Literature Study GuidesBreath Eyes MemoryPart 3 Chapters 17 18 Summary

Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 3, Chapters 17–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17

Sophie, Tante Atie, and Grandmè Ifé eat cassava sandwiches for breakfast. Both Tante Atie and Grandmè Ifé eat the cassava correctly, Sophie observes, while she dunks hers in coffee.

Sophie joins Grandmè Ifé on her trip to the market. Grandmè Ifé purchases several food items and points out a white cloth she has at home for her burial. Louise is selling cola to several Macoutes, soldiers in the government army. Louise follows Sophie and Grandmè Ifé around the market trying to sell them her pig, but they aren't interested.

When a Macoute attacks a coal vendor, Grandmè Ifé drags Sophie away. But Sophie turns around to see what happened. The coal vendor is bleeding on the ground as the Macoutes kick him.

Grandmè Ifé is angry as the women walk home. She doesn't like how Tante Atie has been grieving since moving back to Grandmè Ifé's house. Tante Atie should look after her out of love, Grandmè Ifé says, not out of pity. She wants Tante Atie to go to New York with Sophie. Grandmè Ifé recalls a story of an old woman with three children: one child dies in the womb, one dies in "a faraway land," and the last stays to look after her mother. "Tante Atie was the last," Sophie reflects.

Chapter 18

Tante Atie is reading from her notebook when Sophie and Grandmè Ifé return. Sophie is surprised that Tante Atie remembers her poem after so long. Grandmè Ifé tells Tante Atie about the Macoutes beating the coal seller Dessalines at the market. Suddenly Tante Atie remembers she needs a cure for a lump on her calf and leaves the house.

The day passes without Tante Atie's return. Grandmè Ifé and Sophie boil beans for supper and eat as the sun goes down. When Grandmè Ifé asks Sophie why she left her husband, Sophie says it's only a temporary separation. Sophie confesses she feels no desire for sex and finds it painful. Grandmè Ifé asks if Martine ever tested Sophie. "I call it humiliation," Sophie responds. She hates her body and wishes she were off somewhere by herself. This is why she has returned to Haiti.

As night falls Grandmè Ifé tells a folktale to a group of village boys. In the story a lark tempts a little girl with pomegranates. One day the lark asks the girl to travel to a faraway land with him. The little girl doesn't want to leave her home, but the lark's sadness convinces her to go. On the way the lark says he's taking her to a king who will die without a little girl's heart. The girl replies she left her heart at home—hearts are too precious for girls to take with them. She tells the lark she'll get her heart and come back, but she never returns. Grandmè Ifé ends the tale by saying the lark is still waiting for a girl who will never come back.

When Tante Atie returns, Grandmè Ifé asks her for a story, but Tante Atie says she is empty.

Analysis

Food frequently represents cultural heritage and cultural loss in the novel. Sophie's distance from her Haitian background emerges when she forgets how to eat a cassava sandwich. By contrast, Grandmè Ifé is certain about the foods she wants in the market. She tells a man Sophie is "from right here," reminding Sophie of her first home.

In Part 3 readers get to see many of the images that still represent Haiti to Sophie. The cane fields and the men who sing as they work are constantly in the background. The men's songs tell folktales with plots Sophie remembers.

In other ways Haiti is growing increasingly troubling for her. There are constant reminders of death, like the cathedral bell signaling the funerals of the poor. The casual, menacing presence of the Macoutes abruptly turns into violence. Sophie wants to bear witness; she doesn't understand why no one says anything.

The novel often deals with the many reasons for violence. Grandmè Ifé suggests the Macoutes killed Dessalines because "when people hate you, they beat your animals." Dessalines is poor and without a high social status. By killing him the Macoutes show their contempt for Haitians and disregard for Haitian life.

The political atmosphere adds to the pressure the Caco women already feel. Desperately seeking independence, Tante Atie disappears for hours at a time. Sophie explores the reasons why she disappeared from her own life in America. Was she trying to find herself or escape herself? She still isn't sure.

Though Sophie needs to remember, her family members cope differently. Grandmè Ifé distances herself from violence to keep the nightmares at bay. Tante Atie, who doesn't believe in second-guessing the past, drinks to cope with her grief for the life she could have lived. Grandmè Ifé and Tante Atie's dynamic show a life Sophie could also have lived. What does it look like when a daughter stays with her mother out of duty? Tante Atie's sense of obligation has transformed into resentment, which ends up harming the relationship. Sophie, who has gone to the other extreme of not speaking to her mother, isn't sure how to find a middle ground.

Sophie is also trying to figure out whether she can return to her marriage. She still associates sex with danger, evil, and physical and psychological pain. Grandmè Ifé's folktale about the lark and the little girl speaks to her situation. The lark represents male desire, temptation, and manipulation. The little girl afraid to leave her home resembles Sophie in the uncertainty of her constant journeys. But in a twist, a common one in folktales, the little girl changes from a victim to a trickster. She outsmarts the bird by telling him she's left her heart at home to protect it from damage. Sophie considers the man waiting for her and how to protect her own heart from further pain.

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