Breath, Eyes, Memory

by: Edwidge Danticat

Important Quotations Explained

Quotes Important Quotations Explained

There were many cases in our history where our ancestors had doubled. Following in the vaudou tradition, most of our presidents were actually one body split in two: part flesh and part shadow. That was the only way they could murder and rape so many people and still go home to play with their children and make love to their wives.

This quote, from the middle of Chapter 23, is part of Sophie's longest meditation on the practice of testing, in which a mother verifies her daughter's virginity by making sure that her little finger cannot pass the girl's hymen. The mediation is triggered by a story which Grandmè Ifé hears in the night sounds as she and Sophie sit in the dark of Dame Marie, that of a young girl sneaking home from a rendezvous with a boy and being pulled into the house by her mother for testing. For Sophie, being tested was an intensely violating experience, and her way of coping was to double, imagining beautiful things to lure her mind away from her body's pain. In this passage, she extends her own coping strategy to explain the ability of other Haitians to endure the presence of atrocity. As she does so, the force of doubling shifts from a tactic used by the victim, to one used by the oppressor. The necessity of the presidents' doubling suggests that no human spirit, violator or violated, can truly tolerate cruelty. In the presence of horror the body itself breaks down and the spirit splits in order to survive. Yet this doubling also suggests that the presidents have been false, twisting wisdom traditions in a way that allows them to effect harm.

Though they are recognized as agents of terror, the presidents are also described as "ancestors," reflecting the novel's larger concern with the burdens of inheritance. As Martine's nightmares and Sophie's sexual phobia suggest, past trauma recurs in subsequent generations until it can be properly resolved. Doubling may work as a temporary survival strategy for individuals, but its root causes must eventually be addressed. If not, its legacy is debilitating. Just as Sophie suffers from Martine's demons, Haitian society at large is suffering from the cruelty, victimization and split consciousness of generations of its ancestors.