Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277
Political Terror in Haiti
Haiti in the early 1980s was ruled by Jean Claude ‘‘Baby Doc’’ Duvalier, son of the infamous dictator Francois ‘‘Papa Doc’’ Duvalier. During Papa Doc's regime, the longest in Haitian history, he executed all opponents without trial, and kept troops of unpaid volunteers, known as Tontons Macoutes, who were given license to torture, rape, and kill people at will. During his rule, the Haitian economy deteriorated and only 10 percent of the population could read. Papa Doc encouraged the population to believe that he was an accomplished practitioner of voudon, or voodoo, and possessed supernatural powers; to rebel against him invited death. After Papa Doc's death in 1971, his son succeeded him, continuing his reign of terror until 1986, when he was overthrown. Even after his overthrow, although the Tontons Macoutes were no longer officially condoned, they still terrorized the population.
The Tontons Macoutes are ever-present in the book, since Sophie was born as a result of one of them raping her mother when she was sixteen-years-old. For the rest of her life, long after she has moved to Brooklyn, Martine has terrifying dreams of this event and of the rapist, and passes her fear on to Sophie, who, everyone believes, looks just like the rapist since she does not look like anyone in her family. As a child, Sophie is aware that there is unrest and killing beyond her small town, and sees it for herself on the trip to the airport when she is leaving for the United States. Outside the airport they see a car in flames, students protesting, and soldiers shooting bullets and tear gas at them. They watch helplessly as a soldier beats a girl's head in with his gun. On the airplane, Sophie sits next to a small boy whose father has just been killed in the demonstration but who is traveling alone anyway, because he has no relatives left in Haiti.
The prevalence of poverty and illiteracy in Haiti is also important in the book. Sophie's Tante Atie, who cannot read, tells her, ''We are a family with dirt under our fingernails,’’ meaning that they have always been poor agricultural laborers, and says that the only way Sophie will improve her life is to become educated. Atie tells Sophie that when Atie was small, the whole family had to work in the sugar cane fields, and when Sophie's grandfather died in the field one day, they simply had to dig a hole, bury him, and move on. Her mother also tells her, ‘‘Your schooling is the only thing that will make people respect you. If you make something of yourself, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads.’’
Traditional Role of Women
In Haiti, traditional belief holds that a woman's place is in the home. Tante Atie tells Sophie that when she was a girl, Grandma Ife told her that each of her ten fingers has a purpose: Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. Wistfully Atie says that she sometimes wished she had been born with six fingers on each hand, so she could have two left over for herself.
Despite the fact that women do so much, they are not valued as much as men. When Sophie returns to Haiti with her baby daughter, one night she and her grandmother sit watching a light moving back and forth on a distant hill. Her grandmother tells her this means someone is having a baby, and the light is the midwife walking back and forth with a lantern in the yard, where a pot of water was boiling. She also says that they can tell from what happens to the light whether the child is a boy or a girl. If it is a boy, she says, the lantern will be put outside the shack and if the father is there, he will stay up all night with the new baby boy. Sophie asks what will happen if the child is a girl, and her grandmother tells her, ' 'If it is a girl, the midwife will cut the child's cord and go home. Only the mother will be left in the darkness to hold her child. There will be no lamps, no candles, no more light.’’
In Haiti, it is considered very important for a girl to remain a virgin until she is married, because her chastity, or lack of it, affects the reputation of the entire family. Because of this, Martine goes to great lengths to keep Sophie away from men, encourages her to dress in conservative clothes that do not show her figure, and does not allow her to date until she is eighteen. As Sophie says, ''Men were as mysterious to me as white people, who in Haiti we had only known as missionaries.’’ In addition, although they have moved to America, Martine follows an old Haitian custom of "testing" Sophie to make sure she is still a virgin by inserting a finger into her vagina and checking to see if her hymen is still intact. This "testing" was done to Martine and Atie by Sophie's grandmother, and presumably her grandmother was tested as a girl, too. Although it has caused great emotional pain to every generation, women have continued to do it to their daughters only because, as Martine explains, it was done to them and because they were told it was the right thing to do.
