Breath, Eyes, Memory
Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics
Discuss the symbolism of blood and of the color red throughout the novel. In what ways are these symbols ciphers for the novel's treatment of women, womanhood and feminity?
Reflecting the ambiguity of true power, the color red is associated throughout the novel with two ambiguous symbols, blood and fire, whose force is alternately creative and destructive. Fire consumes and destroys even as it lights and warms, and blood augurs death and dying even as it marks fecundity and birth. Sophie's family name, Caco, is the name of a bird so scarlet it looks like fire, and Sophie and Martine decorate their first home entirely in red. Here, red symbolizes the potential energy inherent in the life force even as it echoes the lacerations of physical suffering. Likewise, when Sophie chooses to have Martine buried in a bright red suit, the color is one of defiance and pride, suggesting a blood-covered newborn child even as it suggests the bloody end of Martine's suicide.
Blood's many symbolic roles as herald of birth, death, menstruation and womanhood inform its deep, troubling link with physical violence. The sudden bleeding of a wound versus the ritual bleeding of menstruation suggests the range of institutional violence against women, from rape to ritual testing. Furthermore, the novel is full of women who problematically bleed. During the airport riots preceding twelve-year-old Sophie's departure from Haiti, the police attack a female student, and Sophie sees her face covered in blood. In one parable, a woman who bleeds for twelve years and cannot stop finally goes to Erzulie for advice. Erzulie tells her that in order to stop bleeding she will have to cease to be human, and the woman accepts transformation into a butterfly. Likewise, Martine's suicide echoes the parable's conclusion that a woman's suffering ends only in physical death.
In another of the novel's parables, a very rich man chooses to marry a very poor girl for her purity, and when she does not bleed on her wedding night he cuts her between the legs to save his honor. This cut is mortal, and the girl bleeds to death, leaving her horrified husband parading the bloody wedding sheets in the funeral procession. The two great initiations into womanhood—menstruation and the loss of virginity—are marked by bleeding. In both cases blood is a necessary witness to purity even as it signals fecundity. But once a woman has begun to menstruate, menstruation can be interrupted only by pregnancy, so that a lack of bleeding becomes an immediate witness to sexual activity. More than a reminder of fecundity, then, menstruation becomes a necessary, public testament to the honor of a woman and of her parents and family. Thus, by juxtaposing the public bleedings of menstruation and the marriage bed, the parable speaks powerfully to the socially condoned violence that the women of Sophie's world endure as the burden of family honor is borne upon the woman's body.
Discuss the novel's use of parable and story. What role do Atie's and Grandmè Ifé's tales play in narrative development? Are they more than just entertainment? How do they sit against the novel's stark, serious accounts of pain?
Tante Atie's stories are first introduced as remedies for Sophie's sleeplessness, tales told against the emptiness of night. The subtle power of such an antidote becomes apparent when Sophie arrives in New York and witnesses Martine's nightmares. For sleeplessness, among Caco women, is not a minor annoyance but a powerful, physical testament to their troubles. Watching Brigitte sleep peacefully at novel's end, Sophie hopes her daughter's sleep is a sign that she has not taken on her mother's burdens, burdens which Sophie has inherited from Martine along with insomnia and nightmares.
Thus, the place of stories as an antidote to insomnia suggests a number of larger, metaphorical roles which narrative plays in the novel. The telling of stories can be a powerful and creative act, purposefully re-ordering the terror of real life. Stories can stand as thinly veiled abstractions of real events, and real events can unfold as if bound to the moral of a story. For example, Sophie invokes the story of Erzulie and the bleeding woman to understand her mother's trials, and in turn this story's conclusion makes Martine's suicide less surprising. But the importance of some stories is clearly not proof that all stories are true. Indeed, the inherent power of 'true' stories exposes a corresponding problem with false ones. Martine and Atie's discussion in Dame Marie of how their father failed them revolves around the complaint that he told them false stories about the stars. Not everyone can speak the truth, and the novel is often concerned with figuring out who can and why.
Finally, the double premise of parables—stories which are at once real and not-real, which speak in fantastic terms about everyday life—echoes the voudou practice of doubling. When Sophie doubles during her mother's tests, she is using her imagination to cope with that pain of being hurt by someone she loves. Likewise, the novel's parables attempt to explain painful lessons through the fantastic ciphers of story. Such tales, though charming and entertaining, become a valuable survival tactic. When reality is too much to bear, when language and rationality cannot cope with the continual abuse of the Macoutes, the survivor doubles, speaking in parables.
How does the novel's simple, often stark narrative style contribute to its effect? How does this reflect the actions and thoughts of its characters? Consider chapter length, organization, prose style, and temporal and spatial shifts.
