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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat

Section One: Chapters 4–6

Section One: Chapters 1–3

Section One: Chapters 7–8

Summary

Chapter 4

During her final week in Haiti, Sophie goes to school and sweeps the yard as usual. Meanwhile Atie is gone long hours, working overtime for extra money to buy gifts. On Friday afternoon after school, as Atie makes tea, Sophie sees a love-note from Monsieur Augustin stuck to the kettle before Atie can snatch it away. Atie presents Sophie with her dearly bought present, a saffron dress embroidered with daffodils to wear on the trip. That night, Sophie's recurrent dream of being chased by her mother gives way to a dream in which Martine has finally caught her, and Atie cannot save her.

The next morning, as Atie and Sophie get dressed and try to stay strong, Chabin, the albino lottery agent, stops by to pay Atie the ten gourdes she has won by playing the number thirty-one. The taxi arrives before Atie and Sophie have finished breakfast. After saying her goodbyes to the neighbors, Sophie gets into the taxi with Atie and leaves her house, her village, and the undone dishes in a cloud of red dust.

Chapter 5

As the taxi speeds into Port-au-Prince, Sophie is awed by the commotion of the city, while Atie remembers trips taken to the city with Martine as a teenager. The airport is in particular chaos, as this is the day of its name change from Francois Duvalier to Mais Gaté. From atop a nearby hill, students throw stones at a burning car surrounded by army trucks, and the soldiers retaliate with tear gas and bullets. The taxi somehow arrives at the airport gate, and Atie shoves Sophie hurriedly inside.

As Sophie and Atie wait in the New York boarding line, a breathless woman arrives in a navy uniform. She has spoken to Martine and will take care of Sophie. Sophie and Atie say hurried goodbyes and the woman rushes Sophie to the plane.

On the plane, Sophie sits beside a small boy who is throwing a fit. The boy's father, a corrupt government official, had just died in the fire outside the airport, and the boy is being sent to New York to his only remaining relative, an aunt. Eventually the boy calms down and goes to sleep, and Sophie does as well.

Chapter 6

Arriving in New York, Sophie and the little boy are escorted off the plane and through baggage claim by the stewardess. When they come out into the lobby, Sophie's mother Martine immediately comes forward and begins to spin her like a top, looking at her.

Martine is thin and scrawny, unlike the vibrant picture on Atie's nighttable. She thanks the stewardess profusely, but Sophie can barely speak as she and Martine walk out into the overcast chill of a New York evening. Martine asks about everyone back home, and explains to Sophie that Donald Augustin had intended to marry Atie before he met his current wife, Lotus.

In Martine's old car, the women drive to an apartment building covered in graffiti. Martine explains to Sophie that in America, education is the only way she will find respect:

"You are going to work hard here— no one is going to break your heart because you cannot read or write. You have a chance to become the kind of woman Atie and I have always wanted to be. If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads."

In her new room, Sophie sees a photograph of her infant self with Atie and Martine, and realizes that she does not look like anyone in her family. As they undress for bed, Martine finds the Mother's Day card in the pocket of Sophie's dress. She is touched by the card and by the memory of daffodils.

That night, unable to sleep, Sophie recalls Atie's stories. When Sophie asked how she could have no father, Atie said she had been born out of rosepetals, water and a chunk of the sky. Later in the night, hearing thrashing from the next room, Sophie is dismayed to find her mother in the middle of a nightmare. Martine claims she will be fine, but she pulls Sophie into her bed and they sleep together for the remainder of the night.

Analysis

The details of Sophie's departure from Croix-des-Rosets underscore the haste of her flight. Pulled suddenly from the only life she has ever known, Sophie is sent to New York on a week's notice, and leaves without finishing her breakfast. But Sophie is not the only one with unfinished business. Atie's love note from Monsieur Augustin, kept for years under her good kettle, attests to an entire adult lifetime of thwarted desire. Martine's admission that Donald Augustin meant to marry Atie before he met and married Lotus explains Atie's tears on the porch at the end of Chapter 3. It also exposes the cruelty of Lotus Augustin's determination to extract Atie's secret during the potluck in Chapter 1. Against Atie's wells of unrequited longing comes the surprise of Chabin's visit. For the first time in her life, Atie has won at the lottery, a tenfold return on her one gourd investment. The success of the number thirty-one, Martine's age, is taken by Atie as a sign that her sister has brought her luck. Yet this supposed luck, and its small monetary payoff, sits oddly against Atie's larger loss of Sophie, her beloved charge.

Sophie's flight, which leaves from a rioting airport and heads toward the promise of an unknown world, reflects her mother and Atie's attempt to save her from the violent and corrupt world of their own youth. Sophie's seatmate, the young son of a corrupt government official who has just been killed in the riots, is frenzied and crying, a testament to the toll which adult horror takes on the very young. When the boy and Sophie finally fall asleep, the effect is to consign the trip to the realm of dreams. Martine has visited Sophie in dreams and nightmares, and it is appropriate that the actual voyage to meet her should take on a dreamlike quality. More simply, the surreal, disjointed nature of airplane travel, in which a child can move from Haiti to New York without moving through any intermediary places, suggests the radical nature of Sophie's displacement. To a lesser extent, this disjunction is mirrored throughout the novel in its abrupt partitioning of sections, chapters and stories, which progress in chronological order, but often with large gaps, leaving the reader to intuit what has happened between.

Arriving in New York, Sophie must assume the full weight of her mother's, aunt's, and grandmother's dreams. She is the only child and only daughter, on whom they have pinned all their hopes of redemption. Yet the language that Martine uses to explain to Sophie the rules of this new world is a testament to the strength of the Caco female line. Martine's exhortation that Sophie become "the kind of woman that Atie and I have always wanted to be" is a twist on the usual pressure put on immigrant children to become "the success that your father and I have always wanted to be." The phrase "Atie and I" suggests, not incorrectly, that the child Sophie is truly a product not of husband and wife but of two women. Likewise, Sophie's success in the new world will be a gendered one, as she attempts to become the woman that her mother and aunt could not be. Woman is simultaneously a strict and fluid category, a descriptor and a realm of possibility. But it is also a difficult heritage in a world controlled by largely absent men. The rules of this world, and the enormity of Sophie's inheritance, are suggested by the events of her first night with Martine. Wondering how it is that she does not have a father, Sophie becomes suddenly aware of her mother thrashing in bed. The juxtaposition of Sophie's absent father and Martine's recurrent nightmares, and of Atie's euphemistic stories with Martine's mute horror, contains Sophie's first hint of the difficult reality of womanhood for Martine and Atie, and of the tragic truth of her own origins.

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