Culture Clash in Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, both women try to balance the two cultures: Haitian and American. Sophie goes to a French-speaking school but hates it, because it's as if she is still in Haiti, and because American students in the neighborhood taunt her, calling her "Frenchie" and ‘‘stinking Haitian,’’ and saying that because she's Haitian and many Haitians have died of AIDS, she must be a carrier of the AIDS virus. Martine, who associates Haitian food and customs with the rape she experienced as a young girl, cooks American foods such as lasagna, but still goes to Haitian shops to buy castor oil to dress her hair, Haitian spices, and images of Erzulie, a Haitian goddess. Martine is aware of the difficulties for immigrants and tells Sophie, ''It is really hard for the new-generation girls. You will have to choose between the really old-fashioned Haitians and the new-generation Haitians. The old-fashioned ones are not exactly prize fruits. They make you cook plantains and rice and beans and never let you feed them lasagna. The problem with the new generation is that a lot of them have lost their sense of obligation to the family's honor. Rather than become doctors and engineers, they want to drive taxicabs to make quick cash.’’
When Sophie moves to Brooklyn, although she and her mother live in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, she is aware that by Haitian standards, she is rich. Her mother's closet, for example, would have been considered a whole room in Haiti, and any child lucky enough to sleep in it would not have been bothered by the hanging clothes. Both Sophie and her mother suffer from eating disorders after they come to the States, because they are not used to the huge variety and abundance of food. In Haiti, where food is scarce, when people have a lot of it, they eat like they may not see any tomorrow—because they may not. So, in Brooklyn, both Sophie and her mother can't shake their fear of hunger, and when they have food, they can't stop eating. Martine gains sixty pounds during her first year in the United States, and Sophie becomes bulimic, eating huge quantities of food and then vomiting it up.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1108
Point of View
Sophie's story is told in the first-person and is largely chronological, although some events are not explained or explored until later in the book, when other events give the explanations more depth and context. Sophie is twelve when the novel begins, and nineteen when it ends; the book is told from the grown Sophie's viewpoint. Skillfully, Danticat conveys a child's sense of the world in the early chapters, and a more mature view in the later ones, where Sophie becomes more aware of the suffering of other women in her family and how it relates to her own emotional pain.
Set in Haiti and in Brooklyn, the book is steeped in Haitian culture, language, folklore, cuisine, and customs. Danticat's description of Haiti is lush and vivid, filled with colors, smells, and sensory experiences, but with an undercurrent of fear brought on by dangerous political unrest and deep poverty. As a child, however, she is largely sheltered from this fear. The bright colors, tropical tastes and scents, and warmth of Haiti are sharply contrasted with the cold, gray, graffiti-covered, and run-down Brooklyn neighborhood she moves to. In addition, in Haiti she is part of a small-town neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else, and where her grandmother and aunt tell family stories and folktales. In Brooklyn, her life in her mother's small apartment still revolves around Haiti, as her mother shops in Haitian stores, sends money home to Haiti, insists that she stay away from American teenagers, and sends her to a French-speaking school. American students tease her, and because she spends all of her time either at school, church, or home, she doesn't have any friends, and also does not know any of her neighbors until, by stealth, she discovers Joseph's name.
Use of Myth and Folklore
Danticat does not directly use myth as a source for her story, but the book is infused with Haitian folklore and the presence of Haitian deities, particularly Erzulie, the goddess whose image is often mingled with that of the Virgin Mary, but who is also considered to be beautiful and sexually enticing. Erzulie, ''the healer of all women and the desire of all men,’’ who unites and reconciles these two images—the chaste and the sexual—embodies one of the major themes of the book, the need for sexual healing that all the women characters experience.
In addition, many folktales are told in the book, often as lessons or as ways of deepening the characters' understanding of real life. Sophie's grandmother tells her that some people have more trouble in their lives than others; this is because, though they don't know it, they are special people, spiritually tall, mighty, and strong, who support the sky on their heads. Sophie's father, the unknown rapist, is compared to a cannibalistic bogeyman known as a Tonton Macoute—also a name for the real-life guerrilla vigilantes who roam the countryside killing people.
