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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat

Section Two: Chapters 9–12

Section One: Chapters 7–8

Section Three: Chapters 13–15

Summary

Chapter 9

Six years have passed. Sophie is eighteen and will be starting college in the fall. Martine still works long hours, but her work has begun to pay off. She and Sophie have just moved to a small house in a nicer neighborhood near Marc, which they have decorated in red. Meanwhile, Sophie has spent six years studying hard. Though she secretly hated high school at the Maranatha Bilingual Institution, and the years of being mocked by the public school students across the road, she has survived the experience and, in the process, has become an English speaker.

During this time Sophie has known no men but Marc. Now, Sophie finds herself immediately attracted to the older saxophonist next door. One day, while Martine is at work, he stops by to ask if he can use Sophie's phone. He is Joseph, an African-American jazz musician who grew up speaking French Creole in Louisiana.

The next week, by way of thanks, Joseph comes by with a sandwich and invites Sophie to come by anytime. He is gentle, careful and kind. Sophie begins to spend her days with him while Martine works, playing music and talking. At night, his saxophone sounds a lullaby through the walls.

Late one evening, after Martine has left for her night job, Joseph takes Sophie out to eat. When they return, he tells her she is beautiful, and makes a point of not trying anything physical. Sophie begins to realize how deeply she likes him.

Chapter 10

The following night Martine comes home early so that she and Sophie can go out alone. On the subway, Sophie asks Martine if she will ever return to Haiti. Martine replies that although she will go back to help Grandmè Ifé plan for her funeral, staying for more than several days would be too painful.

Wanting to tell her mother about her love, but knowing that Martine will disapprove of Joseph, Sophie invents a fictitious boyfriend, Henry Napoleon, who has just recently returned to Haiti. Later, Martine makes inquiries, and is told by a friend that Henry Napoleon is an upstanding Haitian boy studying to be a doctor. Satisfied, Martine awaits his return. Meanwhile, Sophie pines for Joseph, away on tour.

Meanwhile, Sophie stays up nights waiting for Martine's nightmares to begin. Each time she wakes her mother up, a frightened Martine thanks Sophie for saving her life.

Chapter 11

Joseph returns on a night that Martine works, and Sophie dares to go with him to a gig. The experience is utterly magical, and in the car afterward he gives her one of his rings and a kiss.

Weeks later, after the next tour, Joseph takes Sophie to dinner and asks her to marry him. Sophie tells him she needs to think. That night, she tells Martine that Henry Napoleon is not coming back from Haiti.

The next night, after seeing Joseph, Sophie comes home late to find Martine unexpectedly home, frantic and furious. Taking Sophie upstairs, Martine tests Sophie's virginity by making sure her hymen is intact. To distract her, Martine tells Sophie the story of the Marassas, two lovers who were so close that they were practically the same person. Martine asks Sophie why she would leave her mother, her Marassa, for an old man she did not know the year before. Sophie says nothing, but understands why Atie screamed when her own mother tested her.

Chapter 12

Joseph is gone for five weeks to Providence. Sophie tells him nothing, and avoids him when he returns. One night, he bangs on the door for two hours until she answers, whereupon he tells her he is going to Providence for good.

Sophie begins to feel isolated and depressed. Martine rarely speaks to her since the testing has begun, but instead goes out alone with Marc. One night, alone, Sophie finds the pestle that her mother uses to crush spices. Sophie remembers the story of a woman who bled for twelve years, and was finally told by Erzulie that she would have to cease being human in order to stop bleeding. The woman chose to become a butterfly, and never bled again.

Sophie impales herself on the pestle, breaking her hymen, and then hides the pestle and her bloody sheet in a bag. That night she fails Martine's test. Martine begins crying and throwing Sophie's clothes at her saying, "You just go to him and see what he can do for you."

Sophie waits until she hears Martine moaning in her sleep before gathering her things and going next door to Joseph. She asks him to marry her right away, telling herself that she will surely be happy in a place called Providence.

Analysis

As she grows out of childhood, Sophie's budding awareness of men is set against Martine's implicit terror of them. In Chapter 10, Sophie's declaration of love is followed by her nighttime watch over Martine's dreams, a constant reminder of the problems caused by men in the Caco past. Indeed, Sophie's assertion in Chapter 9 that she has known no men but Marc is not entirely true. Her father, the rapist, is an implicit presence, manifest in Sophie's face and in Martine's nightmares. Against him is set the figure of Joseph, who himself is old enough to be Sophie's father. His gentleness, his reliable presence, and his extraordinary respect for Sophie stand in stark contrast to the rapist's violent disregard for Martine. His Creole and his music suggest access to hidden realms of language, echoing Sophie's own gifts of narrative. When Joseph's saxophone practice lulls Sophie to sleep, he becomes at once her lover and a father rocking her to bed. But even as it helps Sophie heal, Joseph's presence worries Martine. For where le violeur, the rapist, took her virginity, Joseph threatens to take her only daughter. Thus Joseph, for Martine, is in some ways an equally terrifying figure, a man with the power to take what she holds most precious.

In this section, the relationship between Sophie and Martine is crucially symbolized in the events of Chapter 11. Furious and worried at catching Sophie out late, Martine falls back on her mother's own practice of testing, or attempting to insert her little finger in Sophie's vagina in order to make sure that Sophie's hymen is still intact. Though its purpose is different, the mechanics of testing nonetheless suggest the violation of rape. To distract her daughter from the humiliating, uncomfortable process, Martine begins to tell Sophie a story. Though the novel's characters have used stories as a coping mechanism before, this is the first time that the offices of storyteller and violator have merged into one person. Ironically, the story which Martine tells is of the Marassas, two inseparable lovers, and its explicit moral is that Sophie's interest in men would drive a wedge between her and Martine. Thus, though it is Martine whose testing hurts Sophie, her actions reveal her own deep hurt, her fear of losing Sophie, and her jealousy of Sophie's love for Joseph. Sophie is Martine's double, a witness to her nightmarish past. But she is also her mother's twin, a piece of her own body, the savior who wakes her from those nightmares. Sophie is Martine's Marassa, her beloved daughter, her salvation and her destruction. Sophie's birth nearly killed Martine, and her subsequent loss threatens to destroy Martine's world.

Sophie's violent loss of her maidenhood recalls Martine's, with several key differences. Where Martine was forcibly raped by an unknown man, Sophie deliberately breaks her own hymen with an inanimate object. Sophie's act is simultaneously an act of violence and one of will. Paradoxically, it is also an act of liberation, freeing her once and for all from the dreaded practice of testing, just as Grandmè Ifé's testing of Martine finally came to an end with Martine's rape. As she prepares to do it, Sophie imagines the story of a woman who could stop bleeding unless she chose to renounce her human body. The story suggests that the woman's body, her female form, was what kept her soul imprisoned and bleeding, and that she could only find salvation in a different shape. More broadly, then, Sophie's action adds to the novel's continual comparison of violence done to women by men versus violence done to them by other women, by adding a third category, violence done to the self. Insofar as gender is a physical category, Sophie's and Martine's womanhood involves coming to terms with their woman's body. But faced with societal restrictions and norms, such as the cult of virginity, which are directly tied to her female form, a woman may choose to symbolically oppose those norms by doing violence to that most immediate prison and agent of oppression, her own body.

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