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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat


Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

Important Quotations Explained

There were many cases in our history where our ancestors had doubled. Following in the vaudou tradition, most of our presidents were actually one body split in two: part flesh and part shadow. That was the only way they could murder and rape so many people and still go home to play with their children and make love to their wives.

This quote, from the middle of Chapter 23, is part of Sophie's longest meditation on the practice of testing, in which a mother verifies her daughter's virginity by making sure that her little finger cannot pass the girl's hymen. The mediation is triggered by a story which Grandmè Ifé hears in the night sounds as she and Sophie sit in the dark of Dame Marie, that of a young girl sneaking home from a rendezvous with a boy and being pulled into the house by her mother for testing. For Sophie, being tested was an intensely violating experience, and her way of coping was to double, imagining beautiful things to lure her mind away from her body's pain. In this passage, she extends her own coping strategy to explain the ability of other Haitians to endure the presence of atrocity. As she does so, the force of doubling shifts from a tactic used by the victim, to one used by the oppressor. The necessity of the presidents' doubling suggests that no human spirit, violator or violated, can truly tolerate cruelty. In the presence of horror the body itself breaks down and the spirit splits in order to survive. Yet this doubling also suggests that the presidents have been false, twisting wisdom traditions in a way that allows them to effect harm.

Though they are recognized as agents of terror, the presidents are also described as "ancestors," reflecting the novel's larger concern with the burdens of inheritance. As Martine's nightmares and Sophie's sexual phobia suggest, past trauma recurs in subsequent generations until it can be properly resolved. Doubling may work as a temporary survival strategy for individuals, but its root causes must eventually be addressed. If not, its legacy is debilitating. Just as Sophie suffers from Martine's demons, Haitian society at large is suffering from the cruelty, victimization and split consciousness of generations of its ancestors.

When they looked up from their plates, my mother and Marc eyed each other like there were things they couldn't say because of my presence. I tried to stuff myself and keep quiet, pretending that I couldn't even see them. My mother now had two lives: Marc belonged to her present life, I was a living memory from her past.

This quote, from the end of Chapter Seven, takes place shortly after twelve- year-old Sophie's arrival in New York. Marc, her mother's lover, has taken Sophie and Martine out to dinner at a Haitian restaurant to celebrate. The scene is odd on a number of levels. Instead of the real country of Haiti, where she was born, Sophie is in a diasporic restaurant in New Jersey that attempts to re- create a Haitian atmosphere. Having grown up without real parents, Sophie must suddenly play the part of daughter to her newly met mother and her mother's boyfriend, who would never have dated Martine in Haiti due to class differences. And though Sophie is introduced to the waiter as Martine's daughter, the waiter is able to find no resemblance in their faces. In short, the scene falls terribly short, its pieces inauthentic.

Sophie describes this fragmentation in the figurative language of doubling, splitting, opposites and boundaries. Aware that her presence is imposing on Martine and Marc, Sophie retaliates by forcing them out of her world, pretending she cannot see them. Sophie imagines that her mother's life has split in two, and that she and Marc bear witness to irreconcilable parts of it. More broadly, the passage sets up a series of implicit doubles. Marc, the man of Martine's present life, is implicitly compared to the faceless rapist of her past. The past, symbolic of Martine's motherhood and Sophie, is set against Martine's present sexuality and Marc. Finally, given the book's emphasis on narrative, the pregnant silence of Marc and Martine is set against all that could be said.

"I did it," she said, "because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse. I realize standing here that the two greatest pains of my life are very much related. The one good thing about my being raped was that it made the testing stop. The testing and the rape. I live both every day."

This quote, from the end of Chapter 26, is from a conversation during Sophie and Martine's reconciliation as adult women at Grandmè Ifé's house in Dame Marie, Haiti. Sophie asks Martine why she tested her as a teenager. Martine replies on the condition that Sophie never asks her again. Thus the quote, Martine's single reply, stands in implicit contrast to the ritual violence of testing, even as the passing along of this secret from Martine to Sophie suggests the mother-daughter passage of the practice of testing from Grandmè Ifé to Martine. The passage speaks powerfully to the problems of inheritance that are necessary to avoid passing on pain. Often, the violence inherent in tradition is not fully visible until the cycle is broken. Martine's revelation in the course of speaking this passage is a testament to the transformative power of words and of narrative, which can make reconciliation possible.

