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The Economic Grotesque and the Critique of Capitalism in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby
MELUS (2014)
  • Jean Wyatt, Occidental College

Tar Baby (1981) offers a critique of capitalism largely through satire. The parodic, exaggerated, and sometimes grotesque behaviors of the characters effectively make the point that participation in the regime of the commodity distorts and deforms human thinking and feeling. Reference to the categories of economic analysis in Karl Marx's Capital (1867-94) enables me to show how, throughout the novel, Toni Morrison challenges late capitalism's obsession with the commodity by insisting on the labor and social processes that go into commodity production. There are two specific sites of resistance to capitalism in the novel: the character Son and the creatures of nature. A Marxian frame elucidates the nuances of Son's Christmas Day diatribe against the capitalist Valerian; and the creatures of nature, to whom the narrative gives a voice, force an alternative perspective on the action, which brings out the follies of some of the capitalist characters.

Tar Baby's wide-ranging critique targets not only the ways that engagement in capitalist practices at the level of the individual deforms self-image, sexual desire, and love but also, at a more global level, the ways that capitalism has disadvantaged black people and harmed natural ecosystems through time. Subtle allusions to the historical antecedents of Son and Valerian bring the history of global capitalism, particularly the connection between the sugar trade and the slave trade, to bear on the contemporary characters' relationships. And these historical allusions introduce a subtheme of the general critique of capitalism: the specific problems that capitalism has created for black people throughout history and into the fictional present.

Publication Date
Spring 2014
Citation Information
Jean Wyatt. "The Economic Grotesque and the Critique of Capitalism in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby" MELUS Vol. 39 Iss. 1 (2014)
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