Literature Study GuidesBreath Eyes MemoryPart 2 Chapters 9 10 Summary

Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 2, Chapters 9–10 | Summary



Chapter 9

The events in Part 2 take place six years after the events in Part 1. As Chapter 9 opens, Sophie is 18 and headed for college in the fall. She and Martine live in a one-family house in a new neighborhood near Marc. Martine grows hibiscus but not daffodils because those need more care.

Sophie's been attending a religious college preparatory school called the Maranatha Bilingual Institution. Though she never tells her mother, Sophie hates the school. Instruction is in French just like in Haiti. Students from the public school next door bully and insult the Haitian school students regularly. But as Sophie reads her English textbooks she begins to learn the language. She picks up English words in the New York Creole conversations she hears. Some words, like nationality, alien, date, and enemy, give Sophie a context for her new reality. From age 12 to 18 her life is consumed by "school, home, and prayer."

At age 18 Sophie falls in love with an older man named Joseph who moves into the house next door. Joseph, a musician who splits his time between Providence, Rhode Island, and Brooklyn, New York, is an African American of Louisiana Creole descent. The two bond over the similarities in their cultures. Before long Joseph declares his intention to marry Sophie. Though Sophie does not yet agree to the marriage, she does spend a lot of time with Joseph, a fact she keeps from her mother. Through her relationship with Joseph, she learns about his music, his African American heritage, and the importance of making one's own plans for the future. Sophie intends to become a doctor because this is Martine's dream for her. Joseph encourages her to set her own goals. Sophie remains reluctant to tell Joseph how she feels about him. She fears he'll lose respect for her or lose interest after sexual gratification.

Chapter 10

The night after Sophie stays out late with Joseph, Martine comes home early to take Sophie on an outing. As they ride the train Sophie remembers the "sugar cane railroads" of her Haitian childhood. She asks Martine if she'll ever return to Haiti. Martine says she'll have to go back before Grandmè Ifé dies but she won't stay long. She still has painful memories in Haiti: "There are ghosts there that I can't face."

Sophie tentatively tells her mother she likes someone. Martine is critical and warns Sophie not to trust him. She asks for the man's name. Nervous, Sophie invents the name Henry Napoleon. Martine recognizes Napoleon as a French name and thinks he's from a Haitian family. Sophie imagines Martine thinking about the Napoleon family's wealth, education, and social class and the color of their skin. Martine says she wants to meet Henry's parents. Sophie kisses Martine to show appreciation but can't tell Martine she loves her.

After revealing she has a love interest, Sophie works harder to stay on her mother's good side. She gets good grades and cooks Martine's favorite meals. Martine discusses the difference between "old-fashioned" and "new-generation" Haitian men. Old-fashioned men are strict, but new-generation men forget their obligations to family. Martine's learned the Napoleon family is poor but hardworking. She mentions in Haiti people will always look down on someone born poor, even if the person becomes rich. But in America, people love the "success stories"of a poor person working toward a better life.

Sophie collects postcards from Joseph while he's on the road. She continues to comfort Martine during her frequent nightmares.


Part 1 was framed by Sophie's departure from Haiti and arrival in America. The abrupt time jump in Part 2 takes readers directly to another turning point in Sophie's life surrounding an arrival and departure.

Sophie now has a greater understanding of her situation as an immigrant. She understands the privileges of growing up in the United States. But she's also learning words with negative connotations like "alien" and "enemy" and words drawing boundaries like "race" and "nationality." Her eventual desire to "sound completely American" shows how her language reflects a shifting relationship with her cultural background. She sees the benefits of fitting in. The unique perils of the immigrant experience increase her sense of responsibility. There's having to deal with the racism of her classmates. There's the difficulty of learning a new language for survival. There's the need to make sure she rewards Martine's substantial sacrifices. Sophie doesn't choose the six years spent on "school, home, and prayer," and she completes her duties with a sense of resignation.

Having been kept from men for much of her life, Sophie is instantly fascinated by Joseph. In Joseph she sees someone who has a wisdom she wants. He is confident in himself and secure about his past and future. He uses music to reckon with the pride and complexity of being African American, but Sophie's mother is a barrier between them. The ongoing trauma Martine experiences from her rape influences her view of men. In her own life, it causes her to resist marrying and starting a family with Marc. Martine's fear for Sophie is even greater.

Martine has given up growing daffodils, signaling she's struggling to maintain the strength they represent. Her home is decorated in her favorite color, red—symbolizing danger, anger, rebellion, and blood. Martine views Haiti as a land of ghosts, implying her painful memories have the authority of a supernatural power. The word "ghosts" has multiple meanings in the novel. It usually refers to the dead and their effects on the living. It also connotes an intrusive supernatural element. Danticat has remarked that in Haiti death is close to life, and she recalls being surrounded by death as a child.

Sophie struggles to see beyond Martine's worldview. When Sophie and Joseph discuss the differences between Haitian and American cultures in career planning, Sophie finds herself quoting her mother. To her, a job is a way to uphold her family's reputation, driven by an abstract sense of what's good for someone. The question of "what's good for them" replays when the adult Sophie tries to understand why her mother tested her.

Martine explains that in Haiti, roots and heritage decide fate. Someone born poor will always be known as someone from a poor family even if they get rich. This cultural perspective is evident in Martine's insistence that Sophie become a doctor. As Sophie's mother she has the authority to decide Sophie's career path because the decision affects the whole family. Since fate is linked to heritage, every activity is the family's business, even sexual activity between young people before marriage.

The American cultural perspective, by contrast, values complete transformation. The ability to leave behind a troubled past is a symbol of success. Martine wants Sophie to succeed in an American way, too, by earning wealth and prosperity despite her family's poor background.

Sophie's role as a "new-generation" Haitian American requires her to balance both perspectives. People like Sophie who come to the United States as children or teenagers are considered "1.5 generation" or "one-and-a-half-generation" immigrants. They may feel attached to their cultures of origin, but they want to belong in America as well. The location of home often shifts, and 1.5 generation immigrants may feel like outcasts wherever they are. Parts 3 and 4 show Sophie struggling to define home.

Martine's discussion of new-generation Haitians introduces another central tenet of coming-of-age stories. When a young adult realizes their personal values clash with the values of their family, they often must make painful choices. The dynamic is even more complicated in an immigrant family with fierce attachment to a cultural background. Sophie has to negotiate her mother's desires and needs along with her own. Martine thinks Sophie is "already lost" to love. Sophie senses Martine doesn't want to lose her daughter, and so she thinks up a mythical man her mother will envision as the best possible outcome. The imaginary Henry Napoleon is a Haitian man who embodies the American "success story."

Joseph's openness to an unplanned future signifies a cavalier faith Sophie associates with America. "Being a wanderer" means Joseph can belong anywhere. To Sophie this perspective ignores the importance of roots and home. Joseph, who raised himself after the death of his parents, doesn't have an existing family to please. Joseph's confidence in picking his own career and life choices may be affected by gender as well as culture. As a woman, Sophie has been raised with different expectations. Despite their differences, Sophie is touched when Joseph points out the similarities in their African backgrounds. Now she knows someone who can relate in a different way to the exile and disorientation she's experiencing in America.

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