Breath, Eyes, Memory

by Edwidge Danticat

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Themes and Meanings

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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?

Themes and Meanings

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Many of Breath, Eyes, Memory’s most important themes are tied to Haitian folklore and legend. The novel celebrates the strength of Haiti’s women and condemns the violence of its history. “Caco” is the much-revered name of the fighters who bravely resisted the island’s American occupation. The novel’s women are repeatedly associated with a Haitian creation myth in which trouble is granted only to those strong enough to carry the sky on their heads. Erzulie, the goddess worshipped by Haitian women, is an ambiguous figure, both Christian and pagan, both virgin and temptress, and thus may represent the mixed and ultimately destructive messages women receive.

The text’s most frequently referenced Haitian myth is that of the Marassas, twins assumed to have special powers and associated with the theme of doubling. As Martine tests Sophie’s virginity, she tells her that the Marassas were inseparable lovers closer to each other than to their shadows; she wishes for an equally close relationship between herself and Sophie. The very distrust and violation represented by the testing itself prevents mother and daughter from enjoying such closeness, however. Tante Atie and Louise come close to a Marassas ideal, but the relationship is short-lived. For Danticat, the Marassas myth may be less about finding one’s soulmate and more about reconciling the warring selves within one individual.

In addition to its cultural richness, the novel is filled with vivid imagery and metaphor, most obviously the use of color. The opening sections are bathed in yellow. Sophie loves yellow flowers and especially daffodils, flowers that, like Sophie and her mother, must learn to live in an alien environment. When Sophie and her mother move to their new neighborhood, they decorate everything in red....

(This entire section contains 315 words.)

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Sophie buries her mother in an inappropriate, crimson suit, choosing to remember her as the “hot-blooded Erzulie” and the magnificent scarlet bird also named “Caco.”


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Immigration and Assimilation
Throughout the book, Sophie and Martine travel from Haiti to the United States, and back to Haiti. The contrasts between the two settings and cultures are vivid and all-encompassing, and as both women note, it is difficult to find your way in a foreign country. Both women learn to speak English—which Grandma Ife refers to as ‘‘that cling-clang talk,’’ and which Sophie says sounds ‘‘like rocks falling in a stream,'' but they also continue to speak their own language, Creole. They eat American food because Haitian food reminds them of the emotional pain they endured in Haiti, but at the same time they long for traditional dishes with ingredients like cassava, ginger, beans and rice, and spices. Sophie hates her school because it is a French school, and she feels she might as well have stayed in Haiti—but she is also uneasy because American students harass her for being Haitian. Sophie's difficulty with assimilation is also shown by her conflicting attitude toward gender roles: she believes women should be traditionally chaste and sheltered, but talks disparagingly of traditional Haitian men, who, she says, will want a woman to stay at home, cooking Haitian food.

Eventually, Sophie becomes Americanized: when she returns to Haiti, a cab driver is surprised that she speaks Creole so well, and when Martine shows up too, the two of them speak English together without realizing it.

Generational Bonds and Conflicts
‘‘The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea,’’ Martine tells Sophie, and generational bonds and conflicts between mothers and daughters are a major theme in the book. Grandma Ife, the matriarch of the clan, followed the traditional Haitian practice of ensuring her daughters' chastity and "tested" them each month to make sure their hymens were still intact. This resulted in lifelong emotional scars for both daughters, particularly Martine, whose sexual guilt, pain, and fear only increased when she was brutally raped at age sixteen. Although Martine knows firsthand how emotionally and physically painful the testing is, she still does it to her daughter Sophie, passing on the family curse of sexual phobias and nightmares. When Sophie finally asks why she did this, she says that she has no real explanation or good reason; she only did it to Sophie because it was done to her. Interestingly, although Grandma Ife was also presumably a victim of this practice, she does not seem to be bothered by it, presumably because she has accepted a much more traditional life than either her daughters or Sophie. Sophie realizes that there is a way out of this pain: she manages to exorcise the fear of her mother's rapist, and she vows not to test her daughter or pass on the nightmares and eating disorders that affect both her and her mother. Rather than unthinkingly accepting tradition, she knows that she must shape her own life. She says of her family's emotional pain, ''It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares.’’

