Literature Study GuidesBreath Eyes MemoryPart 3 Chapters 23 24 Summary

Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Part 3, Chapters 23–24 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 23

In the morning Sophie and Grandmè Ifé realize Tante Atie didn't come home the night before. They prepare themselves for bad news.

When Louise and Tante Atie return, Louise takes the pig away. Tante Atie reveals that Grandmè Ifé told Louise to take the pig or she would kill it. Tante Atie refuses to buy the pig from Louise, not wanting to give her money to leave for New York. Tante Atie has brought with her a jar of leeches to heal the lump on her calf. The leeches suck Tante Atie's blood while Sophie looks on in shock.

One night Sophie plans to make a familiar meal for supper, one Tante Atie says is Martine's favorite. Sophie and Tante Atie pass through the cemetery on their way to buy ingredients. They stop at the graves of Sophie's great-grandmother, great-aunts, and grandfather. Tante Atie tells her the family name Caco is the name of a bright-red bird. When the Caco bird dies, blood rushes to its neck and wings so the bird looks like it's on fire.

Men in the nearby sugarcane fields sing a song about a woman who flies without her skin at night. The woman's husband puts pepper on her skin to teach her a lesson, killing her in the process.

When Sophie cooks she's surprised at how easily she remembers how to make the dish. Her memory is guided by the smell of the spices. She usually eats simple food that doesn't recall "a past that at times was cherished and at others despised." Sophie recalls how Haitian men require their wives to be virgins with ten fingers. Tante Atie once told her each finger represents one part of a woman's purpose. Grandmè Ifé and Tante Atie compliment the food.

At night Grandmè Ifé hears a sound no one else can hear. She claims the sound is a young girl on the road. The girl's soul is linked to Grandmè Ifé's soul somehow. "Your ears are witness to matters that do not concern you," she tells Sophie. After concentrating, Grandmè Ifé identifies the girl as Ti Alice, a young woman she knows. Ti Alice has been with a boy and is rushing back to her mother. Grandmè Ifé adds that Ti Alice's mother will test her just as Martine tested Sophie.

Sophie reflects on the "mothers' obsession" with their daughters' virginity. She remembers a story of a rich man who chose a poor black girl to marry because she was a virgin. When the girl didn't bleed on her wedding night, the rich man worried about defending his reputation. He cut her with a knife so she would bleed, and she died from blood loss. The rich man showed the blood-soaked sheets at her funeral to prove her virginity before marriage.

When Sophie was tested she would "double" by losing herself in pleasant memories of the past. Stories about "ancestors having doubled" are common in the Haitian voodoo tradition. It is said that many of Haiti's presidents, for instance, are "split in two: part flesh and part shadow." This way the presidents can murder and rape many people while still raising families. Sophie continued to double when she and Joseph were together after they were married.

Sophie asks Grandmè Ifé why mothers test their daughters. Grandmè Ifé explains a mother is responsible for her daughter's purity. "If your child is disgraced, you are disgraced," she says. Sophie says the tests are the worst thing to ever happen to her. A mother does everything for her child's own good, Grandmè Ifé replies.

Sophie says she plans to return to Joseph soon. As Grandmè Ifé goes to bed, she gives Sophie the statue of the Haitian voodoo goddess Erzulie. Grandmè Ifé says her heart weeps for the pain the family caused Sophie.

The next morning Sophie goes jogging, and she imagines the puzzled neighbors wondering why she's frightened enough to run from nothing.

Chapter 24

Three days later Martine arrives. Grandmè Ifé is thrilled to see her, while Tante Atie is indifferent, and Sophie is tense. Martine says she only plans to stay for three days to help prepare for Grandmè Ifé's funeral.

Grandmè Ifé insists Sophie walk to her mother. When Sophie refuses, Martine approaches her daughter and kisses her cheek. Sophie lets Martine hold Brigitte.

Martine wants to reconcile. She doesn't want to be enemies with her daughter, and she's promised Joseph to bring Sophie back with her. Sophie and Martine speak to each other in English, a language Grandmè Ifé compares to "glass breaking." Martine says the two women can get a fresh start.

Analysis

In Part 1 Grandmè Ifé experienced chagrin, or distress, as a physical sensation. She still connects body to mind, drinking black coffee with salt "to prepare her body for the shock of bad news." Sophie, who has her own experiences of the mind causing physical distress, connects food to memory and pain. Haitian spices bring back a complex past, but the memory is rooted in her body. She knows the spices by smell.

Many of the ten female purposes Tante Atie lists concern the body. Some are related to food, others to the physical labor of housekeeping and childrearing. The association of responsibilities with ten fingers represents jobs being coded into the body and impossible to avoid. With the ten fingers named before birth, there's a sense of fate. Choice and infinite possibility are American concepts; Haitian women know what they're born to do.

Saying or writing a name is a confirmation of existence and presence even after death. Chapter 23 shows Tante Atie's attempt to reclaim her own body by leeching blood from the lump in her calf. She accompanies this cleansing ritual with the act of writing her name over and over. With the newfound ability to write, she's asserting her presence. Similarly, she recites the names of dead family members in the cemetery, telling Sophie they are in the presence of family—present tense. First names like Ifé and Brigitte are passed down through generations to show a continuing bond.

There are bonds stretching between Haitian women outside the family, as well. Grandmè Ifé feels her soul linked to a nearby girl before she even knows who the girl is. As the family storyteller, Grandmè Ifé has a supernatural quality, including the transcendent hearing power she claims. She can also sense when the girl is going through the same ritual the Caco women endured. The ritual is linked with violence in the visceral threat of the girl hurrying "like a whip chasing a mule."

The loss of female virginity is associated with bleeding. Blood suggests pain and brutality in other places in the novel, but here it's a status symbol. Blood shows a woman has survived pain and completed a meaningful rite of passage. And it shows a man has gotten something of high cultural value—a virgin bride.

As the novel discusses the complexities of Haitian tradition, it explores the effects of violence against women. The story of the woman whose husband draws blood from her with a knife brings this violence into focus. The woman was sacrificed for a ritual Sophie as narrator compares to a "virginity cult." The word "cult" indicates unnatural, unhealthy, or untrue beliefs. The word "tested" again appears in italics, signifying it isn't the right word for the practice. Danticat has emphasized not all Haitian mothers perform the testing ritual on their daughters. However, the tradition is tied to social and cultural ideas about the value of female virginity. A young woman's sexuality becomes linked to her family's reputation and honor.

Sophie imagines her trauma through the idea of voodoo doubling. Doubling explains her feeling of being disconnected from her body in an attempt to preserve her soul during physical abuse. She resembles the little girl in the legend who leaves her heart at home.

To start the healing process Sophie has to go further than myths. She has to understand as much as she can about why the ritual happened, so she tries to see things from Grandmè Ifé's perspective. The code of family honor and responsibility, and the fear that an untested girl would face even worse pain, are influences Sophie can understand.

Grandmè Ifé also comes to a new understanding of the harm she's done Sophie. They both begin to see the ritual differently. Sophie will later use the statue of Erzulie in a healing ritual of her own, indicating an openness to recovery.

Martine's return to Haiti shows changes in her body and spirit. She's ultimately a tragic figure whose death is foreshadowed in Chapter 24. Martine describes the American cold as turning them into ghosts. Her skin whitening resembles an attempt to erase herself. Cancer has eroded her physically, but she wants a new future and a new start. She's wearing green, a color representing new life.

Martine and Sophie have to relate on unfamiliar ground. They connect as Americans and not as Haitians, speaking English without realizing it. To reconcile they'll need to tap into their common Haitian heritage.

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