The revelation itself, Martine's juxtaposition of 'the two greatest pains of [her] life,' the ritual testing and the rape, suggests the novel's larger juxtaposition of violence done by women and violence done by men. A variation on this question plays out in the life of Atie, Martine's sister. The two greatest pains of Atie's life are her two abandonments, first by a man, Donald Augustin, and then by Louise, her best female friend. Both are debilitating, for different if related reasons. After Donald's betrayal, the new Madame and Monsieur Augustin move into the house next to Atie's, becoming a daily reminder of pain. Meanwhile, Louise's sudden and devastating departure threatens to make Atie die of chagrin. The novel's intricate gendering of pain and of violence refuses to accept a simplistic picture of male oppressors and female victims, even as it eloquently opposes the brutality of the current order.

"Next time might be me or you with the Macoutes," said Louise. "We already had our turn," said my grandmother. "Sophie, you keep the child behind the threshold. You are not to bring her out until that restless spirit is in the ground."

This passage, from the middle of Chapter 21, occurs just after the Macoutes have killed Dessalines, a poor coal-seller, in the marketplace of Dame Marie. Several days previously, in the market on errands, Sophie and Grandmè Ifé had witnessed the beginning of the attack, as a Macoute suddenly accused the coal-seller of stepping on the soldier's foot and began to beat him. Now, the story has come to its logical conclusion. The word Macoute, Creole for bogeyman, is the popular nickname for the secret police, the Volontaires de la Securité Nationale or VSN, first organized under Duvalier. Throughout the book, the Macoutes are agents of brazen and arbitrary cruelty, affecting whatever torture they wish in broad daylight for a little amusement, with none of the stealth or shame of ordinary criminals. The incident with Dessalines is typical of their reign of terror. However, the coal-seller's name, Dessalines, is also the name of one of the popular heroes of Haitian independence, credited with declaring Haiti an independent republic in 1804. Thus, the symbolic force of the incident in the marketplace is also to suggest how far the country has fallen.

Grandmè Ifé's allusion to 'our turn' refers to Martine's rape in a cane field at the age of sixteen on her way home from school, which left her pregnant with Sophie and half-mad. Though the rape was clearly horrific, the phrase 'our turn' transforms it from an act of random violence into something tolerated and perhaps even expected. The Caco family's anger at the rape is tempered by a relief that it was not worse. Yet even in this climate of violence, in which she could not save her daughter, Grandmè Ifé hopes to save her great-granddaughter from the fallout of such brutality. In this passage, the residue of the Macoutes' violence is symbolized concretely by Dessalines' restless spirit, who will wander the world until he is properly laid to rest. Grandmè Ifé's exhortation to 'keep the child behind the threshold' expresses her wish to shelter the infant Brigitte within the safe, sacred space of home. But the language of children passing a threshold is also a thinly veiled reference to birth. In this sense, Grandmè Ifé's command is impossible to obey. However much a mother loves her children, she must eventually bring them into the world. She cannot postpone birth indefinitely until the world is pure.

The female street vendors called to one another as they came down the road. When one merchant dropped her heavy basket, another called out of concern, "Ou libèrè?" Are you free from your heavy load? The woman with the load would answer yes, if she had unloaded her freight without hurting herself.

This passage, from the beginning of Section Three, comes as Sophie returns to Haiti for the first time with her infant daughter, Brigitte. The story it tells, of the market women's cry "Ou libèrè?" ("Are you free?"), opens and closes Sophie's passage into womanhood. At its first telling, in this passage, Sophie is a woman by society's standards: she has left home, has gotten married, and has had a child. At the story's second invocation in the book's last chapter, during Martine's funeral, Grandmè Ifé tells Sophie that a daughter is not a woman until her mother has passed on before her. As her mother is laid to rest, Sophie comes fully into womanhood.

The market women's cry is symbolically rich and resonates with much of the Caco women's story, itself a passage into freedom. The quote above sets up an implicit contrast between Sophie's epic attempts to free herself from the burdens of inheritance and the market women's quotidian business. The daily, familiar cry of "Ou libèrè?," which in the market women's case simply reveals that one more trip has been successfully been completed, is set against the single reply that Sophie will give to this question, as suggested on the novel's last page. Yet this contrast between a life's work and a daily habit also reflects the epic quality of daily life, and the extent to which freedom is a matter of the everyday. The story also contains a subtle indication of the dynamics between the story's women, who cannot help each other carry or unload, but instead can simply ask after each other. Likewise, though others may be responsible for one's own burdens, reconciliation is largely a personal affair. Freedom may be a rallying cry for mobs, families and democracies, but the unit of liberation remains the individual.

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