Breath, Eyes, Memory

by: Edwidge Danticat

Motifs

The Connections Between Language, Affiliation and Belonging

From Martine's first exhortation to the newly arrived Sophie to learn English lest she be mercilessly teased, Sophie's English becomes a metaphor for her negotiation of the new world. Lost at first in the sea of unknown words, Sophie gains a foothold by finding French words that are semantically the same but pronounced differently. The actual point at which she achieves fluency is lost in the six years between the end of Section One and the beginning of Section Two. Her offhand remark at the beginning of Section Two that she has, despite speaking French at school, become an English speaker, attests to the subtle magnitude of this change. Likewise, Sophie's access to French Creole brands her as an authentic Haitian. When she returns to the island with her infant daughter, the van driver notes approvingly that she has not forgotten her mother tongue, as have many other immigrants. Language ties Sophie to the past, even as it attests to her continued engagement with her aunt, grandmother and maternal line. Throughout, language affects a form of symbolic kinship. Joseph's knowledge of Louisiana Creole symbolizes his common ground with Sophie and his wider attempt to understand and speak her language.

The novel's politics of language are perhaps most strikingly evident in the fact that it is narrated in English. French Creole phrases are given in italics, and paraphrased when their meaning cannot be intuited from context. This use of language-within-a-language has several effects. First, it locates the novel firmly in Haiti, balancing the story's wider political and social message with the particulars of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Second, it represents a local dialect to which the average reader has little access, a constant reminder of the reader's own dependence on Sophie as translator, narrator and mediator between worlds. Third, it provides a concrete example of the novel's play with vocabulary and narrative style, which spans psychoanalysis and folk wisdom as well as the more obvious 'languages' of English, French and Creole.

Parallelism and Doubling

The novel's emphasis on parallelism and doubling is reflected in its continual juxtaposition of characters, situations, narrative accounts, bodies and time. The pain passed on from mothers to daughters, like that of testing, is often a matter of unconscious repetition, hurt inflicted by mothers who had been hurt themselves. Sophie's sexual phobia and anxiety echoes Martine's own, even as both are set against Brigitte's untroubled sleep. Likewise, reconciliation becomes a matter of reenacting the past, of consciously altering its course by playing out familiar actions with a new understanding of their consequences. Sophie's flight into the cane field during her mother's funeral represents an attempt to physically and symbolically fight back against her mother's rape, just as Martine's own suicide suggests a willful destruction of the rapist who has come to possess her own body. Narrative parallelism is often reflected in a temporal split, as when a newly-arrived Sophie becomes aware, over dinner with her mother and Marc, that Marc embodies Martine's present life even as Sophie represents her past. Further, the twin spirits of Marassas, invoked throughout the book to suggest the inseparability of two people's bodies, souls and destinies, are set against the vaudou practice of doubling, in which the body and spirit split under unbearable pain. Finally, the novel's emphasis on parables informs its sense of meaningful abstraction, the suggestion that local events are incarnations of a broader truth.

Place as a Mediator of Memory

The novel's continual emphasis on flight, movement, imprisonment and return attests to the powerful role of place as mediator of memory. For Martine, a return to Haiti represents a return to the scene of her rape, and experience so psychologically painful that she becomes physically ill. For Atie, her confinement to the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie is a physical exile which parallels her psychological exile from life's happiness and its rewards. For Grandmè Ifé, the promised convenience of city life cannot compare with her familiar, old-fashioned village home. For Sophie, reconciling with her mother's ghosts requires physically returning to the land of Martine's trauma and, ultimately, to the site of the rape itself. Just as the women attempt to engage with history by returning to important places, their attempts to escape its weight involve physical flight. Sophie flees her mother, her mother's nightmares, and her mother's relentless testing by eloping with Joseph to Providence. Martine, with the help of a rich mulatto family, obtains emigration papers to America where she will try to forget the memory of her rape. On a more local level, the protagonists' avoidance of and return to particular houses, beds, rooms, cars and restaurants mimic the less drastic, daily attempts to reconcile the horror of the past with the comfort of the familiar.