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Breath, Eyes, Memory

Edwidge Danticat


Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Themes, Motifs and Symbols

Themes, Motifs and Symbols


The Burden of Inheritance

Reflecting its emphasis on the physical manifestations of love, loss, despair and happiness, the novel explores the troubling influence human beings on one another through the language of inheritance. At times, this inheritance is purely physical. The body can bear witness to the past, as when Sophie discovers that her unusual face echoes unseen face of her mother's rapist. Inheritance can take the form of physical tendencies of disintegration or weakness, as when Sophie compares her grandmother's deformed back to her mother's mastectomy. Though inheritance spans traits and attitudes as well as physical characteristics, its effect is always manifested on the body. A crucial example comes in the novel's climax, Section Three, which centers on Sophie's return to Dame Marie to confront the psychological burdens she has inherited from Martine. Martine's testing, phobias and anxieties have left Sophie terrified and ashamed of her body. She feels no desire, hates her fatness, has become bulimic, and is only able to have sex while doubling to distract herself. The difficulties provoked by testing suggests the range of ways in which inheritance can happen. Not simply a matter of genes or birth, inheritance includes a child's wider reaction to environment, experience and trauma over the course of her development as a human being.

Ultimately, inheritance becomes a cipher for the symbolic fact that a mother and daughter have shared the same body. Though the infant physically leaves her mother's womb, their continued physical connection manifests in a constant, intimate struggle with each other's phobias, experiences, demons and dreams. When Grandmè Ifé tells Sophie at novel's end that a daughter is not fully a woman until her mother dies, she connects Sophie's liberation from the burdens of inheritance with Martine's relinquishing of their common physicality. Her mother's death frees Sophie to take stock of her own choices, and to consciously prevent her own daughter's inheritance of the Caco troubles.

Myth and Parable as Mediators of Pain and Violence

Just as Sophie doubles during testing, freeing her mind from her body's pain, the novel's characters use the symbolic language of myth and parable to mediate the horrific violence of history and of the physical world. The most immediate example is provided by the Macoutes, secret police who are widely referred to by the Creole word for 'bogeyman.' As agents of terror and irrational violence, the Macoutes' presence and action cannot be reconciled with the rational world. Instead, they are explained and described as mythical monsters, liminal figures whose capricious cruelty is not of this world. But though the language of myth allows the honest person to speak of Macoutes without succumbing to despair, it also suggests that only supernatural remedies can remove them. The popular opinion that neither God nor the Devil invented the Macoutes locates them as figures without an origin, and correspondingly without an end. Still, myth encodes the hope of liberation, even as it attests to its difficulty, as in Grandmè Ifé's story of the werewolf in the cane fields, whom one can escape only by running in a rage through the cane fields while shouting a list of the werewolf's crimes. (126)

On a more local level, stories are used between characters when straightforward conversation becomes too painful. A classic example is Sophie's attempt to confront Grandmè Ifé about testing in Chapter 23. As the two sit listening to the night's sounds, Grandmè Ifé tells Sophie of a girl, Ti Alice, who is rushing home after a rendezvous with a boy and will be tested on arrival. The women discuss testing in increasingly personal terms. But when Sophie attempts to explain that testing was the worst experience of her life, as a result of which she hates her body and cannot be with her husband, Grandmè Ifé retreats to her story, replying that Ti Alice has passed her examination. Later, as they walk inside, Sophie's grandmother apologizes for the pain they have caused her. The scene represents the deep roots of stories in real life, as well as the technique of moving between symbolic and straightforward language when negotiating a difficult topic, a technique that echoes the splitting and reconcilation of doubling. At the same time, it attests to stories' universal power, allowing the novel's characters to safely make sense of their hurt by comparing it to an abstract experience.

The Male World's Debilitating Obsession with Female Purity

The dominant culture's problematic obsession with female purity is best witnessed by the pair of Martine and Atie. Growing up, the sisters' purity was carefully guarded by the humiliating practice of testing. Yet Martine was raped at age sixteen, while Atie, betrayed by her fiancé, never married. Neither achieved the womanhood for which she was groomed, suggesting at first that this is the source of their unhappiness. But the ultimate force of their stories reveals a troubling commonality between 'pure' and fallen women. The sisters' twin tragedies evidence the toll of a lifetime of doubling, of living in an environment which keeps the woman uncomfortable in her body.

