Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 1, Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5

Sophie and Tante Atie travel to Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince. Tante Atie excitedly points out stores and hotels she visited many years ago. As teenagers Tante Atie and Martine spent Christmas Eve in the city enjoying themselves.

They are delayed on the way to the airport, and their taxi driver mentions political trouble may be the cause. The airport, named after former Haitian president François Duvalier, is getting a new name. Sophie, Tante Atie, and the driver see a fire in the distance. Students are throwing rocks at a burning car. Soldiers attack the students, and the confrontation turns violent. Tante Atie rushes Sophie into the airport, saying, "Do you see what you are leaving?"

Sophie meets a woman in the airport who will be her escort for the trip. Sophie says a hurried goodbye to Tante Atie and boards the plane. The escort is also in charge of a sobbing young boy; the boy attacks Sophie when she tries to comfort him. She learns the boy's father died in the fire. He's going to New York to stay with his only living relatives.

Chapter 6

After sleeping on the flight, Sophie wakes in New York. Jean-Claude, the young boy who traveled with her, greets his aunt. She wails, "They've killed my brother."

Sophie's mother is overjoyed to see her. Sophie is quiet, though her mother urges her to speak. Martine doesn't look like her picture. Her face is hollow and tired, and her hair is cut differently. As the two ride to Martine's building, Martine asks Sophie if Tante Atie ever started night school as she had planned. Both Tante Atie and Martine had dreamed of becoming doctors and engineers, Martine says. The sisters were surprised to learn they had limits. Then Martine tells Sophie if she works hard at her education, she can be "the kind of woman" she and Tante Atie "always wanted to be."

In her apartment, Martine shows Sophie her bedroom. In the room there is a picture of Martine, Tante Atie, and Sophie when Sophie was a baby. When Sophie looks at the picture she realizes she doesn't look like anyone in her family. Martine gives Sophie a large doll, mentioning the doll has been a friend to her. She reassures Sophie she won't be alone. Martine takes the Mother's Day card from Sophie's pocket. It makes Martine think of how much she loved daffodils as a girl. She's never looked for daffodils in New York City.

Sophie has trouble sleeping her first night with her mother. She recalls asking Tante Atie how she'd been born with a mother and no father. Tante Atie told her a story of a little girl born from rose petals, stream water, and sky. Later in the night Sophie hears her mother screaming from nightmares. Martine tells Sophie she sometimes has "horrible visions" at night. Sophie climbs into bed with her. When Sophie wakes up the next morning she feels older and more experienced. She resolves to accept her new life.

Analysis

The city of Port-au-Prince represents glamour, sophistication, and freedom to Tante Atie and Martine. As teenagers they created imaginary lives where they were born wealthy. As adults with responsibilities, they're stuck with a past they can't change. But the brief window of possibility in the city recalls Tante Atie's hopes for Sophie to have a better life.

The political chaos in Haiti pervades the background of the novel and influences the lives of the characters. Part 1 most likely takes place in the 1980s after the fall of Haitian dictator François Duvalier (1907–71). The name change of François Duvalier International Airport took place in 1986 after Duvalier's son, Jean-Claude, was ousted from power. Tensions remained high as people remembered the damages of the corrupt, unpopular Duvalier regime. Sophie sees students lashing out at the soldiers who represent the Duvalier army. To Tante Atie the soldiers show that death and destruction are never far away. To Sophie, who travels on the plane with the son of a dead official, the violence demonstrates how complicated family legacy can be. The young boy, who is fittingly named Jean-Claude, is associated with what his father did. He can't escape his legacy.

At the same time, Sophie is beginning to feel some distance from her family. Tante Atie is a product of an older past; she's unable to adapt to a changing present. She thinks maybe the fire has supernatural causes. She stands out in the crowd at the airport with "the village dust settled on her toes." In Tante Atie, Sophie observes the contrast between her Haitian heritage and the cosmopolitan world she's about to enter.

Similarly, there is a contrast between the glamorous image of Sophie's mother she's had in her head and the hardworking woman who picks her up at the airport. Martine's own experience contradicts the American myth of infinite possibility. In America, just as in Haiti, there are limits and boundaries to what someone can become. For an immigrant and a woman of color these limits are even greater. The surroundings of New York City—a dim street at night, young men throwing empty cans at cars—add to the aura of danger and unpredictability.

Distinguishing the myth of American progress from the reality is part of Sophie's coming-of-age process. So is the realization that her actions reflect on the family. By telling Sophie, "You can raise our heads," recalling Chapter 3's people who carry the sky, Martine gives Sophie the job of living for her mother and aunt, too.

Travel has already transformed Sophie into a new person: she feels she's "aged in one day." Sophie instantly takes on the role of caring for her mother, speaking to her mother in Creole and nurturing her through a nightmare. These actions are similar to Martine's own awkward attempts to care for a self-sufficient Sophie. Martine's attachment to the doll is a childlike gesture, but it shows her maternal urges and longing for a familial closeness.

As mother and daughter try to build a connection, there's a hint they may have other obstacles. Sophie notices for the first time she's different from her family in appearance, but she doesn't yet know why or how this will affect her.

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