Emotional Pain and Liberation
Throughout the book, the female characters suffer from emotional pain that prevents them from living fully, but they seek liberation and in some cases find it. At the beginning of the book, Tante Atie is resigned to being illiterate and unloved, but several years later a friend, who also seems to be her lover, has taught her to read. She carries a notebook everywhere so that she can copy poems and write down her thoughts, and even writes a poem of her own.

Martine also seeks liberation from her pain, but she is unable to do this in a constructive way. For a while things seem to have improved for her: she's involved with Marc, who is a good man, and makes enough money to send some home to Haiti every month. Sophie's arrival disturbs her, however, since Sophie resembles her father, the rapist, and Martine is also disturbed by Sophie's growth into a woman and her relationship with a man. When Martine gets pregnant, it reawakens all her memories of the rape, her pregnancy with Sophie, and her mother's sexual testing. Unable to find a cure for her emotional pain, she eventually commits suicide.

Sophie inherits her mother's fear, sexual guilt, and nightmares, but through a therapy group, she is able by the end of the book to move beyond them and to prevent her daughter from inheriting them. She also realizes that her mother, despite her suicide and the testing she inflicted on Sophie, was a strong, capable woman who was simply overwhelmed by circumstance.


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The endeavor to reconcile two realities is a theme which pervades Breath, Eyes, Memory. Each character struggles to preserve something of his or her past while trying to banish the memories of trauma. This desire even affects Joseph who holds on to American slave spirituals in the music he plays for a living. For him, these testaments to a past of slavery are a means of celebrating present freedom. For Sophie and Martine, however, mixing up the past and present is neither so easy nor so peaceful. For them, the world is divided in half—the Haitian past and the American present. Time and place are inexorably linked; Martine, for instance, is unable to spend more than a few days in Haiti because the place brings the past back with full force. Danticat asserts that the impossibility of separating the present from the past has both a positive and a negative effect. The positive effect of Sophie's Haitian past is the strength of character, body and tradition with which her ancestry endows her. She feels privation as a young girl taught her sacrifice, made her physically resilient and introduced her to legends and foods she would still enjoy in America. But the past is also sadly present in Martine's treatment of her daughter and in the nightmares which make it almost impossible for Martine to sleep decades after being raped. By expounding on this theme Danticat aligns herself with no less prominent American authors than William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, both of whom explore the interconnectedness of time and place at some length. Though not nearly so experimental as either of these authors, Danticat's work is thematically similar.

Another theme at work in Breath, Eyes, Memory is the pursuit of the American Dream. Martine wants Sophie to realize the ideal of rags-to-riches success perpetuated by Horatio Alger. Danticat, however, rejects the American ideal of upward mobility when Sophie contentedly accepts work as a secretary rather than the doctor her mother wanted her to become. For Sophie, success in love supersedes the drive for material achievement. Joseph too goes against the grain of the American work ethic. Though highly educated, he prefers to play the jazz he loves rather than make the money he does not need.

Symbolically rendered through imagery of blood, the strength of familial bonds garners much of Danticat's attention. Even when Sophie tries to escape the bond which holds her to her mother, Danticat's blood imagery underscores the futility of the act. By the end of the novel Sophie comes to understand this when she sees the source of all her family's joy and pain and ceases in her efforts to revel in the former while abolishing the latter. She reconciles herself to the fact that all the good and all the bad which resides in her comes from her family, her blood. Martine's tragedy is the failure to recognize this. She wants so badly to purge herself of the memory of her rapist's detestable blood that she forgets it courses through her own daughter's veins. She cannot accept the unresolved paradox at the center of her daughter's birth, that out of her most hated memory came her most cherished possession.