The cult of female purity centers on an obsession with the woman's body, as it is elevated to the status of sacred object. It is no longer the woman's own, but instead a symbolic vessel of honor, whose utility and purpose are decided by others. In this context, the woman is alienated from her body, trapped by the weight of her woman's flesh. Martine's rape gives way to madness, nightmares, hallucinations and voices, as violence done to her body is perpetuated by her body's continual violence against her soul. The details of Martine's suicide suggest an attempt to destroy the rapist's body, which has become indistinguishable from her own. Thus, while Martine's experience represents a more dramatic version of the imprisonment that her female contemporaries feel, it is a difference only of scale. Atie's turn to alcohol represents a similar escape, an attempt to negate the physicality of her failed womanhood and the broader physical trap of being stuck in Dame Marie. The residual effects of the virginity cult are visible in Sophie's inability to have sex without doubling, and her own difficulty with her body in the novel's final sections. It is Sophie's conscious attempts to address this split, to reconcile her body and soul via therapy, narrative and love, which evince a power to move beyond the tragedy of her mother's and aunt's experience.


The Connections Between Language, Affiliation and Belonging

From Martine's first exhortation to the newly arrived Sophie to learn English lest she be mercilessly teased, Sophie's English becomes a metaphor for her negotiation of the new world. Lost at first in the sea of unknown words, Sophie gains a foothold by finding French words that are semantically the same but pronounced differently. The actual point at which she achieves fluency is lost in the six years between the end of Section One and the beginning of Section Two. Her offhand remark at the beginning of Section Two that she has, despite speaking French at school, become an English speaker, attests to the subtle magnitude of this change. Likewise, Sophie's access to French Creole brands her as an authentic Haitian. When she returns to the island with her infant daughter, the van driver notes approvingly that she has not forgotten her mother tongue, as have many other immigrants. Language ties Sophie to the past, even as it attests to her continued engagement with her aunt, grandmother and maternal line. Throughout, language affects a form of symbolic kinship. Joseph's knowledge of Louisiana Creole symbolizes his common ground with Sophie and his wider attempt to understand and speak her language.

The novel's politics of language are perhaps most strikingly evident in the fact that it is narrated in English. French Creole phrases are given in italics, and paraphrased when their meaning cannot be intuited from context. This use of language-within-a-language has several effects. First, it locates the novel firmly in Haiti, balancing the story's wider political and social message with the particulars of Haiti and the Haitian diaspora. Second, it represents a local dialect to which the average reader has little access, a constant reminder of the reader's own dependence on Sophie as translator, narrator and mediator between worlds. Third, it provides a concrete example of the novel's play with vocabulary and narrative style, which spans psychoanalysis and folk wisdom as well as the more obvious 'languages' of English, French and Creole.

Parallelism and Doubling

The novel's emphasis on parallelism and doubling is reflected in its continual juxtaposition of characters, situations, narrative accounts, bodies and time. The pain passed on from mothers to daughters, like that of testing, is often a matter of unconscious repetition, hurt inflicted by mothers who had been hurt themselves. Sophie's sexual phobia and anxiety echoes Martine's own, even as both are set against Brigitte's untroubled sleep. Likewise, reconciliation becomes a matter of reenacting the past, of consciously altering its course by playing out familiar actions with a new understanding of their consequences. Sophie's flight into the cane field during her mother's funeral represents an attempt to physically and symbolically fight back against her mother's rape, just as Martine's own suicide suggests a willful destruction of the rapist who has come to possess her own body. Narrative parallelism is often reflected in a temporal split, as when a newly-arrived Sophie becomes aware, over dinner with her mother and Marc, that Marc embodies Martine's present life even as Sophie represents her past. Further, the twin spirits of Marassas, invoked throughout the book to suggest the inseparability of two people's bodies, souls and destinies, are set against the vaudou practice of doubling, in which the body and spirit split under unbearable pain. Finally, the novel's emphasis on parables informs its sense of meaningful abstraction, the suggestion that local events are incarnations of a broader truth.

