The story's first-person narrator and its principal protagonist. Sophie is Martine's daughter, Atie's charge, Grandmè Ifé's granddaughter, Joseph's wife and Brigitte's mother. A child of rape, Sophie is raised in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, by her maternal aunt Atie before being called to New York by her mother at the age of twelve. Notably, Sophie does not look like her mother, her face reflecting the unseen face of Martine's attacker. As the child of a poor immigrant in New York, Sophie must take on the full weight of her mother's and aunt's dreams, spending six years doing nothing but studying and attending church. She must also contend with her mother's trauma, insomnia and nightmares, and with her own conflicting roles as independent woman, loving daughter, savior from nightmares, and reminder of the past. As an adult, Sophie's insomnia, bulimia and sexual phobia echo her mother's own problems and insecurities, even as her loyalty, love, determination and strength reflect her mother's, aunt's and grandmother's spirit. Yet Sophie's relentless and honest examination of herself and her inheritance has perhaps paid off: her daughter, Brigitte, is strong and implacable, suggesting both Caco courage and a break with the more destructive patterns of her maternal line.
in-depth analysis of Sophie.
Sophie's maternal aunt and first guardian, Martine's sister and Grandmè Ifé's daughter. Atie is devastated by two great betrayals: in her youth, Donald Augustin promises to marry her and then suddenly marries another woman, and in her old age, Atie's best friend, Louise, leaves for Miami without so much as a goodbye. She is a character of great perseverance, faithfully caring for Sophie at the novel's beginning and for Grandmè Ifé at the novel's end. Yet as the novel progresses, she becomes understandably bitter at a world that has given her all the restraints of being a poor woman, a daughter, and a virgin, with none of its rewards. Illiterate for much of Sophie's childhood, Atie is taught to read by Louise shortly before the latter's unceremonious departure. Bound to Dame Marie by duty to her mother, Atie refuses to join Martine in New York and instead turns increasingly to alcohol. Throughout, Atie remains deeply loyal to Martine and to her mother, and loves Sophie greatly. Sophie, the beloved child, remains one of Atie's few consolations against the cruel and indifferent march of fate.
Sophie's mother, Atie's sister and Grandmè Ifé's daughter. Martine was raped at the age of sixteen by a masked Macoute in a cane field on her way home from school. The rape left Martine with a child, Sophie, and a lifetime of vivid nightmares. Martine's emigration to New York after Sophie's birth, where she works tirelessly at menial jobs, has meant some precious money for the family. It has also meant Sophie's chance to leave Haiti and to get an American education, a chance that Martine invests with all the power of what has been denied her. Martine's continual struggle to be a good mother to Sophie and a sexually adequate lover to Marc remain powerfully informed by the twin violations of rape and of her own mother's practice of testing
for virginity. She is a deeply loving and deeply wounded character, hoping to show her daughter a way beyond her own life even though she cannot help but perpetuate some of its troubles.
in-depth analysis of Martine.
The matriarch of the Caco family. Grandmè Ifé lives alone in the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie, Haiti, until Sophie leaves for New York and Atie comes to Dame Marie to be with her out of duty. She is wise, candid, practical and astute, with an intuitive knowledge of human nature and a bottomless reserve of parables. Yet she is also necessarily a product of her world, content with her provincial village and accepting of its customs and order. In Martine's and Atie's youth, Grandmè Ifé tested
her daughters' virginity in keeping with what she perceived as a mother's duty, despite the tremendous pain it caused them. Later, seeing the Macoutes begin to beat a coal-seller in the marketplace, Grandmè Ifé's first thought is to hurry Sophie home. But while she does not consider it her place to challenge the social order, Grandmè Ifé is intensely loyal to her children, loving them against all of the world's pain so that a granddaughter or great-granddaughter can see her way out from under the burden.
