Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Breath, Eyes, Memory achieved both critical and popular success. The characters, the lyrical prose, and the interweaving of myth, tradition, experience, and knowledge all combine to create a powerful novel.
Danticat draws on her Haitian American heritage; she, too, stayed behind when her parents went to New York City for work, living with relatives until the age of twelve, when she also moved. The Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti during her childhood provides the novel’s political backdrop, evoked by the fear of the citizens, the brutality of the soldiers, and by Sophie’s encounter with a boy who has lost his father to the violence. Danticat has said that part of her attraction to writing stemmed from her wish to break the silence imposed on Haiti; she was also drawn by the inherent danger of such an activity.
Sophie’s quest requires her to come to terms with her own history, the strength in her own family, and the beauty, as well as the hardships, of Haitian society. She must also balance her two identities, American and Haitian. She faces prejudice from Americans and questioning by the Haitians when she returns. A small but intriguing example of this occurs when she goes jogging on her last visit to her grandmother, as the people working in the fields wonder, “Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become such frightened creatures that they run like the wind, from nothing at all.”
Danticat’s themes of political repression, feminism, and cultural identity all coalesce in the attention to storytelling. Readers hear the stories passed down from mother to child for generations, both to delight and to terrify. After her mother’s funeral, Sophie hears the following from Grandma Ife: “There is always a place where, if you listen closely in the night, you will hear your mother telling a story and at the end of the tale, she will ask you this question: Ou libere?’ Are you free, my daughter?” For Sophie, Martine, Atie, Grandma Ife, Haiti, and America, the question echoes throughout Danticat’s novel.