Tar Baby: Chapter 4
It is noon the day after the black intruder was invited by Valerian to stay for dinner. Margaret has had little sleep and lies in bed, not sure that she wants to face the day. She feels that Valerian insulted her by asking the man to dinner. If it were not for the fact that Michael is arriving shortly, she would pack up and leave that very day. She wonders what happened at the dinner, since she was not there. She had run up to her room and locked herself in. Maybe the man is already in jail, she thinks. She is angry with Valerian for not coming to tell her what has happened, and as she lies in bed she recalls the horrible moment when she discovered the man in her walk-in closet. She thinks with disgust of how the man was there in the closet, with all her clothes.
Meanwhile, Jadine shows off her new coat made out of sealskin to Ondine. It is a Christmas gift from Ryk. Ondine tells her that the intruder is staying in the guest room; she now realizes who it was who was stealing the chocolate and the Evian. Like Jadine, Ondine and Sydney are horrified at the situation, and Ondine hopes Valerian will get rid of that “thieving Negro” (p. 89) immediately.
After Ondine leaves, Jadine wraps her Christmas presents. She is worried that Sydney and Ondine are expecting her to stay permanently at the house and look after them, which she does not want to do. She recalls the dinner the previous evening. It turned out that the man had been in the house for about five days. He explained that after he jumped ship he came to the first house he saw. He did not give his name.
In the kitchen, Ondine deals with the man known as Yardman, who has brought some chickens. He kills one of them for her, and she begins to pluck it. She is still upset about the presence of the anonymous man, which has spoiled things for her, just when everything had seemed just fine.
Sydney arrives with the mail and reproaches her for not getting Yardman to pluck the chicken. He doesn’t think his wife should have to do such things. He acknowledges that he is agitated by the presence of the stranger. He thinks the man intended to rape Margaret, since he was hiding in her bedroom. Ondine tries to reassure him that Valerian will soon get rid of the man, and then things will return to normal, but Sydney is not convinced. He thinks the man is crazy and liable to do anything. He resents the fact that the intruder is sleeping in the guest room, next to Jadine. But Ondine tries to calm him down; she does not want him complaining to Valerian, since that might jeopardize their jobs.
After Sydney leaves, Ondine is relieved that she managed to calm him down and talk some sense about the situation, even though she is frightened. She reconciles herself to putting up with the stranger as long as he is allowed to stay.
In the washhouse, Thérèse is doing the laundry, waiting for her brother Gideon (Yardman) to pick her up. She had seen evidence of the visitor’s presence days before he had been discovered, although Gideon was the one who had seen him first. Gideon had found a way of making sure he would have access to the kitchen. Gideon had been told to repair the sash on the kitchen window, but he removed the window pane and told Ondine he was having difficulty finding another.
Gideon arrives with the news that the man is in the house. He has seen him in the window of Jadine’s room. He and Thérèse speculate that the guest in the house might be an old boyfriend of Jadine’s, and they wonder about what might happen now.
Jadine tries on her coat again, just as the man enters her room. He is wearing mauve silk pajamas. He says good morning to her politely, and for a moment she does not know how to respond. As they begin to talk, she offers him a cigarette. She tells him she is a model and shows him a picture of herself on the cover of a fashion magazine, going on to tell him that the jewelry she wears in the photographs is worth about half a million dollars. She explains her relationship with the Streets and how Valerian paid for her education, since she was an orphan.
The man then makes an insulting remark, asking her how many sexual favors she had to bestow in order to have such a successful career. Jadine attacks him with her fists, spits at him and kicks him. She tells him that if he rapes her, he is as good as dead. He calls her a “little white girl,” and this so infuriates her she says she will kill him, just for that. He lets her go; she says she will have to tell Valerian what happened. Frightened and angry, she walks out of the door, goes outside and walks down the road and sits on a large stone. She resolves to tell Valerian to get rid of the man that afternoon, and to dismiss the whole thing as a minor incident, but she is disturbed by it nonetheless. She sits on the stone for a long time. She realizes that she is embarrassed to tell on a black man to a white man. But then she decides that there is no betrayal involved because the man is dangerous. But when she returns home, determined to tell Valerian, she sees Valerian and the man in the greenhouse, “both laughing to beat the band” (p. 127).
Themes of racial attitudes and prejudices are prominent in this chapter. Margaret refers to the intruder as “literally a nigger in the woodpile” (p. 83) and “this real live dope addict ape” (p. 87). Sydney, a black man, also uses the same offensive term, referring to the man as a “stinking ignorant swamp nigger” (p. 100). In other words, the man is defined in terms of his race. Curiously, however, the man is treated well by Valerian, a white man. As for Jadine, the appearance of a black man who is not like the other blacks she mixes with is disturbing. She is accustomed to blacks who want the same thing that she wants, success and wealth, and they play according to the rules of white culture in order to achieve their desires. When the man calls her a “little white girl” he zeroes in on the aspect of her life Jadine is most sensitive about. For her part, she loathes him because he is the sort of black man she always wanted to get away from—rough, uneducated, unrefined, the kind of man who is contemptuous of her sophistication and success.
This chapter also gives a glimpse of the attitudes of the privileged people toward the less privileged. They do not even bother to learn their names. Gideon, for example, is known as Yardman because he is the gardener, the “yard man.” He is not seen as an individual in his own right. Even the black servants Ondine and Sydney call him Yardman. And Gideon’s sister, Thérèse, is known to the inhabitants of the house simply as Mary (as Jadine refers to her in this chapter), since they assume that all the local women must have Mary as one of their names. This shows how racial and class attitudes tend to demean those who have less or look different.