Sophie's first and only boyfriend and eventual husband. Joseph is a professional musician who lives next door to the house where Sophie and Martine move during Sophie's eighteenth year. He is an African-American from Louisiana and can speak a form of Creole, giving him an immediate kinship with Sophie. Though old enough to be Sophie's father, Joseph is honest, gentle, loving and sure, in stark contrast to the violence, sleaziness and treachery of many of the novel's men. He is deeply supportive of Sophie, committed to helping her as best he can, and enormously proud of their infant daughter.
Martine's long-time lover in New York. Marc is a stocky, well-dressed Haitian lawyer, in love with his mother's cooking and by his own full name, Marc Jolibois Francis Legrand Moravien Chevalier (the last word meaning knight). He is slightly patronizing of Sophie and treats her as a child throughout the book. He is kind to Martine, though he does not deeply understand her, as symbolized by his ability to sleep like a log during most of her nightmares. Though his affection for Martine seems genuine, he retains the slightly sleazy air of one too well-connected, a lawyer intent on evading blame.
A relatively affluent and handsome neighbor of Sophie's and Tante Atie's in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti. Though once in love with Atie, he married another woman, a betrayal from which Atie has never recovered. His post as teacher at the local school distinguishes him in the community as a man with a profession.
Wife of Donald Augustin. Lotus is a pretty, gossipy and self-important woman whom Donald chose to marry, breaking his engagement with Atie.
Sophie's daughter by Joseph. The infant Brigitte has a remarkable face in which Grandmè Ifé can see the traces of generations of ancestors. She is calm, quiet and sleeps peacefully, signs that perhaps she has not inherited the insomnia and nightmares of her mother and grandmother.
A vendor in the marketplace of La Nouvelle Dame Marie. Louise becomes Tante Atie's best friend once Atie returns to Dame Marie from Croix-des-Rosets to take care of the aging Grandmè Ifé. Though Louise teaches the adult Atie to read and write, she remains a troubling influence, implicated in Atie's night wanderings and her increasing alcoholism. Louise's dream is to save enough money to take a boat to Miami, despite the great risks of the journey. She appears as a deeply desperate woman, continually seeking a buyer for her pig in order to raise the money for her trip. When Grandmè Ifé, fed up with Louise's effect on Atie, finally buys Louise's pig, Louise departs without so much as a goodbye to Atie, leaving Atie heartbroken for a second time.
Sophie's therapist and the instigator of the sexual phobia group. Rena is a gorgeous black woman who wears bangles and bright prints and smokes as she theorizes. She has spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and is an initiated Santeria priestess.
One of three members of Sophie's sexual phobia group. Buki is an Ethiopian college student who was ritually genitally mutilated by her grandmother as a girl.
The second member and hostess of Sophie's sexual phobia group. Davina is a middle-aged Chicana who was raped by her grandfather as a girl over a period of ten years.
The albino lottery agent in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, from whom Atie faithfully buys lottery tickets, though she rarely wins.
The Tonton Macoutes
Creole for "Uncle Bogeyman." Refers to the private militia first conscripted under Francois Duvalier, Haitian president from 1957–1971, and formally known as the VSN (Volontaires de la SÃ©curite Nationale). They are widely feared as torturers, assassins and agents of arbitrary cruelty.
The poor coal seller in the marketplace of La Nouvelle Dame Marie. Dessalines is capriciously beaten and finally killed by Macoute soldiers during Sophie's trip to Haiti with her infant daughter in Section Three. His name suggests the General Dessalines, born a slave, who fought with Toussaint L'Ouverture against the French to establish an independent Haiti. When L'Ouverture was arrested by the French in 1802, Dessalines became the revolution's leader, winning a decisive battle at Vertieres against Napoleon's armies, declaring Haiti an independent state in 1804 and ruling it until his assasination in 1806. Though he was by no means an unproblematic figure, Dessalines is widely remembered as the father of Haitian independence. The ironic coincidence of the coalseller's name indicates the extent to which the current government has oppressed the Haitian people.