Themes and Meanings
Breath, Eyes, Memory presents readers with many painful, difficult realities about human suffering and society, yet it does so with lyrical beauty and insight into the courage and fortitude of its characters. While the novel deals with the political turmoil and deprivation of Haiti and the difficulties of racism, prejudice, and identity in America, the main focus remains on the four women central to the novel. The theme of mothers and daughters weaves itself throughout all four parts. Sophie sees herself as “my mother’s daughter and Tante Atie’s child.” Much of the power of the novel stems from the slow attainment of understanding about her family.
The women created, both the major and minor characters, inhabit a world controlled, and sometimes invaded, by men. From the rapist who attacked Martine to the soldiers in Haiti to husbands and lovers and jilters, the novel portrays a world that revolves around men. While there are positive male characters presented, the effects of repression, stereotypes, and tradition take center stage. Sexual behavior is a case in point: Because this world prizes chastity in women, mothers submit their daughters to the “test” in order to preserve them. Sophie learns that her mother administered the test because her mother did; Grandma Ife, in turn, did the same because her mother did.
To focus only on the pain in the novel, however, misses much of the power and lyricism of Danticat’s work. Along with negative traditions and difficulties, she shows the strength, indomitability, and endurance of these lives. Sophie finally sees the courage and gifts in their lives, including that her mother was “brave as the stars at dawn.” For all the other turmoil in the novel—political, sexual, societal, generational—one question remains the central theme: Can Sophie free herself to see the complexity, the sacrifice, the good and the evil of these relationships central to her life?