embodies and embraces her own black identity and looks at Jadine with disdain and literally spits at her. This haunts Jadine and illustrates more of the racial identity theme Morrison is weaving into this novel. 
Jadine spends most of this section questioning her choice in men, the relationship with her aunt and uncle and her own desires for the future, but there is an underlying conflict feeding those questions. Identify the type of conflict she is facing. 
This chapter truly showcases the point of view narration used by Morrison. Please watch the video below and think about how the point of view is used throughout this chapter -- both in terms of narration and cultural perspective. (This annotation contains a video)
Although Valerian has finally retired to his Caribbean island, his thoughts take on a sad, regretful tone. Please explain why he could have a sense of regret and sadness looking back on his life. 
Joan Fontaine is an actress who starred in the 1940's movie "Rebecca." She plays the second wife to a man who will not let go of memories and objects still remaining of the dead first wife, Rebecca. The last image in the movie shows a silk nightdress monogrammed with the initial "R" engulfed in flames. (This annotation contains an image)
Why did Margaret begin to spend time with Ondine, despite the fact that Ondine was a servant working for her? 

Chapter 3

Morrison uses extensive nature imagery throughout this book. View the video below on imagery and think about the picture she is creating in your mind. Did you notice that she is using female personification again? (This annotation contains a video)
Valerian's constant criticism and correction of Margaret's pronunciation of the word "Eurydice" illustrates 
The tone of voice used when communicating with someone can dramatically change the meaning of what is being said. Watch the video below to see how meaning can change based on what word is stressed. Then think about what Valerian said to Margaret. Which word do you think he stressed to make her sound stupid? (This annotation contains a video)
Summarize Jadine's thoughts regarding the underlying basis for Valerian and Margaret's arguments. What is she questioning? 
Often, in the Catholic faith, young girls and boys will be given crosses as First Communion gifts. First Communion is the symbolic ceremony when a child receives the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist - holy bread. Below is an example of the cross Margaret could have received. (This annotation contains an image)
What is Valerian nervous about regarding Michael coming to the island for Christmas? 
When Valerian connects Michael to the children's book "The Little Prince" he is suggesting that Michael had never learned to grow up. One of the themes of the book suggests that some people are so narrow-minded that they cannot see past their own experiences. Think about this reference in terms of what Michael wanted Jadine to do rather than study at a fancy school in Paris. (This annotation contains an image)
The highlighted sentence supports the idea that 
Morrison uses a beautiful simile to describe Valerian's eyes. The gloaming refers to the time just before sunrise or after dusk.  (This annotation contains an image)
Who is this black man and where did he come from? 
Chapters 1 -3 Quiz 

Chapter 4

Morrison describes the man's hair as "living hair." This suggests a sort of "wildness" to his appearance. His hair consists of overgrown dreadlocks - much like the picture below.  (This annotation contains an image)
Make a prediction about the source of Margaret's confusion. 
Jadine's coat, from her boyfriend Ryk, is made from sealskin. Here is an example of what it may have looked like.  (This annotation contains an image)
The repetition of the color black in this passage indicates that Morrison is trying to illustrate what issue in the novel? 
Do you notice the "cat and mouse" game developing here. Valerian is used to being dominant and exerting control -- just his inviting him for dinner and to stay the night has irked many in the household. But the young black man still won't give up his name. Very interesting....Do you think this has become a challenge for Valerian? 
Both Ondine and Sydney, who are servants working for the Streets, do not call Gideon by his given name; they refer to him as Yardman. What does that say about their opinion of him and his position as compared to their own? 
Please review the video below for the definition of situational irony. (This annotation contains a video)
What plot event does Sydney discuss that showcases situational irony? 
Morrison uses nature imagery throughout the novel. This is an example of another theme beginning to emerge -- the theme of nature vs. civilization. Orchids collect rainwater and it heats as the temperature rises during the day. Nature has power even though humans feel that they are in control. The children stick their fingers into the orchids and are scalded by the hot water. Even orchids can bite back against humans. (This annotation contains an image)
What is it that has Gideon so excited? 
This long section tells the story of Gideon's journey that ends in him coming to work on the island. Clearly, the ending journey was not how he expected it to turn out. But he does value his "electric blue leisure suit."  (This annotation contains an image)
How does Therese feel about Ondine and Sydney? Why does she feel that way? 
An escritoire is a small writing desk. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the man suggesting in this line? 
Jadine is incensed by him calling her white and insinuating she had gotten to where she had in the modeling world with sexual favors. But in this section, she is also oddly attracted to him. Have you ever simultaneously hated and been fascinated by something? 
In this passage, the man uncovers one of Jadine's greatest fears. What is it? 

