Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 1, Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Breath, Eyes, Memory is arranged in four parts with 35 chapters total. For the purpose of summary and analysis, this study guide combines chapters in pairs, with one section consisting of three combined chapters.

Summary

Chapter 1

Part 1 takes place in Haiti and New York City when the narrator, Sophie, is 12 years old. Sophie returns home from school with a card she's made for her aunt Tante Atie for Mother's Day. The card includes a dried daffodil. Sophie tells Tante Atie about her day at school, encouraging Tante Atie to come to school with the other parents and learn to read. Tante Atie replies she doesn't want children teaching her. Besides, she says, housework is her school now. But she insists that Sophie stay in school so she will never have to work in the sugarcane fields like Tante Atie did as a young woman. Sophie remembers hearing about Tante Atie's father's death from sunstroke in the fields. Sitting on the porch of their house, Sophie and Tante Atie greet Chabin, a lottery agent, as he is walking up the road. Tante Atie regularly plays the lottery. Today she decides to play the number 31, the age of her sister and Sophie's mother, Martine.

As Sophie and Tante Atie watch the village children playing in the leaves, Tante Atie says the children shouldn't create a mess for their mothers. Tante Atie mentions that Sunday will be Mother's Day. Worried she doesn't appreciate Tante Atie enough, Sophie gives her the Mother's Day card. But Tante Atie insists that Sophie give the card to Martine. Sophie only knows Martine from a photograph in the home and sometimes she dreams Martine will steal her from Tante Atie. When the sun goes down, Sophie notices girls sewing at their grandmothers' feet. She asks if Tante Atie will teach her to sew.

Croix-des-Rosets, the village where Sophie and Tante Atie live, holds regular potlucks. Everyone in the community from poor families to wealthier villagers gathers to eat and socialize. At this potluck, Monsiuer Augustin's wife, Madame Augustin, asks Tante Atie about a package she received. The village women suspect the package contains a ticket to New York City from Martine to Atie. The ticket is in fact for Sophie, who will be sent to live with her mother.

Sophie is angry at Tante Atie for lying to her. Tante Atie says she wasn't lying but keeping a secret. Martine had requested her daughter and sent a plane ticket so suddenly, Tante Atie didn't know what to do. Tante Atie had planned to tell Sophie the visit was temporary, hoping Sophie would love New York and ask to stay. She insists she and Sophie have "no right to be sad." Before Tante Atie goes to bed, she warns Sophie not to tell anyone she cries when she watches Monsieur and Madame Augustin together. Sophie slips the Mother's Day card under Tante Atie's pillow as her aunt sleeps.

Chapter 2

The next morning Sophie eats the rice pudding Tante Atie makes for her. Sophie isn't hungry, but she eats to avoid talking. Tante Atie smiles as if she's going to tell one of her funny stories about the past. Tante Atie's stories are usually sad but sometimes funny, like her story of Sophie's grandmother, Grandmè Ifé, trying to control snakes in a Christian ritual. But this morning neither Sophie nor Tante Atie can laugh. Tante Atie finally says she has some things to tell Sophie about her mother. Once Sophie leaves for New York, Tante Atie will return to her own mother in Haiti. This way both Sophie and Tante Atie will be with their mothers. She tells Sophie that Martine had always planned to send for Sophie.

Tante Atie also wants Sophie to know how much Tante Atie loves Martine. Sophie was "never abandoned," Tante Atie says, though Haitian mothers must often leave their children. But Tante Atie and Martine could never control their lives or their bodies. Tante Atie tells Sophie, "We are a family with dirt under our fingernails"—they're uneducated peasants who work the land. Sophie's mother has given Sophie an opportunity for a different life. At Tante Atie's urging, Sophie promises not to fight with her mother.

Noticing Sophie's yellow dress, Tante Atie tells Sophie, "Everything you own is yellow." Tante Atie says Martine loved daffodils because these flowers grow where they aren't supposed to. Though daffodils are European flowers accustomed to cold climates, they still flourish in the warmer Haitian weather. Tante Atie gives Sophie the Mother's Day card and tells her to deliver it to her mother, even though the daffodil inside is gone.

Analysis

Sophie narrates the novel in the first person, speaking after the events happened. The narrator Sophie is distinct from the character Sophie. The narrator is insightful and reflective but frequently immersed in the perspective of the character. For instance, the narration in Part 1 portrays a confused but observant young girl. The reader learns along with her.

The novel begins by associating daffodils with mothers. Daffodils symbolize resilience and courage in trying circumstances. Sophie associates these traits with the maternal figures in her life and aspires to be resilient herself. The story of Haitian daffodils parallels Martine's experience, and soon Sophie's, who will grow up in a new place and culture. They'll adapt despite all the forces working against them. The Haitian daffodils' darker color makes Sophie think of the resilient racial and cultural heritage of native Haitians. But daffodils also transform based on their environment, and Sophie will too.

