Tar Baby: Chapter 8
Valerian sits in his greenhouse trying to understand what Margaret has admitted to doing. He used to think that she drank in secret, but this is worse. She used to stick pins in her baby. She knew it was wrong, but there was something “delicious” about it, she told him at the dinner table after the others had left. He is stunned by her admission. He sits at the dinner table until two in the morning, when Sydney comes to him. Sydney asks if he is going to fire him and Ondine, and Valerian replies that he does not know. Eventually Valerian manages to get to bed, still stunned by the revelation that his wife had deliberately hurt their son. He feels he must cry about it and shed a lifetime of “blood tears” for every wound his baby son suffered.
The next morning Margaret awakes, almost relieved that the truth has finally come out. Bit by bit, she tells her husband more about what she did and why. She says it did not happen as often as he thinks, and that she loved her son. The first time she did it, it was an accident, but from then on it became important to her, something to look forward to and resist at the same time. It replaced the boredom she had felt before. She also was resentful of how needy the infant son was and she wanted to put a limit on it by destroying the trust he had in his mother. She insists the boy was not damaged by the experience, but Valerian cannot accept this. He calls her disgusting and monstrous. When he asks why Michael did not tell him, Margaret suggests it was because he was ashamed. She also says that Michael knows that she loves him, and he loves her too. However, she also feels guilt and at one point asks Valerian to hit her. He refuses.
On New Year’s Day, Margaret goes to the kitchen and makes her peace with Ondine. She tells Ondine that it would have been better had she said something about the abuse earlier. She thinks Ondine wanted her to hate her. Ondine denies this. Then Margaret says she came to the kitchen to apologize, and Ondine says she is sorry too. Ondine then says there was no one to tell. If she had said anything, she and Sydney would have been fired. Margaret replies that she wished Ondine had helped her. She also asks that she be forgiven, to which Ondine replies that Margaret has to forgive herself. Margaret says they should be friends and asks Ondine if it is too late. Ondine replies, “Almost.”
Meanwhile, Valerian reproaches himself for not finding out earlier about the abuse.
The focus in this chapter is on Valerian and Margaret. Up to now, it has appeared that Valerian is the one in charge, the stronger character who still controls his wife, to her frustration. But the revelation of the full extent of Margaret’s earlier disturbed psychological state has shifted things between them. Now it is Valerian who is struggling. He has to find a way of living with himself because he failed to notice what was being done to his son. He feels as guilty as Margaret does, perhaps even more so. She has reconciled herself to what happened and has found a way of living with it. She is tougher than Valerian, as he himself realizes. As the next chapters will show, Valerian is in effect destroyed by this revelation of his wife’s unspeakable cruelty to their son. His attempt to wall himself off from life in his greenhouse, to fill his days with classical music, to always be in control, has suddenly broken down, and his life will never be the same again. He realizes the paradox of his situation, that he is guilty of innocence. He had not taken enough trouble to know his wife or his son. Now he must pay the price for being so uninvolved; his world, his little tropical paradise, must now accommodate the disturbing fact that other humans, namely his own wife, are capable of great cruelty toward the innocent.
As for Margaret, nothing can really “explain” why she did what she did. Certainly, as a young woman she was deeply unhappy, married to a man much older than she and living in a place far from home where she did not fit in. She felt bored and probably hopeless, without anything meaningful in her life. What caused her to take out her frustrations in such an appalling way, however, must remain a mystery. A mother who deliberately harms her own child, while convincing herself that he did not suffer much, needs psychological help, which was something Margaret, isolated on the Isle des Chevaliers, never had any hope of receiving.