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Literature Study GuidesBreath Eyes MemoryPart 2 Chapters 11 12 Summary

Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 2, Chapters 11–12 | Summary



Chapter 11

When Joseph returns from his travels, Sophie wears a tight yellow dress to greet him. They go to a concert and kiss. Soon afterward Joseph asks Sophie to marry him. She tells him she needs time to think, knowing her mother will never allow the marriage.

Sophie tells her mother Henry Napoleon is never coming back. Martine says she's heard Henry went to Mexico for medical school, revealing she knows he doesn't exist. She warns Sophie she can't keep secrets from her mother.

The next night Sophie returns late from a date with Joseph. Her mother is sitting up waiting for her. Martine takes Sophie into her bedroom and tests her to see if she's still a virgin. To distract Sophie, Martine tells her the story of the Marasas, two inseparable lovers in Haitian legend. She warns, "When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your Marasa," questioning Sophie's desire to leave her mother for a man she barely knows. Finally she tells Sophie, "There are secrets you cannot keep." Afterward Sophie understands why Tante Atie screamed when her own mother was testing her.

Chapter 12

Martine continues to test Sophie every week. Sophie avoids Joseph when he returns from a month in Providence. She rejects him when he tells her he's moving to Providence for good.

As Sophie listens to Joseph play his saxophone next door, she feels lonely and lost. She takes her mother's mortar and pestle from the cabinet. She thinks of a Haitian story about a woman who had blood spurting from her skin for years. The goddess Erzulie told the bleeding woman she'd have to transform into a plant or animal to be healed. The woman considers all the plants and animals, including "ones that were held captive and ones that were free." She chooses to become a butterfly.

Sophie grinds the pestle into her flesh to break her hymen. When Martine tests Sophie that night, Sophie fails the test. Martine kicks her out of the house. Sophie packs her things, goes next door to Joseph, and tells him she wants to marry immediately. Surprised, Joseph agrees. Sophie is glad she's going to Providence, feeling destiny is calling her there.


When Sophie starts imagining her own future it's a radical step. If she marries without her mother's approval she's breaking the rules of her family and facing possible estrangement. In addition, she's severing an important connection to her past.

Meanwhile Martine is passing nightmares from her own past down to her daughter. The trauma of her rape resurfaces as she describes seeing a male lover's face in the mirror. The vision is terrifying to Martine, who fears her pain has in some sense become her. She pictures Sophie losing herself in a different way.

The testing itself was a traumatic process for both Martine and Tante Atie. It represents intergenerational pain often passed down without a family's knowledge. Why does Martine repeat it with her own child? How can Sophie understand the testing as both a damaging, sexually abusive act and a cultural tradition?

Another aspect of the ritual is deeply personal for Martine. She fears family shame if her daughter has a private sexual life before marriage, and she fears loneliness if Sophie has a private life at all. Sophie's emerging independence as a woman and an American means she may grow apart from Martine and from her heritage.

As the Caco women do many times to cope with difficulty, Martine imagines herself as a character in a folktale. The Marasas, or "Divine Twins," are powerful deities in Haitian voodoo tradition. Sophie uses another aspect of this tradition to cope: the idea of "doubling" or becoming two people at once. She later explains she "doubles" or takes her mind to a different place whenever the tests happen. She uses the legends of her own childhood, including religious discourse, for comfort.

In Chapter 12 Sophie places herself into a legend as a woman who becomes a butterfly. She feels distant from her own body and wants to leave it behind, along with leaving her mother/abuser behind. The woman in the legend gives up all the complications of living in a human body. She turns into an animal representing rebellion and freedom. Telling a story becomes a way for Sophie to remove herself from the experience and see it more clearly.

Like the woman in the legend, Sophie's own experience of freedom is marked by blood. The novel will later discuss the importance of blood on sheets as a sign a woman has lost her virginity. The blood marks a cultural rite of passage. It signifies physical and psychological pain, and it's a loud color. It can't be ignored.

When Danticat puts the words "test" and "tested" in italics, she indicates the word doesn't fully describe the complexity of the act. On the page, italicizing becomes a way to signal a word doesn't mean what readers may think it means.

Sophie's breaking of her own hymen is a radical act. Physically, it's extreme. Socially, it represents her willingness to disgrace her family and sever herself from her Haitian roots. She uses her mother's cooking implement, the one used to grind Haitian spices, to destroy an aspect of her heritage.

She then chooses a new life with Joseph in the unknown, but she's inherited her family interest in religious symbolism. Sophie associates the town of Providence with the meaning of the word—good fortune. Since the word usually appears in a religious context, she thinks of the divine.

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