Several symbols recur throughout the book. Daffodils, which are not native to Haiti, are Martine's favorite flower, because they grow in a place they are not supposed to; after Europeans brought the flowers to Haiti, a vigorous kind of daffodil developed that could withstand the tropical heat. To Sophie and her mother Martine, they are a symbol of resilience and survival, qualities the women need to withstand the sexual and emotional torment they have gone through. Sophie writes a Mother's Day poem for her Tante Atie, comparing her to a daffodil, ‘‘limber and strong,’’ and as a child is upset when Atie insists that she give the poem to her real mother, whom she has not seen since she was a baby. By the end of the book, however, she realizes that the poem applies to her mother, too.
Stories, which in the book are always told by women, are a symbol of the connections between generations of women, stretching into the past as well as the future. Late in the book, Sophie says, ''I realized that it was neither my mother nor my Tante Atie who had given all the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they told and all the songs they sang. It was something that was essentially Haitian. Somehow, early on, our song makers and tale weavers had decided that we were all daughters of the land.’’
Haiti is a country long marked by its political unrest and economic depravity as a result of years of dictatorship, government corruption, and a large gap between the wealthy elite and profitable cities and the poverty-stricken non-industrial provinces.
A written or recorded literature was never a priority in Haitian culture, therefore, the number of internationally recognized Haitian authors is understandably few. In addition, Haitian women writers are rare due to the secondary positions they hold within the society, remaining mostly in the home or in non-professional occupations.
Although fiscally poor, Haiti is a culture rich in its language, folktales, customs, and community. The Haitian people often looked to their families and friends not only for support but also for forms of entertainment. In a sense, it was the effects of poverty and illiteracy that made the practice of storytelling an important and favorite pasttime, allowing this craft to endure throughout the generations, preserving the nation's culture and history.
Haitian literature was not known outside its borders until well into the 1960s, when the Civil Rights and Women's movements pushed for social reforms and gave the Haitian people an impetus to search out and explore their voices. Still, it was not until the 1990s that Haiti and Haitian literature started to receive the attention it deserved. As more and more nations began to learned of Haiti's oppression and the violence its people faced under the Duvalier government, the call for information about the country and its people increased. New emerging writers began to meet this demand, describing the horrors as well as the jewels of this besieged nation. These writers were creating a literature of social consciousness that demanded acknowledgement from the outside world. Their writing also served as a mirror in which to look back and examine their own background and culture.
When Haitian-born writer Edwidge Danticat began to write and record her memories of Haiti, fictionalizing them in her books, her writings became an extension of the oral tradition of her culture, capturing in print what was natural to her at an early age. What is present in Danticat's work is Haiti's painful history but also its uniqueness and beauty. It is this beauty and cultural lushness that are making people more open to Haitian literature and leading to changes in its presence and proliferation.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 290
Breath, Eyes, Memory fits into a long tradition of novels about the protagonist's coming of age. The Bildungsroman, or novel of education and personal development, is an old and widely utilized form. Danticat ties her work to this tradition by tracking Sophie's personal growth from the first stage of puberty to young motherhood. In between, the narrative hinges on significant moments in Sophie's life: her emigration and introduction to her mother in Part One, her discovery of herself as a woman in Part Two, her return to Haiti in an attempt to reconcile her present and past in Part Three, and the tragic death of her mother in Part Four. Danticat makes the story of Sophie's maturation more compelling by assigning her the role of narrator. Breath, Eyes, Memory tells Sophie's story in her own words.
The novel's movement back and forth from Haiti to New York highlights the island nation's integral place in Sophie's maturation and suggests that the story is as much about the changing face of Haitian culture and identity as it is about the changes Sophie experiences. Sophie is the vehicle through which Danticat divides Haitian culture into what she would retain and what she finds abhorrent. The changing scene is important to Danticat's rhetoric of reconciliation between worlds. The shifts in setting also allow Danticat to contrast Sophie and Martine's past and present even while showing their interconnectedness. Details such as Sophie's gift of an "I Love New York" sweatshirt to Atie betray Danticat's sense that it is through people that one land can be brought to another, that two cultures can be intertwined. Atie wears tokens of American culture because she is tied to American identity through the niece and sister who live there.
