Sophie Caco grows from a young girl to an adult woman with her own child. She is the emotional, as well as the narrative, heart of the novel. The third-person limited narration gives Sophie’s often bewildered view of a world over which she feels she has no control. She cannot stop herself from being shipped off to America; she cannot stop her mother’s nightmares and the tests; she cannot understand the circumstances of her own reactions to the events around her. She fights back the only way she knows how: by marrying Joseph and leaving her mother’s house. By the end, she comes closer to understanding her own behavior and the behavior of her family members, but the cost has been great—estrangement from her mother, problems with her husband, and anger at her family. Her relationship with her mother—who moves from a voice on a tape recording to a living presence to a tormentor to a role model—shapes her world in ways she only begins to understand by the end of the novel.
Tante Atie spent years of sacrifice to rear Sophie, only to have her returned to her mother. While she insists that Sophie belongs with her mother, the loss of Sophie greatly affects Atie’s life for the worse. Readers learn that Atie as a young woman planned to marry but that the man left her for someone else. Atie and Sophie live across the street from this man and his wife; Atie watches them at night and cries. When Sophie leaves, Atie returns to care for her mother—the duty of the elder, unmarried daughter. Sophie sees her suffering, but for many years cannot understand it.
Martine Caco also lives her life according to her duties. She works long hours to support herself, to send money to her mother, sister, and daughter, and to enable her to send for Sophie. She has endured many hardships, from the rape that resulted in Sophie’s birth to cancer to nightly terrors in her sleep. Martine desperately wants a better life for her daughter than the one she has lived.
Grandma Ife takes her role as matriarch seriously, never hesitating to instruct, correct, bully, and lead her family. Sophie comes to understand her wisdom, her ability to hear things others cannot, and her fear for the future of her family, but she holds her responsible as well for some of the indignities of her life, such as the “test.”
Sophie’s husband Joseph and Martine’s lover Marc also fit into the story, but both are presented as relatively flat, static characters. Both support the women in their lives and care deeply about them.
Sophie, her mother Martine, and Tante Atie are the three women at the core of the novel. All three suffer from their condition as women. Atie is rejected by the man she loves, a man whose marital happiness she is condemned to observe from close range, and she then must give up the niece she has raised since birth. Later in the novel, her friend Louise, who had introduced her to an intimacy and understanding she had never before experienced, abandons her. Tante Atie bitterly explains to Sophie the plight of the Haitian woman expected to dedicate each of her ten fingers to the needs of others. Martine never recovers from the brutality of the rape that forced her into exile and resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. In New York, she feels isolated by her menial work and dark skin, and her womanhood is further undermined by the loss of...
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her breasts to cancer. Despite her considerable successes, including a better job and the love of a good man, she cannot keep her nightmares at bay, nor can she learn to believe in herself.
These two women offer Sophie very different versions of her birth. Martine notes that Sophie’s face is the same as the rapist’s, a constant reminder of the violence of her conception. Tante Atie speaks of a child “born out of the petal of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky.” Sophie must learn to embrace the love and rich heritage represented by her aunt’s words and to liberate her mind and body from the legacy of violence and self-hatred that has destroyed her mother. It is this journey that the novel follows and that Sophie narrates.
Despite the novel’s feminism and its powerful critique of patriarchal ideas and practices, its two major male figures are kind and loving men. Marc tries to help Martine in any way he can. He sobs when she dies and ultimately travels back to Haiti with Sophie to bury her. Joseph waits patiently for Sophie to heal and return to him. Though neither is fully developed as a character, they provide positive counterpoints to the Tonton Macoutes.
