Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Quotes

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1.

When we were children we had no control over anything. Not even this body.


Tante Atie, Part 1, Chapter 2

Tante Atie tells young Sophie even one's own body can be controlled by others. A frequent topic in the novel is the violence done to women's bodies. For example, Sophie is conceived through rape. But women experience a subtler invasion of privacy when their bodies are up for family discussion. For instance, a mother can control her daughter's virginity. When her mother tests her virginity, Sophie suffers loss of control over her body.

2.

Your mother is your first friend.


Grandmè Ifé, Part 1, Chapter 3

This statement expresses the unique nature of the mother/daughter bond the novel discusses. While people don't choose their parents, they do choose their friends. Tante Atie encourages Sophie to cultivate a friendship with Martine on purpose and make an effort to understand her. Later Martine will attempt to repair her damaged relationship with Sophie by offering friendship.

3.

Imagine our surprise when we found out we had limits.


Martine, Part 1, Chapter 6

America is often associated with freedom and infinite opportunity, a place for people to become whatever they want to be. While Martine has more options in America than she did in Haiti, she still can't achieve her dreams. There are many practical obstacles in her way. The "surprise" she discusses is a rite of passage she and Tante Atie endured as young adults—learning the world might not reward their hard work and dreams. All the Caco women struggle against limits in various forms as they seek autonomy, respect, and happiness.

4.

There are secrets you cannot keep.


Martine, Part 2, Chapter 11

Here Sophie learns she has little privacy from her mother. Martine is referring to Sophie's love for Joseph as a secret she cannot keep because Sophie's virginity affects the entire family's honor. But the testing process is also a secret the Caco family fails to reckon with. In Part 3, when Sophie describes the devastating impact the tests had on her, she'll be telling a secret of her own. By bringing the tests and their effects into the light, she hopes to stop the tradition from harming her own daughter.

5.

Some people need to forget ... I need to remember.


Sophie, Part 3, Chapter 13

Memory helps Sophie process trauma, grief, and anger. She's remembered her Creole despite living away from Haiti for years. By remembering the language, Sophie is able to acknowledge how her heritage has shaped her. She later identifies memory as a key aspect of Haitian identity.

6.

The things one does, one should do out of love.


Grandmè Ifé, Part 3, Chapter 17

Grandmè Ifé challenges the cultural concept of duty to family. She believes love, not duty, should motivate her daughter to care for her in old age. The tension between acting out of obligation and acting out of love arises again and again in the Caco family's decisions. Sophie, for instance, considers whether she owes her husband physical intimacy. Martine considers why she put Sophie through painful virginity tests. And when Sophie reestablishes contact with Martine in Part 4, she's fueled by a combination of duty and love.

7.

Crabs don't make papayas.


Grandmè Ifé, Part 3, Chapter 18

This statement, which Tante Atie also uses in Part 1, means children will have physical and character traits in common with their family members. It also implies everyone carries part of their family with them. Family is impossible to escape; there's always a resemblance. Even though Sophie doesn't look like anyone in her family, she still carries some of their traits.

8.

If a person is worth remembering ... people will remember.


Grandmè Ifé, Part 3, Chapter 19

What makes someone "worth remembering"? Grandmè Ifé resists the idea of putting her name on a register to show where she lived. She feels there's no substitute for living an honorable, loving life. She and her family also believe the dead live on in memory through their descendants. As she and her daughters strive to create lives "worth remembering," they all think about the legacy they'll leave behind.

9.

No memories of a past that at times was cherished and at others despised.


Sophie, Part 3, Chapter 23

Sophie's narration shows true affection for Haiti and her Haitian loved ones. She admires Grandmè Ifé, Tante Atie, and even her mother. But she's critical of cultural practices like virginity testing. She resists her family's attempts to control her body, career, and choices. Sophie's complex feelings about her cultural heritage resist easy categorization, giving the novel nuance and depth.

10.

We were twins, in spirit.


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 30

When Martine tells Sophie the Haitian story of the Marasas, or "Divine Twins," she describes the twins as lovers. Sophie experiences this powerful connection not with her husband but with her mother. Sophie and Martine are united through their traumatic backgrounds and their similar struggles to survive. This realization gives Sophie empathy for her mother despite the pain Martine caused her.

11.

It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire.


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 31

Sophie takes responsibility for breaking the cycle of virginity testing in her family. She's aware her behavior toward her daughter Brigitte will have long-term effects on Brigitte's well-being. She also vows not to hurt her daughter simply because her own mother hurt her. This moment exemplifies both Sophie's fears about motherhood and her increased insight into her family's behavior patterns.

12.

I grew up believing that people could be in two places at once.


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 32

Sophie is referring to the voodoo concept of doubling, where one person splits into two. The legend helps her imagine a rekindled relationship with her mother as a new friend despite their past trauma. Doubling occurs in other aspects of Sophie's life. She survives her mother's virginity testing by taking her mind somewhere else. As an immigrant with ties to her homeland, she's culturally in two places at once: America and Haiti. She spends much of the novel trying to find where she belongs.

13.

Are you free?


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 35

As Sophie grieves her mother in the cane fields, she hears her aunt and grandmother calling out this question. It's typically a question women ask each other in the market to see if someone's still carrying her heavy load of goods. But here it refers to the psychological load of Sophie's grief, anger, and complex memories of her mother. The question appears in English and French, reflecting both Sophie's Haitian Creole heritage and her American identity. The novel asks readers to consider whether Sophie can truly be free from her heritage and what freedom means to her.

14.

There is always a place where nightmares are passed on through generations like heirlooms.


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 35

An heirloom is a treasured family keepsake. Though an heirloom usually has positive associations, a nightmare does not. This quote uses contrast to surprise the reader. It also shows how trauma and tragedy can become family legacies. Like heirlooms, inherited nightmares connect people to their ancestors. Sophie ties this inheritance to the country of Haiti, where death is ever-present and family connections are strong.

15.

I come from a place where breath, eyes, and memory are one.


Sophie, Part 4, Chapter 35

The beauty and complexity of Haitian heritage show in the title phrase "breath, eyes, and memory." In Haiti memory and tradition are as important as breath or sight. The word "eyes" refers to the many ways Haitian women can observe the world. Sophie says the Caco women have "the gift of the unseen." Grandmè Ifé, for instance, can sense other people's troubles with her heart and her ears. The quote also connects past, present, and future in an unbroken link. Breathing, or continuing to live in the future, requires people to hold on to the past.

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