Chapter 5

Please view the video on irony below. Then re-read the highlighted line. What is ironic about how Jadine was bothered by the name that Margaret used to describe the intruder?  (This annotation contains a video)
What does this detail symbolize about the man and his racial identity? 
In the dark, Ake trees and their fruits would feel exactly like an avocado. The man takes a huge risk by taking a bite of the fruit without being sure which one it was. Look at the photo below. Can you understand why someone might think it was an avocado if they could not see the color? (This annotation contains an image)
What was the man's intentions when he entered the Streets' house? 
Before fancy washing machines, clothes were washed using a scrub board. The video below demonstrates the technique. It must have taken an awful long time to do a load of laundry. (This annotation contains a video)
What is it that Valerian sees in his greenhouse? 
Here, Morrison makes another thematic connection with race and identity. The candy that was named after Valerian, was one William used to eat. If you remember, that candy was only popular with the African American population. 
The ability of William to know what to do to get the flower to grow and then how to rid the greenhouse of ants, plays to what part of Valerian's personality? 
Therese held many misconceptions about America and asked Son about them. Other cultures have misconceptions about people of the Caribbean. Watch this entertaining video of two young people explaining some of the misconceptions about people of the Caribbean. (This annotation contains a video)
When Gideon is supposed to fire Therese, and then brings her back to the house claiming she is another woman, what racial stereotype is he illustrating? 
Hickey Freeman is a clothing designer and Paco Rabanne is a type of men's cologne. Now that Son has cleaned himself up, he also purchased a few clothing items. How do you think this is going to change Jadine's impression of him? (This annotation contains an image)
The details in the highlighted section suggest that Jadine is 
Dr. Scholl's is a brand of foot care products and shoe inserts. Again, Son is showing his well-rounded knowledge of all things. It helped him bond with Valerian and now may help him with Ondine. (This annotation contains an image)
What do you think are Son's motives in staying at the Streets? Do you think he is up to something, or genuinely just in a bind? 
Cierto Americano means "some American." This is repeated in Son's stream of consciousness descriptions. This technique allows the author to reveal the deepest part of a character's thoughts and feelings. It is when the character's mind wanders to one idea then another. Son's mind is wandering through some of his experiences before he came to the island.  
How does Son feel about money? 
Eloe is a fictional town that Son hails from. It is not unlike many small towns in Florida that have a primarily black population. This section of the chapter is exploring class distinctions and how geography can play a part in identity. 
The tone changes with the sentence "I killed someone." Which of the following most accurately describes the tone shift? 
After Son admits to Jadine that he had killed a woman, she begins to fear him. In the T.V. series Scandal, Olivia Pope discovers the love of her life has killed a woman to avoid exposing a secret. Compare Olivia and Jadine's reaction to the news. (This annotation contains a video)
Please watch the video below on pacing. (This annotation contains a video)
Son begs to see Jadine's feet to ensure that she is no longer afraid of him. Morrison uses almost a page and a half to play out this scene. How does the pacing increase the tension in this section? 
Frazetta is an illustrator of graphic art. Below is an example of his work. (This annotation contains an image)
Jadine sinks up to her knees into a tar pit while waiting for Son to return with gas. When they get back, Jadine attempts to clean up. Margaret's highlighted statement is an example of what literary technique? 

Chapter 6

Valerian and Son can be considered symbols for civilization and nature. It is Son that helps the flowers bloom and Valerian who finances all the help and pays for Jadine's education. This civilization vs. nature can be a connection or a conflict. Keep this idea in mind as the novel progresses. 
Ollieballen is a Dutch doughnut.  (This annotation contains an image)
What is significant about the highlighted statement? 
The highlighted statement shows that even Ondine and Sydney believe in a hierarchy within their own black community. Even though they had warmed up to Son, clearly they now think of him as beneath both themselves and Jadine. Look for more ways that the racial issue shows up throughout the novel.  
Are you surprised that Michael did not show for Christmas Eve dinner? Why or why not? 
Three Stooges is an old comedy group that specialized in slapstick humor.  (This annotation contains a video)
What does the word gaiety mean in the highlighted sentence? 
Isn't it ironic that when Gideon and Therese stole apples they were fired, yet when Son stole food and was found in the house -- he was welcomed as a guest. What does that tell you about Valerian's state of mind at this point? 
Son is _____________ with Valerian after he announces he fired Gideon and Therese for stealing apples. 
This dinner is going downhill very quickly. The only thing that Margaret wanted was to have a nice family Christmas. Oftentimes, when there is great expectation - the event does not live up to they hype. Did you predict that the dinner would turn out this way?  
What horrific revelation does Ondine reveal at the end of the disastrous Christmas dinner? 
Make some predictions about what you think will happen with this family dynamic after Ondine's revelation? 
Chapters 4 - 7 Quiz 

