Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Breath, Eyes, Memory presents readers with many painful, difficult realities about human suffering and society, yet it does so with lyrical beauty and insight into the courage and fortitude of its characters. While the novel deals with the political turmoil and deprivation of Haiti and the difficulties of racism, prejudice, and identity in America, the main focus remains on the four women central to the novel. The theme of mothers and daughters weaves itself throughout all four parts. Sophie sees herself as “my mother’s daughter and Tante Atie’s child.” Much of the power of the novel stems from the slow attainment of understanding about her family.

The women created, both the major and minor characters, inhabit a world controlled, and sometimes invaded, by men. From the rapist who attacked Martine to the soldiers in Haiti to husbands and lovers and jilters, the novel portrays a world that revolves around men. While there are positive male characters presented, the effects of repression, stereotypes, and tradition take center stage. Sexual behavior is a case in point: Because this world prizes chastity in women, mothers submit their daughters to the “test” in order to preserve them. Sophie learns that her mother administered the test because her mother did; Grandma Ife, in turn, did the same because her mother did.

To focus only on the pain in the novel, however, misses much of the power and lyricism of Danticat’s work. Along with negative traditions and difficulties, she shows the strength, indomitability, and endurance of these lives. Sophie finally sees the courage and gifts in their lives, including that her mother was “brave as the stars at dawn.” For all the other turmoil in the novel—political, sexual, societal, generational—one question remains the central theme: Can Sophie free herself to see the complexity, the sacrifice, the good and the evil of these relationships central to her life?

Breath, Eyes, Memory Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Many of Breath, Eyes, Memory’s most important themes are tied to Haitian folklore and legend. The novel celebrates the strength of Haiti’s women and condemns the violence of its history. “Caco” is the much-revered name of the fighters who bravely resisted the island’s American occupation. The novel’s women are repeatedly associated with a Haitian creation myth in which trouble is granted only to those strong enough to carry the sky on their heads. Erzulie, the goddess worshipped by Haitian women, is an ambiguous figure, both Christian and pagan, both virgin and temptress, and thus may represent the mixed and ultimately destructive messages women receive.

The text’s most frequently referenced Haitian myth is that of the Marassas, twins assumed to have special powers and associated with the theme of doubling. As Martine tests Sophie’s virginity, she tells her that the Marassas were inseparable lovers closer to each other than to their shadows; she wishes for an equally close relationship between herself and Sophie. The very distrust and violation represented by the testing itself prevents mother and daughter from enjoying such closeness, however. Tante Atie and Louise come close to a Marassas ideal, but the relationship is short-lived. For Danticat, the Marassas myth may be less about finding one’s soulmate and more about reconciling the warring selves within one individual.

In addition to its cultural richness, the novel is filled with vivid imagery and metaphor, most obviously the use of color. The opening sections are bathed in yellow. Sophie loves yellow flowers and especially daffodils, flowers that, like Sophie and her mother, must learn to live in an alien environment. When Sophie and her mother move to their new neighborhood, they decorate everything in red. Sophie buries her mother in an inappropriate, crimson suit, choosing to remember her as the “hot-blooded Erzulie” and the magnificent scarlet bird also named “Caco.”

Breath, Eyes, Memory Themes

Immigration and Assimilation
Throughout the book, Sophie and Martine travel from Haiti to the United States, and back to Haiti....

(The entire section is 783 words.)

Breath, Eyes, Memory Themes

The endeavor to reconcile two realities is a theme which pervades Breath, Eyes, Memory. Each character struggles to preserve something...

(The entire section is 534 words.)