Tar Baby: Metaphor Analysis
Soldier ants are referred to occasionally in the novel. They try to get into Valerian’s greenhouse and even eat through loudspeaker wires. Sydney thinks, “if ants will eat copper—something serious had to be done” (p. 284). Even though Son has an idea about how to curb the ants, they are presented as a relentless, unstoppable force. In chapter 10, as Jadine flies to Paris, Morrison constructs a mini-myth about the ant kingdom that presents a parallel to the lives of women. Most of the soldier ants are female, and their lives are so relentlessly busy that they “have no time for dreaming” (p. 290). There is so much to do, “the work is literally endless.” Also, the female ants have little time for males. The male ant dies after he has impregnated the female. After that the female is self-sufficient; the queen, the “little Amazon” (p. 291), builds her kingdom and bears her eggs. Her life consists of “Bearing, hunting, eating, fighting, burying.” There is no time for anything else. The ant kingdom suggests a self-sufficiency in the female world. Jadine, trying to process what Ondine has said to her about a woman’s role, thinks, “A grown woman did not need safety or its dreams. She was the safety she longed for.” (p. 290). Like the female ant, Jadine has been symbolically impregnated by Son (with ideas about what it really means to be a black person), and has also symbolically killed him off (rejecting him and flying to Paris).
The Isle des Chevaliers is described in terms that recall the Garden of Eden in Christian myth. It is so beautiful that three hundred years ago, slaves were struck blind as soon as they saw it. It was too beautiful even for human eyes. But this island paradise is fatally spoiled by the coming of the settlers who build their large houses in the hills at the expense of nature’s pristine purity, as when, for example, they redirect the river from its natural course. Nature itself laments the change that has come upon it: “The clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion” (p. 10). When houses rather than trees are in the hills, the surviving trees “dreamed of their comrades for years afterward [in] their nightmare mutterings” (p. 10). Even the climate changes. Instead of raining for an hour every day, the rain now comes in seasons. The descriptions of what happened on the Isle des Chevaliers recall the loss of the Edenic paradise due to the fall of man. Nature become more inhospitable, and human life becomes hard. This is clearly suggested by the name of the Streets’ house, L’arbe de la Croix (garden of the cross), which suggests in Christian symbolism the paradox of human life. The environment may still be beautiful, a kind of paradisal garden, but human life is full of suffering, as is amply demonstrated in the lives of Valerian and Margaret Street. Interestingly, Valerian, disappointed that his island paradise is less than he hoped it would be, retreats to his greenhouse where he listens to music and tends his plants. He tries to recreate another paradise to compensate for the one that has disappointed him. But paradise is not so easy to regain. Near the end of the novel, Sydney notices that the bricks that edge the courtyard are popping out of the ground, leaning in all kinds of different ways. It is as if something is urging them out of the earth. “Cement, he thought, is all that will keep this earth still. This place dislocates everything” (p. 284). His comment applies not only to the natural world but to the human world also, since everything has been dislocated after the arrival of Son. Paradise is not likely to return any time soon.