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...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
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 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.