Chapter 7

Son has returned to the United States, but feels alienated by the pace and the lights of New York City. He doesn't identify with the black people he sees on the street. Have you ever been away from something for a while and then it seems completely different when you came back to it? (This annotation contains an image)
What type of language is being used in all the descriptions Son has of New York City and of Jadine? 
New York Fashion week provides many opportunities for models to earn money by walking the catwalk. Jadine has a great deal of success in modeling and uses her skills to earn money for both she and Son.  (This annotation contains an image)
Why does Son think that Valerian's motives were not altruistic and pure towards Jadine? 
Bergdorf's is a luxury department store located in New York City catering to the wealthy. This is a symbol of the world that Jadine lives in, which is very different than the one in which Son resides. (This annotation contains an image)

Chapter 8

While Valerian thought that Margaret was an alcoholic and that was why she behaved the way she did towards their son, what was the real reason? 
Valerian seems paralyzed by the revelation that his little boy had been abused. This also illustrates that Margaret is a more complicated character than previously thought. How might this disclosure change things in their relationship? 
This paragraph showcases a theme that has been developing throughout the novel. Which one of the following best describes this theme? 
This family could be classified as a dysfunctional family -- one in which no one acknowledges that problems exist. This can lead to family members shutting themselves off from feelings and repressing their emotions. Which characters in this novel seem to do that? 
Why didn't Ondine tell someone about Margaret's physical abuse of Michael? 
Where Valerian was always able to control his surroundings and the people in his life, this is the first time he has no control. He can't wish the images of his son hiding under the sink away. He has to just live in the guilt of being innocent and not able to make it go away. This is turning out to be almost too challenging for Valerian. 
This is where the saying "don't kill the messenger" comes from. 

Chapter 9

Why couldn't Jadine understand the language Soldier used with his friends in Eloe? 
Vespers is a sunset evening prayer. Many different religions practice vespers. 
Why doesn't Son's father want Jadine to stay overnight at his house? 
Jadine feels suffocated in Eloe, while Son feels right at home. Whereas at the Streets' house, he did not want to conform to their ideas, here in Eloe he obeys his father's wishes about where Jadine will stay. This shows his Eloe roots are still there after all those years away. Do you think this will come between Son and Jadine? 
Make some predictions about the future of Jadine and Son's relationship based on the trip to Eloe.   
Succubi was a female demon that appears in dreams to seduce men.  (This annotation contains an image)
The visions of the women and the plant sounds are part of a literary technique called Magical Realism. It is a technique in literature and art where magical elements are part of the regular, normal world. Below is an example of magical realism in art by a painter named Michael Parks. (This annotation contains an image)
What do all these women have in common that Jadine feels alienated from? 
Jadine was educated at a school in Paris called the Sorbonne or otherwise known as the University of Paris. This is one of the most famous schools in Europe. Below is a picture of the school. Can you imagine Son in that environment? That might be the problem.  (This annotation contains an image)
Son describes Jadine as "a model of industry." When Morrison uses this metaphor she means that Jadine was 
Son is referring to the story of the rabbit and the tar baby. Watch this short video of the folktale and then think about how this story relates to the novel as a whole. (This annotation contains a video)

Chapter 10

What literary device does Morrison use in the highlighted sentence to show that the island was becoming more wild and less civilized? 
The poodle cut was a style of hair from the 1950's. Below is an example.  (This annotation contains an image)
In the highlighted statement, Ondine makes what point?  
Ondine is trying to teach Jadine that she can be both a modern and black woman and still hold onto her black roots. Unfortunately, Jadine doesn't accept her argument. She didn't grow up around a black culture. Do you think Ondine has a point or is Jadine too far removed from her cultural roots to recognize this? 
What has happened to Valerie in the last few months and why? 
Morrison uses an extended metaphor in the highlighted line that Jadine couldn't always control her life and is running away from the black culture that keeps calling out to her. Her escape to Paris is her way of disowning that part of her life, as it has only caused heartache and pain. 
Jadine noticing Alma Estee's eyes and describes them as "the eyes of a curious deer" illustrates what motif that has threaded its way throughout the novel? 

The man sat on the...

Caribbean downtown areas were not planned out. They evolved from former homes and turned into commercial buildings. Below is an example of such an area.  (This annotation contains an image)
Why did Son return to the Isle des Chevaliers? 
Cloissone is a an elaborate decoration applied to metals such as bowls, jewelry, etc. It is very ornate and expensive. Son refers to this and "raw silk" as a metaphor for wanting and choosing Jadine and her affluent cosmopolitan ways.  (This annotation contains an image)
Make a prediction about what will happen if Son does go to the Streets' home. 
Son must choose between the civilized foreign life or the wild, nature-filled black culture that he has always loved and cherished. Love or identity? What does Son decide? 
Chapters 8 -10 Quiz