Breath, Eyes, Memory

by: Edwidge Danticat

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

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.

Erzulie

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.

Testing

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.