Caroline's Wedding

by Edwidge Danticat

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Historical Context

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Violence and Political Unrest in Haiti

Haiti’s history is one of violence and political unrest, and its population has been subjected to many occupations and enslavements. Haiti is situated in the western part of an island called Hispaniola; the eastern part is called the Dominican Republic. Hispaniola was inhabited by the Taino and Arawak peoples (classed as indigenous peoples of the Americas) when in 1492, the explorer Christopher Colombus landed and claimed the island for Spain. The Spanish enslaved the indigenous people and imported African slaves to mine for gold. In the 1600s, French, Dutch, and British pirates established bases in Haiti. In 1664, France claimed control of the western part of the island, calling it Saint-Domingue. The colony prospered, growing sugar and coffee. The population was divided into ruling white Europeans, free black people, and black slaves. The majority of slaves were African-born, since harsh conditions meant that the Haitian-born slaves were unable to increase their population.

Inspired by the French Revolution, in 1790 and 1791, free and enslaved black people revolted against the French rulers of Saint-Domingue. Three black leaders of the revolution emerged: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe. Finally, the revolutionary forces defeated the French, and in 1804, the nation declared its independence. It was named Haiti after the old Arawak name for the island, Ayiti. Dessalines became the first emperor of Haiti but was murdered in 1806, setting a pattern of violent fates for Haitian leaders, which was only broken in the 1990s. Throughout the nineteenth century, Haiti was ruled by a succession of presidents, whose periods of office ended prematurely through coups and revolutions.

In 1915, Haiti was invaded by the United States and remained under its military occupation for nineteen years. The invasion was prompted by fears that a popular revolution against Haitian dictator Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam threatened the business interests of the United States and a suspicion that Haiti was too closely aligned with Germany during World War I. An unsuccessful yet popular revolt against the U.S. occupation led to the deaths of around two thousand Haitians. Thereafter, a certain order was established. However, opposition to the occupation grew among the Haitian population, prompted by the perceived racial prejudice of the occupiers. Particularly hated were the forced-labor gangs, in which roads and other infrastructure were constructed under the direction of the U.S. military. Escapees could be shot, and the gangs were seen as another form of slavery.

After World War I, the U.S. occupation of Haiti was increasingly questioned both within the United States and internationally. An incident in which U.S. Marines killed ten Haitian peasants who were marching to protest economic conditions helped to prompt the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1934. For the next fifty years, Haiti was ruled by a series of dictators supported by the United States. The first waves of Haitian refugees to the United States coincided with the 1957 installment of Dr. François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) as president after an election that many believed was manipulated by the army. Duvalier maintained power through his secret police, the Volunteers for National Security, nicknamed the Tonton Macoutes. The Tonton Macoutes terrorized the population with torture, killings, and extortion. They murdered hundreds of Duvalier’s opponents and sometimes hanged their corpses in public view as a warning to would-be rebels.

Upon Duvalier’s death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”) took over the presidency. His regime became known for corruption, and much of the population sank into poverty. These people formed another wave of refugees who fled to the United States in the 1970s and early...

(This entire section contains 889 words.)

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1980s. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Grace and Caroline’s parents belong to this wave of refugees. With the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1990, the flow of refugees briefly stopped, only to resume shortly afterwards when Aristide was deposed in a coup. Aristide returned to office in 2001 but was again deposed in 2004.

René Préval was elected president in 1996 and was remarkable for the fact that he left office after serving a complete term (he was again elected president in 2006). All previous presidents had died in office, been assassinated or deposed, overstayed their prescribed term, or been installed by a foreign power.

The country’s history of forced occupations and enslavements, violent depositions or murders of its leaders, and aborted development is symbolically suggested in “Caroline’s Wedding” and other stories in the cycle by references to rape, violent and aborted pregnancies, and infanticide.

Voodoo

In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Ma’s beliefs are a mixture of Catholicism (she goes to mass) and voodoo (she invokes the magical powers of charms and bone soup), which as of 2006 remained the dominant religion in Haiti. Voodoo is a polytheistic religion that includes a belief that objects can be imbued with magical properties that can be used to affect the outcome of events. It is based on a variety of African religions, with elements of Catholicism superimposed.

Voodoo has long been viewed with fear and contempt by many white colonials, but its development was partly a reaction to the suppression by white Europeans of the religious beliefs and practices of African slaves. Rather than abandon their old faiths, the slaves created a new faith, which helped them endure the hardships of their lives and at the same time to avoid persecution by their owners.