Place as a Mediator of Memory

The novel's continual emphasis on flight, movement, imprisonment and return attests to the powerful role of place as mediator of memory. For Martine, a return to Haiti represents a return to the scene of her rape, and experience so psychologically painful that she becomes physically ill. For Atie, her confinement to the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie is a physical exile which parallels her psychological exile from life's happiness and its rewards. For Grandmè Ifé, the promised convenience of city life cannot compare with her familiar, old-fashioned village home. For Sophie, reconciling with her mother's ghosts requires physically returning to the land of Martine's trauma and, ultimately, to the site of the rape itself. Just as the women attempt to engage with history by returning to important places, their attempts to escape its weight involve physical flight. Sophie flees her mother, her mother's nightmares, and her mother's relentless testing by eloping with Joseph to Providence. Martine, with the help of a rich mulatto family, obtains emigration papers to America where she will try to forget the memory of her rape. On a more local level, the protagonists' avoidance of and return to particular houses, beds, rooms, cars and restaurants mimic the less drastic, daily attempts to reconcile the horror of the past with the comfort of the familiar.


The Marassa

The Marassa are mythical lovers who are so close as to share the same soul. They are first mentioned by Martine, trying to distract Sophie as she tests her for the first time. Martine is jealous and angry with Sophie's rebellion, and frightened that her daughter will leave her for a man instead of acknowledging that she is her mother's marassa. Throughout the novel, the idea of the Marassa helps symbolize narrative doubles, lovers, and parallel and opposite characters. For example, at the novel's beginning, Atie's presence is set against her sister Martine's absence, just as Martine's necessary flight to New York is balanced by Atie's exile to Dame Marie. Marc, Martine's constant, long-term lover, is set against the volatile memory of the rapist who haunts her dreams and is Sophie's true father. The rapist is also set against Joseph, himself a deeply loving father figure and husband to Sophie. But twinship appears most strikingly in the novel's mother-daughter relationships. Just as Martine thinks her daughter is the only person she can trust, Atie takes comfort in her vicarious daughter Sophie, and Sophie worries that Brigitte is the only person in the world who will not leave her. Put otherwise, the invocation of the marassa hints at the twinned nature of human beings, a counterpart to the vaudou practice of doubling. Through a continual, pairwise comparison and contrast of the novel's characters, the rhetoric of marassa exposes the deep interconnection of human beings even as it suggests the difficult baggage which history and memory bring to all human relationships.


The Haitian goddess of love and power, Erzulie is invoked as a symbol of female courage, desirability and strength. She is Sophie's ideal mother, the comforter of women and the desire of men. She is a complex goddess, a loa (vaudou spirit) affiliated both with the Virgin Mary and with an opulent, abundant sexuality. She is alternately described as a loving virgin and as a coquettish beauty with many husbands. She is a mulatress, whose skin attests to her spanning of worlds. She is associated both with transcendence and with deep earthiness, with humanity and with transformation. When Grandmè Ifé gives Sophie a statue of Erzulie, apologizing for the pain her family has caused her, the gift suggests a symbolic return of the mother Sophie wanted to have and thus the beginning of Sophie's own healing. By contrast, when Sophie prefaces the loss of her own virginity by recalling the story of Erzulie transforming a bleeding woman into a butterfly, she invokes the goddess's aspect of escape and sorrow, of helping women to leave the bodies which have caused them such pain. More broadly, Erzulie's twin nature is suggested by her vaudou context as a beautiful, flirtatious, playful woman, who may arrive in delight and wonder, but who in the end always begins to weep. Ultimately, it is Erzulie who bears the burden of the world's sorrows, and whose fabulous power and attraction are set against a deep knowledge of human pain.


The process of testing, in which a mother makes sure her daughter is still a virgin by checking to see whether her little finger can pass the girl's hymen, is one of the book's most troubling and difficult rituals. Begun in rural villages, where a woman's life was her honor, testing is nonetheless continued in their Brooklyn home by Martine, desperate to ensure that Sophie escapes her own unhappiness. The act's symbolic violation mimics the mechanics of rape, though its motives are nearly opposite. It most clearly embodies the book's obsession with female virginity, a cult of purity in which the woman's body becomes a symbol of her family's and husband's pride, worth, and honor - in short, in which her body is anything but her own. More specifically, Martine's testing of Sophie simply because her own mother had tested her attests to the crippling weight of traditional practice, and the protagonists' difficult struggle to avoid passing on their painful inheritance.

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Who does Sophie look like?
Her mother
Her aunt
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