Ideas for Group Discussions
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 317
In Breath, Eyes, Memory Danticat makes it clear that the relationship between a mother and her daughter is never simple and never wholly malignant or benign. The richness with which she describes her native Haiti suggests that she feels a similar ambivalence about her native land. The storytelling tradition, the landscape and even the food are described in luxuriant detail as are the cruel Macoutes and the oppressive emphasis placed on a young girl's chastity. Ultimately, Danticat's book is about contrasts between time, place, gender and conceptions of love.
1. Both Sophie and Martine find it difficult to become close to their male lovers Joseph and Marc. Sophie's struggle ends positively in that she accepts motherhood where Martine, tragically, rejects it. Why is Sophie better able to cope with her emotional scars?
2. The Haitian landscape is quite minutely described. Why does Danticat pay such close attention to details such as Ife's recipe for beans or what flowers bloom?
3. All three women descended from Ife are in some way scarred by the "tests" which they are forced to endure. Sophie's attempt to convince her grandmother that this practice is barbaric falls on deaf ears. Does Ife, by subjecting her daughters to this demeaning ritual, perpetuate a male-driven tradition? Is it accurate to say that in this way she functions as the family's patriarch?
4. The colors yellow and red appear frequently and prominently throughout the novel. In the opening chapter Sophie gives Atie a yellow daffodil; at the end she decides to bury her mother in a bright red dress. How are these colors used symbolically throughout the book?
5. Is Joseph convincing as a character, or does he seem flat? Does he, in a sense, appear too good to be true? What about Marc?
6. Martine's suicide comes as something of a surprise. Does this twist in the plot seem justified or does Danticat force drama into the novel's final pages?
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 328
Often, as is the case in the most commonly cited German prototypes of the form, a Bildungsroman tracks the artistic development of a creative individual. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are two examples of this iteration of the form. Breath, Eyes, Memory, however, does not claim to narrate the events of an extraordinary creative genius. Rather, Danticat seems interested in the struggles with maturation endured by an ordinary girl; Sophie is not an artist but a secretary. In this way Danticat aligns herself with authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Zora Neale Hurston who all wrote about the lives of ordinary African-American women at various moments in history. Morrison's Beloved, for example, is similar to Danticat's book in that both meditate on the inability to escape the bond which tie together mothers and daughters as well as the present and past.
Two more closely related examples are Jamaica Kincaid's Lucy and Christina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban. Both are highly acclaimed novels about new immigrants from the Caribbean. In Lucy, the title character comes from the West Indies to America at the age of nineteen. There she discovers both herself and the horror of her past. Like Danticat, Kincaid is concerned with her character's sexuality, her bond with her mother and her connection to her homeland. Garcia's novel spans generations both in America and Cuba to demonstrate the unbreakable ties between family members. Like Danticat's characters, Garcia's both celebrate and mourn their emigration to the United States.
Sophie's struggle with sexual and physical insecurities as a young girl recalls Sylvia Plath's landmark novel The Bell Jar. While Plath's autobiographical work depicts a girl grappling with clinical depression and not cultural and familial baggage, the focus on the pain of emotional sickness and the process of recovery is similar. Ultimately, however, Danticat's work is endowed with a stronger sense of hope than either Plath or imitators such as Elizabeth Wurtzel.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 192
Charters, Mallay, ‘‘Edwidge Danticat: A Bitter Legacy Revisited,’’ in Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, p. 42.
Gladstone, Jim, review of Breath, Eyes, Memory, in New York Times Book Review, July 10, 1994, p. 24.
Philpott, Joan, review of Breath, Eyes, Memory , in Ms., March/April, 1994, pp. 77-78.
Shea, Renee H., ‘‘An Interview between Edwidge Danticat and Renee H. Shea,’’ in Belles Lettres, Summer, 1995, pp. 12-15.