Sophie, who narrates the novel, occupies pivotal positions between her mother and her daughter, the old world and the new, the present and the past. While she retains some traditions of her native land (she cooks native dishes and revels in the art of storytelling), she burns to keep her daughter safe from the pain she suffered because of the pressure placed on her by Martine, her mother. Sophie, unlike Martine, does not harbor unrealistic expectations for Brigette, her infant daughter. She neither insists that she will be a doctor, as her own mother did, nor does she feel an urgent need to be vigilant against the threats to her chastity that will accompany Brigette's maturation. Very much a woman of the new world, Sophie attempts to deal with her trauma in healthy, progressive ways. She attends therapy sessions and group meetings in an effort to free herself from nightmares, sexual dysfunction and bulimia—each a result of the pressures placed on her by her mother and her culture. Danticat expresses her hope for the future through Sophie who, at the novel's conclusion, can still celebrate the land and the past which cause herself and her family to suffer so much.
Like her daughter, Sophie, Martine staggers under the weight of her nightmares and her tortured past. Though she abhorred her mother Ife's attention to her chastity, Martine places Sophie under the same scrutiny, unable to free herself from the burden of tradition. Martine is determined to keep her daughter pure for her future husband and focused on the studies she hopes will end in a medical degree. She has supreme faith in the opportunities offered by the United States and cannot accept that her daughter might fall short of her highest expectations. For this reason she rejects Joseph, a jazz musician whom Sophie loves, as a possible husband. Sophie rebels by eloping and becoming temporarily estranged from her mother. By the novel's end, Martine and her daughter are reconciled, but, unable to exorcise them, Martine finally and tragically succumbs to the ghosts which oppress her. Martine's suicide attests to the limits of human endurance and to the capacity for trauma to retain its pernicious influence decades after the event.
Ife is, in many ways, the character who holds together and drives Danticat's narrative. She embodies both the nurturing and destructive sides of mothers and motherlands. As the common parent she is bound to Sophie, Martine and Atie by blood, but she also pushes them apart by perpetuating the patriarchal traditions which cause her offspring so much pain. It is also through Ife that Danticat reveals her affection for the dying art of storytelling. Children from her village flock to the old lady to hear her stories and legends. There is a sense that with her death will come the death of old and priceless traditions, myths and legends.
In the novel's opening chapters, Atie enjoys the blessings of motherhood. The first scenes depict her raising Sophie as her own; Sophie even makes her a card for Mother's Day. Atie, however, always knew that this motherhood would be short. It does, however, demonstrate the strength of the bond between mother and daughter, even when circumstance rather than blood assigns those titles. Though happy together, Sophie and Atie must acquiesce to Martine's request to take her daughter back; the bond of blood between Sophie and a mother she never met is stronger than that forged in the years she shared a bed with Atie. Without a daughter, Atie returns to her mother, Ife. There she feels trapped, unable to abandon her mother and go to America and unwilling to endure living in her shadow. Atie's character reveals the joys of motherhood by dramatizing the pains which come with being a childless old maid.
Joseph and Marc, Sophie's husband and Martine's lover respectively, function as interesting counterpoints to the men of Haiti. Unlike the violent Macoutes or the crude bus driver who makes untoward advances to Sophie, these men are gentle, sensitive and driven by emotions more complex than carnal desire. Marc fits Martine's ideal for emigres. Himself a first-generation Haitian-American, Marc has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to secure a respectable career as a lawyer. Martine uses his success as a benchmark for her daughter's. Marc also reflects some of Danticat's ambivalence about the flood of Haitians to America. Though he says he would do anything for just one more of his mother's home-cooked meals, Marc is grateful he escaped the island.
Danticat portrays Joseph as an ideal man: nurturing, understanding and supportive. This compassion underscores the trauma of Sophie's upbringing because it demonstrates that she cannot even feel comfortable with a man who appears perfect. Not even Joseph's tenderness can cure the wounds inflicted by Sophie's mother and by the weight of tradition. Joseph also calls attention to the connection of all Black cultures to Africa. Born and raised in Louisiana, Joseph is the only outsider in Danticat's dramatis personae of Haitian characters. He repeatedly asserts that though he is an African-American where Sophie is Haitian-American, they are both African before all things. He demonstrates Africa's influence as the universal motherland by citing aspects of language and music shared by Sophie's Haiti and his New Orleans: his bayou Creole is the same as Sophie's island language; his spirituals sprung from the same source as the songs sung by Haiti's cane field workers.