Literary Style

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Short Story Cycle

In her epilogue to Krik? Krak!, Danticat likens the act of writing to braiding the hair, in that it is a matter of bringing unity to a number of unruly strands. The book is a short story cycle, in which each story can be read in isolation, but it also links to other stories in the collection. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Grace accompanies Ma to a mass for a drowned Haitian woman and her baby; this is the same woman whose story is told in the first story in the collection, “Children of the Sea.” The effect of this linkage is to emphasize the power of storytelling to establish identity and recreate community for people who have suffered diaspora. This is confirmed by two of Ma’s remarks: “all Haitians know each other,” and “We know people by their stories.” Ma’s own story, of her broken marriage and violent pregnancy with Caroline, emerges during the course of the short story. It helps to define who she is and why she acts as she does. In a lifetime of discontinuity, she understandably wishes everything to continue as it was in Haiti.

Symbolism

Caroline’s missing forearm, as well as being a believable element of the story on a literal level, also carries a weighty poetic symbolism. Caroline’s forearm fails to develop as a result of an act of violence and medical malpractice (Ma is injected with a drug when imprisoned after a New York sweatshop raid). Thus the missing arm is a kind of war wound, a scar gained during a time of danger. Because Ma stresses that the unborn Caroline could have died as a result of the drug, the episode suggests a major group of themes of the entire short story cycle, having to do with aborted or violent pregnancies and infanticide. This theme in turn, as Jana Evans Braziel points out in her essay, “Défilée’s Diasporic Daughters: Revolutionary Narratives of Ayiti (Haiti), Nanchon (Nation), and Dyaspora (Diaspora) in Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!” symbolically enacts the arrested or aborted development that Haiti has suffered during its many periods of unrest.

Caroline’s arm also represents the homeland from which Caroline has been cut off by her parents’ flight to the United States. This is especially true because Caroline is the only member of the family to be born in the United States. Grace remarks that “Caroline liked to have her stub stroked . . . Yet it was the only part of her that people were afraid of.” This circumstance reflects the dilemma experienced by many people who have lost a place or person they loved. There may be times when they want to remember the loved one and talk about the person, but other people steer clear of the subject because they do not wish to give offense or because they feel uncomfortable discussing it. Thus, the bereaved person is isolated by grief and pain. In the case of the Haitian people, including Caroline, the suffering and persecutions of the past both isolate them from society in general (when Grace receives her passport, she says, “It was like being in a war zone and finally receiving a weapon of my own”) and brings them closer to one another (as in the mass at the church). When Grace and Caroline were younger, they fantasized that one day the rest of Caroline’s arm would burst out of Ma’s stomach and float back to her and she would be complete. Symbolically, this dream reflects the longing for wholeness felt by the dispossessed person.

Another symbol is that of Sor Rose. According to Haitian folklore, Sor Rose was the black African slave woman who was raped by her French master and gave birth to the nation of Haiti. Danticat scatters references to the color, name, or object called “rose” and to literal or symbolic rape throughout the stories in Krik? Krak! These references suggest, as Jana Evans Braziel posits in her essay, “Défilée’s Diasporic Daughters,” that Danticat is consciously invoking the Sor Rose story. The refugee woman from the first story in Krik? Krak!, “Children of the Sea,” who is remembered in the mass that Ma and Grace attend in “Caroline’s Wedding,” was raped by a soldier, gave birth on the boat to the United States, and when the baby died, she threw it into the sea, then jumped overboard after it, drowning herself. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” Ma is injected, while a captive, with a drug that caused a birth defect in Caroline. This may be seen as a violation akin to rape, a forced invasion of someone’s body. The violence of this symbolic rape breeds death: the unborn Caroline could have died, and the adult Caroline is conscious that it would only take a slice to the vein that throbs below the surface of her stub to make her bleed to death. In the violent story of Haiti, the symbolism suggests, death is ever-present, just beneath the thin surface of life.

Grace’s dream that she and her father are sitting beside “a stream of rose-colored blood” is probably another reference to Sor Rose. This interpretation is confirmed by Grace’s remark that the stream of blood is beautiful, at which Papa’s face begins to glow. Papa’s purpose in the dream is to reconnect Grace with her roots by engaging her in the question-and-answer game, in which he asks her what traditions she will pass on to her children. While sitting by the stream of blood, they gaze at the stars, and Papa tells her, “If you close your eyes really tight, wherever you are, you will see these stars.” The symbolic implication is that shared stories, by which suffering (a river of blood) is transfigured through the art of the storyteller, unify the scattered Haitian people.

The word “rose” also appears in the story when Caroline sends a bunch of red roses to Ma. This gesture comes after Ma has revived an ill and despondent Caroline just before her wedding, using a traditional Haitian treatment that involves giving her a bath and rubbing boiled leaves over her body. Before this incident, Caroline shows little interest in Ma’s traditional Haitian attitudes and beliefs. But for the first time, she surrenders to Ma and is rejuvenated. The gift of roses is Caroline’s recognition and honoring of the wisdom and loving care conveyed by the rituals and customs that Ma has preserved.