Wilson, Calvin, "Edwidge Danticat's Prose Floats in Realm of Sadness and Eloquence,'' in Kansas City Star, September 22, 1999, p. K0779.
Acosta, Belinda, ‘‘The Farming of Bones,’’ in Austin Chronicle, January 19, 1999.
This discussion of Danticat's later book also has comments about her writing in general.
Gardiner, Beth, "Writer's Work Evokes Experience of Haitian Regime, Emigration,’’ in Standard-Times, April 12,1998.
Explores Danticat's experiences in Haiti and how they fuel her fiction.
Maryles, Daisy, ‘‘Oprah's Newest Pick,’’ in Publishers Weekly, May 25, 1998, p. 20.
A brief article discussing the commercial success of Breath, Eyes, Memory following its selection for Oprah Winfrey's book club.
Rooney, Megan, "Danticat MFA '94 Reads from The Farming of Bones, in Brown Daily Herald, October 5, 1998.
Discussion of Danticat's more recent work, but also includes her reflections on writing and the immigrant experience.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487
Campbell, Elaine. The Whistling Bird: Women Writers of the Caribbean. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1998. Includes a useful discussion of Danticat.
Casey, Ethan. “Breath, Eyes, Memory.” Callaloo 18, no. 2 (Spring, 1995): 524ff. Sees the novel as an important literary introduction to Haitian culture at a time when Haiti’s political turmoil was in the news. Notes that the coded reference to politician Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s party, Lavalas, is a subtle statement of Danticat’s hopes for a post-Duvalier Haiti.
Charters, Mallay. “Edwidge Danticat: A Bitter Legacy Revisited.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 33 (August 17, 1998): 42-43. A profile of the novelist. Discusses the experiences that led to the writing of Breath, Eyes, Memory and her other novels.
Corelli, Marie. “Breath, Eyes, Memory.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 10, no. 1 (Fall, 1994): 36ff. Argues that the novel serves two important purposes: It is a celebration of a Haitian culture likely to disappear in the not-too-distant future, and it is a plea for mothers to welcome their daughters into the world the same way they welcome their sons, to stop the cycle of abuse that they perpetuate because of their own suffering at the hands of their own mothers.
Francis, Donette A. “’Silences Too Horrific to Disturb’: Writing Sexual Histories in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory.” Research in African Literatures 35, no. 2 (Summer, 2004): 75ff. Provides the history of the women’s movement in Haiti, which is seen as closely tied to the U.S. occupation and Duvalier regimes. To make her case for the relationship between scenes of sexual violence and the postcolonial state, Francis closely examines five key moments of abuse, beginning with the rape of Martine in a cane field.
Loichot, Valerie. “Edwidge Danticat’s Kitchen History.” Meridians 5, no. 1 (2004): 92-116. Sees food as the central link between the individual and community, claiming that Martine’s loss of Haitian recipes, like Sophie’s bulimia, results from her cultural isolation. Places Danticat in the company of other feminist writers who use food as a metaphor for the female body and who equate literacy and writing with female power.
N’Zengou-Tayo, Marie-José. “Rewriting Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Popular Culture in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!” Macomère 3 (2000): 123-140. Explains many of the novel’s allusions to Haitian myths and the meaning of names used for characters and places. Translates key Creole words, identifies important Haitian proverbs, and offers an analysis of dreams and omens.
Shea, Renee H. “The Dangerous Job of Edwidge Danticat.” Callaloo 19, no. 2 (Spring, 1996): 382-390. Includes an interview with Danticat in which she discusses her feelings toward Haiti, her preoccupation with mothers and daughters, and the translation of Breath, Eyes, Memory into French.
Shea, Renee H. “Traveling Worlds with Edwidge Danticat.” Poets and Writers Magazine 25, no. 1 (January-February, 1997): 42-51. An overview of Danticat’s life and writings.
“Three Young Voices.” Interview with Edwidge Danticat, Veronica Chambers, and Sheneska Jackson. Essence, May, 1996. Danticat discusses her childhood and her life as a writer.