Breath, Eyes, Memory

by Edwidge Danticat

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What are the symbols in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory and their meanings?

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In her acclaimed 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, author Edwidge Danticat uses symbolism, particularly colors and motifs, to articulate certain themes, feelings, emotions and other points that she wishes to make to the reader.

The concept of "literacy" is deftly explored in ways that transcend the academic nature of the word. It's not just about who can read and who can't, but about how certain characters like Grandma Ife can intuit an entire story from blinking lights and sounds or how Sophie fails to understand some of the allegorical nuances of Grandma’s storytelling.

Daffodils play into Danticat's use of color, describing how the bright yellow flower is young Martine's favorite, even though it's not native to her homeland. The yellow is the symbol of light, warmth, and joy while the flower itself represents growth, resilience, and perseverance. Ironically, Martine begins to tire of the daffodil as she grows up and gravitates toward red flowers instead—a clever way to explore how her character changed over time.

The color red symbolizes heat, boldness, pain, sexuality, and power—things that are associated with adult Martine and her life in New York. We see blood in the story several times, which is used to explore the idea of female purity, from the virginity tests Martine gives Sophie to the story of the groom cutting his bride and showing off the bloody sheets at her funeral. The red continues to recur, from the dying bird to Martine's hibiscus plants to her burial clothes.

The Marassas, the divine twins, also ties into the themes of purity and love. Martine tells Sophie the story of the Marassas twins as part of the virginity testing ritual to instill in her the notion that a man's love can never compete with a mother's.

Similarly, Erzulie is a statue of the love goddess that Grandma Ife gives to Sophie. Erzulie's ability to turn a tortured woman into a butterfly, according to one story, was meant to mimic Sophie's own difficult journey through the virginity tests, eventually leading her to break her own hymen and run away with Joseph.

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One of the important symbols in Breath, Eyes, Memory is the Marassas. These mythical twins have magical powers, and their frequent reference in Haitian culture lends a special emphasis to dualism or doubles. While they may be siblings, they may also be two persons who share a soul, regardless of gender. This type of closeness, though short lived, bound Aunt Tatie to Louise.

The power of the feminine is symbolized by the Goddess Erzulie, who also includes dual aspects of sacrifice and selfishness, purity and sexuality, with elements of Christian and traditional African religions. Erzulie is associated with the color red, through blood, and this color occurs in connection with Sophie and her family through the bird called "caco" as well as the bright crimson suit in which Martine is buried.

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Breath, Eyes, Memory was written by Edwidge Danticat and published in 1994. It tells the story of Sophie Caco and begins in the early 1980s, when she is twelve years old.

In literature, a symbol can be anything—a person, object, action, or situation—which has a meaning other than its literal meaning. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, there are four significant symbols: the daffodil, colors, storytelling, and butterflies. For this question, I will discuss the importance of storytelling and butterflies.

Sophie was told many stories of fantasy and folklore as a child. One was of a woman who asked Erzulie to turn her into a butterfly so that she would stop bleeding. The butterfly is well known to be a symbol of transformation. After her mother kills herself, Sophie thinks of her as a butterfly, as if her mother has been transformed and transported from captivity to freedom. Many stories are told throughout the novel, and they are always told by the female characters. These stories symbolize the ties that bind these generations of women together.

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One of the major symbols in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory is the daffodil.  Daffodils are not native to Haiti and thus are a flower that is out of place among the rest.  Martine's favorite flower is the daffodil because of its resilience and ability to morph itself to withstand the Haitian climate.  Both Sophie and Martine struggle to develop their own resilience primarily to their sexuality.  Martine grew up with a lifetime of her mother checking to make sure her hymen remained intact, and although she suffers deep emotional scars from this practice, she inflicts it upon Sophie when she becomes of age.  Both Sophie and Martine must reconcile this long-held Haitian practice with the norms of American culture that they encounter once they move, and like the daffodil, they must be resilient and adapt to their new climate.

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