Editor's Analysis of "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story


The story of the Tar-Baby is perhaps the best-known of the Uncle Remus tales. In a fashion that Harris would utilize again, it begins where "Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy" ended, with the ramifications of the conflict between Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. The story opens with Brer Fox creating the Tar-Baby as an attempt to capture Brer Rabbit once and for all. This story is perhaps the first story in which the reader sees a dual side of Brer Rabbit. Instead of the victimized underdog, we learn of the many "affronts" that Brer Rabbit has committed within the animal community. We also learn of his prideful nature when he insists that the Tar-Baby is remiss in ignoring "respectubble folks" like himself. Essentially, this story introduces a fundamental aspect of Harris' tales--the reader reaction to Brer Rabbit. After his depiction in "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story", he assumes a much more complex characterization--a characterization that makes it more difficult for the reader to render a judgement about him. Do we applaud him for being the underdog or do we condemn the fact that he does not triumph because of his good nature, but rather through his trickery? In the introduction to the tales, Harris identified this dilemma by commenting on his own mixed feelings in rooting for Brer Rabbit, while having misgivings about his manner of escape.

In many ways, the racial characterization is as blurred as the moral characterization. If the tale is to be read as the depiction of one race triumphing over another, who is the victor in Tar-Baby? Contemporary literary critics, like Houston Baker, have suggested that the trickster figure--Brer Rabbit--frequently represents the way slaves saw themselves--getting along in a white plantation culture through subversion and cleverness. If this is the case, then why does Brer rabbit assume a superior attitude when dealing with the unresponsive Tar-Baby. Certainly his reaction may be attributed to pride, but Harris may also be documenting the subtleties of race relations. Is Brer Rabbit asserting his own superiority over one who is lower than he is one the social order? Does the silent Tar-Baby represent the lowest tier of plantation culture--the slave who has neither the education or the desire to assert himself in a white dominated world?

When Brer Rabbit is caught in the sticky substance of the Tar-Baby, the social implications of the tale shift. Instead of lording his "respectubbleness" over the Tar-Baby, Brer Rabbit is at the mercy of the Tar-Baby and its creator--Brer Fox. Is this a subtle reminder from the slave tradition of the dangers of assuming a position of superiority in a culture that hinges on the relationship between the dominant and the subordinate? Was the tale intended to function as a commentary of the plantation culture? Or, were they as Harris suggested--pithy anecdotes passed down for entertainment value?


Links:

  • Accompanying story
  • Directory of scanned stories
  • Preceding analysis (Uncle Remus Initiates...)
  • Next analysis (Too sharp)
  • Table of Contents