At first glance, the novel's direct narrative style, its continual subdivision, its short chapters and its temporally grouped sections suggest a relentless effort to catalogue, order, arrange and classify. Individual chapters are often localized, their action taking place in one particular location at one particular time. Meanwhile, time and place often shift drastically between sections and, to a lesser extent, between chapters. In Section One, Sophie is twelve in Haiti, and moves to New York. At the beginning of Section Two, she is still in New York, but suddenly eighteen. Section Three opens in Haiti, as a married Sophie arrives with her infant daughter. Section Four deals with Sophie and Martine's return to New York and their relationship as adult women. The narrative's sudden shifts mirror the physical experience of dislocation that comes from travel, as well as the psychic shifts necessary for dealing with radically different environments.
Yet the effect of this style is ultimately to expose the impossibility of such science. Its characters remain deeply aware of the interconnectivity of events and of time's intricate crenellations. A leap in space may create a time-lag, as when newly arrived Sophie eats dinner with her mother and Marc at a Haitian restaurant and realizes that she herself is an intrusive testament to her mother's past. Likewise, physical and temporal distance is often insufficient to escape the power of past events. Martine's continuing nightmares and Grandmè Ifé's threat to die of chagrin reflect the oppressive weight of their own histories. And throughout, the book's subtle narrative repetitions attest both to the larger context of seemingly disjoint actions and, conversely, to the mundane triggers of memory.
A final effect of the novel's candor is to highlight the deliberate importance of what is not said. Omission becomes part of the narrative structure, giving shape to what has been told by carving out a negative space of silence against it. The novel itself, as witness, elegy, and parable, remains starkly aware of its own limits, and of the limits of narrative to adequately describe the horrors and joys of the body and of the mind. Yet the book's incorporation of stories suggests the possibility that words can shape the life that they describe. The novel's continual play between description, remembrance, argument, dialogue and silence thus echoes the variety of structural ways in which language attempts both to encode existence and to turn the world toward a higher narrative truth. Thus a life and its story remain inseparable, indivisible, like Martine's mythical marassas, a pair of lovers who share the same soul.
Suggested Essay Topics
Compare Atie's abandonment by Monsieur Augustin, mentioned at the novel's beginning, to her abandonment by Louise near the story's end. How are the two betrayals similar and different? What role does gender play? What does the novel have to say about the difficulty of love, both as a general human problem and through the lenses of gender and power?
In three chapters near the book's end, Sophie meets with her psychiatrist and with her sexual phobia group. How does the introduction of psychoanalysis, and of clinical language, affect the narrative? Compare and contrast Rena's jargon- heavy advice to Sophie with the parables that Sophie grew up hearing. What is the difference between giving a parable, which addresses a particular case by speaking in generalities, and giving a diagnosis, which does the same? What does the novel have to say about science as a kind of folklore, folklore as a kind of science, and of the difficulty of speaking both of their languages?
The novel makes continual use of Creole and French words that are not translated, or of phrases whose English equivalent is significantly different from the given original. How does this use of a language-within-a-language affect the book? Is it necessary for authenticity? Does it suggest Sophie's experience learning English as a second language, or does it seem like tokenism? More broadly, what is the deeper narrative effect of Sophie's telling the story of her family and of her history in English, and how does this affect her ability to break decisively with elements of her past?
Sophie's terror of intercourse, and her sexual phobia group, both suggest that for many women sexuality is less an act of love than one of violence. Yet Joseph, her husband, is incredibly gentle and kind. What does this suggest about the larger intercourse of men and women throughout the novel? Are men the enemy, and if so, how? What is Joseph's place as a gentle man in a world of masculine violence? How is the violence committed by men to women reinforced and reiterated in the violence done by women to other women?
Both Sophie and Martine are able to double, moving between two physical spaces to escape pain. Throughout the novel, memories recur, events pile upon each other, and time is generally out of joint. Compare and contrast this physical experience of doubling with the novel's emphasis on repetition, disjunction and juxtaposition. How do the characters' relationship to time and space ultimately affect their possibilities for healing and reconciliation?
The novel's title, "Breath, Eyes, Memory," draws an explicit connection between the physical and the remembered. What is the role of memory in the novel, and how is it experienced? Consider Martine's memory of rape and Sophie's memory of testing. How are memories triggered, and how can they be forgotten, if at all?
Grandmè Ifé says that ears are witnesses to matters which do not concern you. How are secrets and secret-keeping important in the novel? What are the differences in the novel between public and private information? How does this affect the novel's treatment of knowledge, confidence and revelation?
In the novel's last pages, the women vendors' cry of "Ou liberÃ©(e)?" is tied explicitly to the weight of generational burdens passed on to individuals. But while the Macoute's rape of Martine was personally devastating, the novel is careful to present it as a kind of larger happenstance, typical of the acts of violence and terror perpetuated throughout Haitian society. To what extent can the metaphor of personal deliverance be extended to the burdens carried by an entire society? What does the novel have to say about the possibility of political and social liberation, and of the role of community in both furthering and ending oppression?
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