Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 1, Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7

Martine shows Sophie around New York by taking her to a Haitian American neighborhood on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. There, Martine sends money orders and cassettes to her relatives and buys products at a beauty salon. Though the cars, subways, and tall buildings are new to Sophie, the neighborhood reminds her of Haiti. A botanical shop carries Tante Atie's perfume and statues of the Haitian goddess Erzulie. Martine tells Sophie she will need to learn English quickly to succeed in school. Sophie knows her peers will make fun of her using Haitian stereotypes.

Sophie accompanies Martine to a calmer neighborhood. They meet Marc, a Haitian lawyer and Martine's boyfriend. In the evening Marc takes Martine and Sophie to a Haitian restaurant in New Jersey. Men and women at the restaurant argue about Haitian politics. Some men think Americans shouldn't intervene in Haiti. They say Americans abused Haitians after taking control of the country in the 1920s. Others believe American influence will bring roads Haiti desperately needs. Marc jumps into an argument about "all the brains" leaving Haiti. Other patrons protest that he's insulting people who remain in the country. Sophie thinks about how "arguing is a sport" for many Haitians who seek to outdo one another with creative insults.

The waiter looks at Sophie and Martine for a long time, which Sophie takes as confirmation she looks nothing like her mother. Marc critiques the boudin, a Haitian sausage dish. Throughout the meal Martine and Marc look at each other as if they can't speak in front of Sophie. Martine, Sophie realizes, has two lives: one in the present and one in the past, and Sophie belongs to her mother's past. Marc asks Sophie what she wants to be when she grows up. When Sophie says she wants to be a secretary, Marc says she should reconsider—America offers better opportunities. Martine says that Sophie will be a doctor. When Marc asks if Sophie has a boyfriend, Martine insists Sophie won't date until she's 18. As they drink watermelon juice at the end of the meal, Sophie recalls Tante Atie saying red food will strengthen her in hard times.

Chapter 8

In the two months before school starts, Martine takes Sophie to work with her. Martine works at a nursing home during the day and as a home attendant to an old woman at night. One night Sophie, lonely and homesick, asks Martine to stay with her in the old woman's living room. Martine assures Sophie she'll find a better job soon, one that pays more. She tells Sophie to stay in school and get a doctorate, so she won't have to work as hard as her mother. Then Martine asks Sophie if she's the mother Sophie imagined. In her childhood Sophie imagined her mother was like the Haitian voodoo goddess Erzulie. Erzulie, "the healer of all women and the desire of all men," dressed in fancy clothing, never worked, and stayed with Sophie always. But Sophie says she couldn't ask for a better mother than Martine.

Martine tells Sophie how Marc helped her apply for amnesty in the United States. Marc has traditional values, and Martine is happy with him. He's the first man she has been with in a long time. Martine asks if Sophie is a "good girl," wanting to know if she's kissed or held hands with a boy. Martine explains her mother used to test her daughters to see if they were virgins by putting her finger in their "very private parts." Martine's mother believed it was her responsibility to keep her daughters pure until marriage.

When Martine asks if Tante Atie ever revealed how Sophie was born, Sophie knows a sad story is coming. When Martine was barely older than Sophie, a man raped her. Sophie doesn't understand all of the details of the story, and she does not really want to understand. Martine adds that although she never saw the man's face, she knows Sophie looks like him. As Martine speaks she doesn't sound angry or sad but matter-of-fact. It takes Sophie 12 years to put together the rest of the story. As narrator Sophie warns, "By then, it was already too late."

Analysis

Chapter 7 gives a broader perspective on the Haitian American immigrant experience. Immigrants create their own community in Brooklyn with familiar products and a common language. They need the solidarity in a world often actively hostile to them. Sophie begins to learn the prejudice and racism she's in for when she goes to school. Martine uses cream to lighten her skin, reflecting the association of lighter skin with privilege and high social standing.

Haitian Americans extend community by continuing to be invested in their home country. The restaurant patrons' concerns about Americans in Haiti emerge from the U.S. Marines' 1915–34 Haitian occupation. Though the Marines built public utilities and infrastructure, they also allowed elite light-skinned Haitians to establish control over the government. Most Haitians felt abused and left out of their own affairs. The occupation affected the Haitian collective and communal work system known as konbit. Colonialism changes a country, and, like the individual Caco women, Haiti as a whole can't always control its own fate. Marc's comment "all the brains leave the country" refers to the consequences of mass emigration from a developing nation.

Sophie senses Martine is trying to put her past life behind her. Sophie's presence as a "living memory" is not easy for her mother. But in Breath, Eyes, Memory, old lives always bleed into new ones, and it's impossible to truly forget the past.

Sophie's also learning what life with her mother will be like. Martine's already made decisions about Sophie's career and love life. A high-powered career will instantly command respect, Martine thinks. Sophie isn't concerned about respect; she wants independence, but her own choices have limits. In Part 2 Martine's decisions will extend to control of Sophie's body. The color red symbolizes "strength for hard times" and also Sophie's emerging rebellion.

When Sophie goes to work with Martine, she sees the true struggle of making it in a new country. The challenge and indignities of Martine's job don't seem much different from Tante Atie's daily labor in Haiti. But Martine frames her immigration to the United States as a small step upward so that Sophie can make a greater leap. The daughter Martine imagines takes the path of higher education to gain respect, power, and honor for the family. Martine's hopes for Sophie place a lot of responsibility on her daughter's shoulders.

Sophie's hopes for Martine are even more idealized. Her ideal image of a mother is a goddess: maternal but at the same time glamorous, sophisticated, magical, and not quite human. However, Martine is flawed and in need of healing herself. Martine's relationship with Marc reveals her own self-image. She feels inferior to him because of her working-class background. She thinks he would never be able to love her in Haiti.

Trauma is a fact of life for Sophie's family, and having a relationship with a man at all is a huge step for Martine. Sophie as narrator compares Martine's straightforward description of her rape and its effects to "naming a color or calling a name"—calling something what it is. When Martine first brings up the testing ritual, the description is accompanied by the violent image of Tante Atie screaming "like a pig in a slaughterhouse." The testing becomes a complex ritual of family pain directly and knowingly passed down from mother to daughter, connecting their bodies. Sophie can't protect herself from the testing. She spends Part 2 experiencing it and Parts 3 and 4 figuring out how to overcome her trauma.

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