The Color Red

Red is the color of blood and therefore of lifeblood, but it is also the color of violence, danger, and potentially, death. In “Caroline’s Wedding,” red is used symbolically to suggest the violence, bloodshed, and suffering of Haiti’s history, and, ultimately, the land of Haiti itself. Ma has a red port-wine mark on her neck, which she believes stems from unsatisfied cravings during pregnancy, a reference to the hunger she suffered in Haiti. Ma tells her daughters to wear red panties after their father dies, as according to Haitian tradition, the color has the power to keep away the spirit of her dead husband. Caroline’s awareness of the possibility of her bleeding to death from a sliced vein links with Grace’s dream on the night of her sister’s wedding.

The red symbolism recurs in the final scene. Grace, disturbed by her failure to remember how to play the ancient game with Papa in her dream, goes to Ma for help. As she drops a bone into Ma’s bone soup, the splash creates a red mark on her hand. It is a fitting time for Grace to receive the blood-like mark of her homeland on her body, as she is about to learn from Ma the lesson that escaped her under Papa’s interrogation.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: Before 1971, waves of Haitian refugees flee to the United States and other industrialized countries as a result of Dr. François Duvalier’s (“Papa Doc”) regime of persecution. Many are middle-class and educated. After his death in 1971, the waves of refugees increase. Most refugees in this second group are poor people, fleeing the miserable conditions under the corrupt regime of François Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”).

1990s: After Haiti’s president Jean-Bertrand Aristide is deposed in a coup in 1990, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and the U.S. government begin to impose sanctions on Haiti. The number of Haitian refugees grows as poverty intensifies under the sanctions. Sanctions are in place from 1990 until 1994, when Aristide is reinstated as president.

Today: According to the United Nations, in 2005, due to continuing political instability around the election, there is a steep increase in asylum seekers from Haiti to industrialized countries. As of 2006, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

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1970s: The term, boat people, refers to refugees, including those from Haiti, who risk their lives on unsafe, overcrowded boats to escape oppression or poverty in their home countries. During the 1970s and 1980s, between 50,000 and 80,000 boat people arrive without authorization in Florida. An unknown number drown at sea.

1990s: In 1990, the flow of Haitian boat people temporarily stops following the presidential election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. By late 1991, however, following Aristide’s deposition in a military coup, the flow of Haitian boat people resumes. Between 1991 and 1994, thousands of Haitians flee the country, mostly by boat. Some who flee are accorded refugee status and are resettled in the United States, but others are repatriated.

Today: After the military regime is removed in 1994, numbers of Haitian boat people decline. As of 2006, the Haitian diaspora in the United States continues to grow, fueled by the arrival of friends and relatives of the Haitian immigrant population and by internal growth, as second- and third-generations are born into Haitian-American families. The Haitian government begins to try to attract members of the Haitian diaspora to Haiti, especially as investors.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Danticat, Edwidge, “Caroline’s Wedding,” in Krik? Krak!, Soho Press, 1995, reprint, Vintage Press, 1996, pp. 155–216.

Eder, Richard, “Off the Island,” in New York Times, March 21, 2004, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9507E0D6123EF9 (accessed October 20, 2006).

Fichtner, Margaria, “Author Edwidge Danticat Writes about Being Young, Black, Haitian, and Female,” in Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, May 1, 1995.

Hart, Jordana, “Danticat’s Stories Pulse with Haitian Heartbeat,” in Boston Globe, July 19, 1995, “Living” section, p. 70.

Jamison, Laura, “The Exquisite Tales of Edwidge Danticat,” in San Francisco Examiner, July 19, 1995, p. C.

Sheanin, Wendy, “Stories Resound with Haiti’s Tragedy, Spirit,” in San Francisco Chronicle, May 28, 1995, p. RV-4.

Wylie, Hal, “Haiti,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 224, 225.

Further Reading
Aristide, Jean-Bertrand, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti, translated by Amy Wilentz, Orbis Books, 1990.

In this book, Aristide, a former president of Haiti, gives his view of the problems in Haiti and their possible solutions. The book has been used in classrooms to provoke discussions on social justice. It includes some of Aristide’s sermons (he was once a Roman Catholic priest).

Chin, Pat, Gregory Dunkel, and Sara Flounders, Haiti: A Slave Revolution: 200 Years after 1804, International Action Center, 2004.

Haiti’s slave revolution and its resistance to occupation and dictatorship are recounted through the art, poems, and essays collected in this anthology. Topics include Haiti’s impact on the United States, the effects of U.S. embargoes against the country, and reasons given for occupation.

Farmer, Paul, The Uses of Haiti, Common Courage Press, 2005.

This book is an impassioned critique of U.S. policy in Haiti by a physician and anthropologist who at the time of publication had worked for twenty-five years in the country. Farmer traces the history of injustices in Haiti, from the eighteenth-century slave economy to the 1915 invasion by the U.S. Marines, and the subsequent U.S. support of dictators such as “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Metraux, Alfred, Voodoo in Haiti, Pantheon, 1989.

Metraux describes the lives and rituals of the Haitian voodoo priests and investigates the origin and development of the religion.

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