Breath, Eyes, Memory

by: Edwidge Danticat

Themes

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.