Skip over navigation

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat

Section Three: Chapters 19–21

Section Three: Chapters 16–18

Section Three: Chapters 22–23

Summary

Chapter 19

The next morning, Atie is excited because she and Louise have decided to make a trip to the city to officially register themselves in the archives. Grandmè Ifé claims that people who are worth remembering do not need their names on pieces of paper. After Louise and Atie have gone, Sophie takes a photograph of Grandmè Ifé with Brigitte.

Later, while Brigitte naps, Sophie looks at photographs and thinks back to her first months with Joseph. Sophie spent two days in a hospital in Providence and four weeks with stitches between her legs recovering from having broken her own hymen with a pestle. Their wedding night, though weeks later, was extremely painful for Sophie. Though Joseph could not understand why she would have done such a thing to herself, he was very sensitive to it, taking pains to make sure she really wanted to try sex. Despite his professions, Sophie felt that sex was her duty to him, as he is the only person left in the world watching over her. As a result of that night, she became pregnant with Brigitte.

Chapter 20

Having successfully registered, Louise comes over for supper, bringing a pig as a gift. Meanwhile, Atie has been to the city post office and brings a cassette from Martine. On the cassette, Martine says that she received a telephone call from Joseph saying that although he had left Sophie at home with Brigitte while he was on tour, he has been calling home repeatedly and is unable to find her. Joseph wondered if Sophie was with Martine. As the pig begins to squeal in the background, Sophie stops the cassette. Atie asks if it isn't time that Sophie and Martine reconciled.

Chapter 21

After dinner, Atie reads some poetry from her notebook before strolling into the night with Louise. Grandmè Ifé takes the tape player into her own room to hear the rest of Martine's message. Later that night, Sophie takes Brigitte outside to look at the starts and finds Atie on the back porch, feeding the pig. Atie is depressed, feeling that her life is one long string of duties and restraints without tangible rewards.

The next morning Louise arrives in tears to announce that the Macoutes have killed Dessalines, the coal seller. Louise is terrified that she may be next. Grandmè Ifé declares that the Caco women have already had their turn with the Macoutes, and orders Sophie to keep Brigitte behind the threshold of the house until Dessalines' spirit is laid to rest. Nicknamed for the tonton macoutes, or bogeymen, of fairy tales, the secret police follow no known rules. Whereas ordinary criminals work in secret, the Macoutes walk around in broad daylight, unapologetically effecting terror.

Dessalines' death brings to mind all manner of frightening memories. It is likely that the man who pulled sixteen-year-old Martine into a cane field on her way home from school, raped, and beat her was a Macoute. Pregnant, terrified and half-insane, Martine went to work in the house of a rich mulatto family who knew Grandmè Ifé in Croix-des-Rosets.

After Sophie's birth, Martine returned to Dame Marie, repeatedly attempting suicide because the nightmares were too real. The mulatto family helped Martine get papers to leave, and Atie moved with Sophie to Croix-des-Rosets so that Sophie could attend school.

Very late that night, Sophie hears Atie sobbing to Louise about how sad it makes her to look in Sophie's face. Grandmè Ifé chastises Atie for being out in the dark of night, and Atie sardonically wishes for death and storms out onto the porch. Sophie goes out to find Atie, who tells her that Grandmè Ifé will send word to Martine of Sophie's whereabouts, and that Martine will come to Haiti so that she and Sophie can reconcile.

The next morning, Sophie hears her grandmother recording a cassette to Martine. In the distance, bells toll for Dessalines' funeral. Meanwhile, Atie continues to drink.

Analysis

When Grandmè Ifé derides Atie and Louise's trip to officially register themselves in the city archives, she implies that it takes much more than a piece of paper to make someone worth remembering. Memory cannot be mandated any more than love, recalling the waning pretense of Atie's coming to Dame Marie for a reason other than duty. Yet as soon as Atie and Louise leave, Sophie asks her grandmother to pose for a photograph, itself an official record which will stand, in the future, against time's passage and her own fading memory. This passage reflects the novel's concern with records of all kinds: land deeds, titles, registry, photographs, and letters. Sophie's pictures of her wedding, Atie's love note from Monsieur Augustin, Atie's registration, and the Caco property documents serve as direct evidence of human action, interaction and belonging. These records are themselves important objects, keepsakes that are guarded closely and passed on to worthy heirs. Meanwhile, the narrative records of oral history and parables deal in truth that cannot be pinned down. Unlike the legal, documented inheritance of objects, the informal, social inheritance of stories involves the more complex inheritance of moods, fears, loyalties, and features. For Grandmè Ifé, Brigitte's face evokes generations of ancestors, while Sophie's face bears witness to her mother's rape. And Sophie's phobias reflect her mother's traumas, even as Martine's mistakes are rooted in her own mother's past.

The impossibility of mandating memory in these chapters is juxtaposed with an often debilitating inability to forget. Martine, unable to bear her nightmares after the rape, repeatedly attempted suicide. Sophie, unable to forget her testing, relives its pain every time she sleeps with her husband. Both Sophie and Martine have tried to forget by fleeing the place of their hurt, Martine to New York and Sophie to Providence. But the effect of flight was simply to dull the grief, never to erase it. Further, both Sophie and Martine are implicated in the other's pain: Sophie is Martine's child by rape, with her father's face, and Martine is responsible for Sophie's testing. Thus, in part, their two-year feud represents a different kind of escape, fleeing not a place but a person who embodies the memory of one's pain. Ultimately, it is this kind of flight which proves the most personally destructive. The Caco family is falling apart: Sophie and Martine are not speaking, Atie is drinking, Grandmè Ifé is approaching death. Unable to deal with her life in Providence, Sophie has fled again, this time to Grandmè Ifé's home in Haiti. Atie flees symbolically in alcohol, and more concretely as she wanders from the house each night on unknown errands. Haunted by the burden of their pasts, Sophie, Atie and Martine lose themselves in a kind of fugue state, running from their pain and from each other. When Grandmè Ifé attempts to arrange reconciliation, she is well aware of the stakes. The family must stay strong and stay together if its daughters are to bear up under the weight of the world.

Finally, the Macoutes' murder of Dessalines evinces a world gone terribly awry. Originally organized by Duvalier in the early years of his presidency, the police force of Volontaires de la Securité Nationale, popularly called Macoutes, quickly established a reign of terror. No ordinary criminals, the Macoutes walk the earth doing evil at will, neither ashamed of their actions nor afraid of the consequences, confident that they will neither be questioned nor held accountable. Nicknamed for the bogeymen, mythical scarecrows with human flesh, the Macoutes themselves are capricious, liminal figures, neither god nor human, seemingly following no law but their own. Described in the language of myth, the only language sufficient to contain their terror, they suggest a horrible dream come to life. When they pass through the life of a human being, like Martine, she is left in a kind of permanent nightmare. Their violence is whimsical and terrible, and because they follow no known rules and do not act rationally, no one is safe. Neither behavior nor goodness nor Godliness can deter the criminals who have no fear and who serve no master. This does not mean that their horror goes unnoticed, or that it is sustainable. The restless spirits of their victims, like Dessalines, wander the earth until they can be laid to rest. But, unlike a story, unlike a fairy-tale, there is as yet no moral, no heroic rescue, and no promise of ultimate reckoning.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us