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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Study Guide

Edwidge Danticat

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Breath, Eyes, Memory | Themes


Connections between Mothers and Daughters

Mother/daughter relationships provide the plot's backbone. Sophie, Martine, Grandmè Ifé, and Tante Atie all face the complications of being both mothers and daughters. These connections are sometimes painful and damaging and sometimes life-sustaining. They're expressed in the women's physical bodies, their sense of responsibility, and their links to the country of Haiti.

Characters frequently feel the impact of mother/daughter connections in their bodies. When Grandmè Ifé is parted from her daughter she feels chagrin, or physical distress. She believes Tante Atie suffers from the same ailment when Louise leaves her. Childbirth reshapes Sophie's body in ways she doesn't like, but it reminds her of the intimate bond she has with her daughter. Martine associates pregnancy and childbirth with rape and trauma. Martine passes a different version of this trauma down to her daughter by testing Sophie's virginity. The tests in turn affect Sophie's physical experience of sex with her husband and her own body image.

Martine tests Sophie because the testing is a family tradition—something she participates in out of emotionally complicated obligation. The other Caco women are bound to their mothers and daughters through similar ideas of family responsibility. From a young age Sophie is trained to respect and honor her mother. In Part 1 Tante Atie remarks on how children show their loyalty or lack of loyalty to parents early in life. As Grandmè Ifé prepares for her funeral, Tante Atie feels an obligation to her that quickly curdles into resentment. Both Tante Atie and Sophie push against the responsibilities their mothers passed down to them, which Tante Atie describes as the "ten fingers" of a woman's purposes in life.

Maternal bonds also reveal themselves in the characters' connection to Haiti. When Grandmè Ifé puts each female family member's name on the deed to the land, it symbolizes a permanent link. Martine's death leads Sophie to consider why so many Haitian folktales have mothers and daughters as characters. She decides Haiti's "song makers and tale weavers"—everyone who passed down the legends Sophie's family still tells—decided every Haitian was a daughter of the country. Sophie's relationship with her mother resembles her relationship with her home country. Both bonds are complex and ever-changing. Sometimes Sophie loves what they represent and sometimes she resents it. But both mother and country are fundamental to making her who she is.

Healing from Sexual Trauma

Early in the novel Tante Atie tells Sophie young Haitian women lack control over every aspect of their life, even their bodies. Both Martine and Sophie learn at a young age their bodies can be used against them. They each spend their adult lives suffering the impact of sexual trauma.

The testing process in which mothers physically test their daughter's virginities comes from a system of patriarchal oppression. A woman's worth is determined by her sexual status and value to a man. Haitian culture prizes an unmarried young woman's virginity. Only a virgin can be a suitable match for a potential husband and preserve her family honor. If she loses her virginity before marriage, through consensual sexual intercourse or rape, she disgraces the family. Sophie and Martine know their sexual activity as women is not private. As a result their bodies aren't private; they belong to the community.

Martine and Sophie's bodies, mental states, and relationships with others are all affected by their sexual trauma. In Part 3 Martine confesses to Sophie that she relives both her rape and her virginity testing daily. She deals with the complications of raising a child conceived through rape, especially when the child is a daughter who is vulnerable herself. She compares her rapist to a ghost, giving him supernatural power. She and Sophie are both reluctant to create intimate relationships with men. Sophie resists having sex with her husband, while Martine is wary of marrying Marc and having his child. Trauma affects her parenting choices, her self-image, and her unwillingness to pursue professional help. In the end, Martine acts the trauma out on her own body. When Sophie realizes she can't save her mother, she sees firsthand the limits of a family's ability to rescue their loved ones.

Sophie takes a more proactive approach to her own healing. She attends a support group and talks to a therapist, but she still worries she'll never escape the impact of the virginity testing. She feels so alienated from her own body that she actively harms herself through an eating disorder. As a nervous new parent, she also worries she'll hand her trauma down to her daughter.

Sophie and Martine finally confront this trauma together in Part 3, Chapter 26. Sophie asks her mother why she tested her, and Martine gives her an honest answer. Their journey toward healing is far from over, but emotional honesty and communication help them begin the process.

Reconciling Two Different Cultures

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a narrative of immigration. It includes many features of immigration stories: culture shock, intergenerational disagreements, and a search for home and belonging. Haitian Americans Sophie and Martine live with the language, food, and cultural career expectations of two different worlds.

Characters frequently communicate in French and Haitian Creole during both casual and serious conversation. Even after Sophie works to master English and sound as American as possible, she still remembers Creole. The English language represents a foreign culture to her Haitian family. When Sophie and her mother speak English without realizing it in Part 3, Grandmè Ifé finds the language viscerally unpleasant. Not only does language signify cultural identity, but it can also signify education and social class. Martine's answering machine message shows a mastery of French and English, languages Sophie believes her mother cultivated to hide her working-class background.

Food emerges as an emotional marker of culture. During the two years Sophie and Martine are estranged, neither of them cooks Haitian food. The reminder of their shared background is too painful. The smells of food can bring back forgotten memories. When she grinds spices to cook for her family in Part 3, Sophie is instantly transported to her past. In Haiti food is communal and a way to show love; Grandmè Ifé cooks for Sophie in Part 1 before she goes to America. Food is also valuable for Haitians who grew up poor, and Martine continues to see food as a luxury long after she leaves Haiti. Her belief that a good meal will cure Sophie's bulimia shows divergent cultural attitudes toward food. Sophie's reasons for limiting her food intake are complex, but they are tied to body image; Martine overeats because she still fears food scarcity.

Martine and Sophie also clash over Sophie's future career. Martine complains that "new-generation" Haitian Americans, those who immigrated as children or were born in the United States, have "lost their sense of obligation to their family's honor." If they don't pick a profession that reflects well on the family, they've disgraced the family. She faces pressure to be a doctor, but Sophie doesn't consider any career goals of her own. She's surprised when Joseph encourages her to think about what she'd like to do. She's shocked at his own casual willingness to go where life takes him. People from Haiti don't have the luxury to be what Sophie calls "a wanderer." They carry their family's reputation with them wherever they go.

The Power of Storytelling

Danticat has said, "everything is a metaphor or a proverb" in Haiti. Breath, Eyes, Memory includes not only proverbs but also many folktales and legends. The Caco women and other Haitians in the novel use stories as ways to understand the incomprehensible and to keep collective memory alive.

Folktales help characters process evil and tragedy. When Sophie, conceived through rape, wonders where she came from, Tante Atie uses the language of legends to answer. She tells Sophie she was born from "the petals of roses, water from the stream, and a chunk of the sky." Another legend Tante Atie tells describes how people who suffer extreme hardship have been chosen to carry pieces of the sky on their head, giving purpose to their suffering. In Part 2 Sophie processes the pain of virginity testing through a folktale about a constantly bleeding woman who becomes a butterfly.

Haitians also use legends to weave a collective story about their country. Legends can be a way to understand and face atrocities. Characters call dictator François Duvalier's (1907–71) brutal soldiers the Tonton Macoutes after a mythical bogeyman. This reference helps people name and remember the evil. Sophie describes how Haitians use the voodoo concept of "doubling" to explain how political leaders can commit crimes and still go home to their families. The collective story can also be a nurturing one. Sophie reflects on how the repeated mother/daughter motifs in Haitian folklore show an essentially Haitian relationship with the land. Haitians consider their country a parent with all the love and complications a parent presents. This way the legends keep cultural memory rooted in a geographical sense of home.

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