Sophie's idea of her mother isn't simple. Tante Atie raised her and she considers Tante Atie a mother in every sense. Her biological mother is a distant stranger at the beginning of the novel. When Tante Atie first emphasizes the distinction, 12-year-old Sophie doesn't truly understand. She feels at home with Tante Atie; why can't Tante Atie be her mother? The difference between a biological and an emotional relationship continues to inform Sophie's concept of her family.

Her experience of family is also affected by generation gaps. Tante Atie believes her future has been determined for her. She accepts the power hierarchies she's lived with all her life. Old people should teach young people and women should fulfill certain roles in the home. Sophie is on the cusp of womanhood, still curious about what it means. She's interested in learning sewing as a ritual of becoming a woman. For Tante Atie, however, these rituals have turned into work.

Tante Atie's dissatisfaction with her life increases during the novel. Later she'll struggle with the desire for education when this desire seems to clash with her obligation to family. In Part 1 readers get a sense of the mystery and hardship in Tante Atie's past. Her grief over seeing Monsieur and Madame Augustin suggests Tante Atie wonders if she could have had a different life. Men represent different possibilities for the women in the novel. They can be supporters or enemies; they can invite or close off different opportunities and different lives. Men often serve as a pivot around which a woman's life can change.

Tante Atie knows Sophie's life will be different. Sophie will need the power an education can give her. In the United States, Sophie will form her own future without the tradition and community support structure Tante Atie has in Haiti. Tante Atie wants Sophie to have every advantage possible. In fact, Tante Atie's own limitations will become less traumatic to her if Sophie has a better life. When Sophie has a daughter of her own, their relationship will reflect this dynamic.

Ambition for the future and respect for the past are frequently clashing forces in the Caco women's lives. Spirituality and religion often reflect these forces. Haitian spirituality has been influenced by a mixture of Western Christianity and Haitian voodoo beliefs. Chabin, the lottery agent, is a character associated with magic and mystery. Even his appearance is described as strange.

The children's names show a similar mixture of Haitian Creole and Christian influence. After years of French colonization in Haiti, native residents combined French with their own African languages to create a Creole language specific to them. The word Creole is used to describe any language combining a native tongue with a new language, often the one spoken by a European colonizing country. The French names of the children and the casual French the villagers speak to one another demonstrate the French language's impact on Haiti. Several children also have names associated with Christian virtues, such as Hope, Faith, and Beloved.

The names also address the importance of family to self-image. Some names refer to a child's place in the family—First Born, Enough-Boys, Enough-Girls. Other names may refer to the circumstances of the child's birth—Small Misery, Big Misery, No Misery. The novel frequently references how parents pass their own fortunes and misfortunes down to their children and how children can't truly escape this inheritance. Names are one way to deliver a heritage to the next generation, but there are many other ways.

Families are further complicated by the question of what children owe their parents. Tante Atie believes children should develop a sense of loyalty to family when they're young, Tante Atie will return to her mother because "that is what was supposed to happen." Tante Atie's devotion to her mother will override her own wants and needs in Part 3, raising the question of whether her actions come from love or obligation. Sophie also struggles with what she owes her mother. At first the bond between a mother and child seems clear to everyone but Sophie. She can't comprehend how she belongs with a woman she's never met. Instead she has dreams in which her mother is an intrusion and threat, pulling her away from the only home she knows. Sophie's definition of home shifts over the years, which is related to her changing definition of family.

Several characters in the novel—Tante Atie, Grandmè Ifé, Martine, and Sophie as the narrator—tell stories. Even when the stories include humor they have an overarching sadness and fear. The comical story of Grandmè Ifé and the snake also has the ominous overtones of a supernatural ritual. Many stories involve death, transformation, separation, and longing—topics always close by.

The specter of death and violence surrounds the novel's Haitian scenes. We see this in the first chapter of the novel in the description of the dramatic death of Sophie's grandfather. Soon after, Sophie thinks of Tante Atie's favorite Bible verse, which calls death "the shepherd of man." The sugarcane fields are a more subtle reminder of colonial violence. Black Haitians formerly worked as slaves in the fields to support the global sugar trade. The mystery and danger in the fields become part of Sophie's conception of Haiti.

Work in the cane fields similarly gave rise to communal rituals. Tante Atie recalls how the village potlucks began as a place for people to gather after a day of work. The potlucks continue to be a place where collective and cultural memory are showcased. Food is an important part of the setting, and the food comes from the land. At the potluck Sophie is surrounded by her entire cultural heritage.

She's also introduced to the importance of secrets. At first Sophie is angry that Tante Atie kept a secret from her. When an older Sophie tries to keep secrets from her own mother, she will begin to understand the power and danger of silence.

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