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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Chapter 32 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Dec 7, 2020

Sophie visits her therapist, Rena, where they meet for their session in the usual location of the woods by the Seekonk River. Rena inquires about Sophie’s ‘sudden disappearing act’ the previous week, to which Sophie gives an explanation of all that happened during the trip. Rena seems surprised by Sophie’s sudden jump to a confrontational approach to her healing, but Sophie hadn’t considered confrontational therapy, but rather an impulsive reaction based on feeling and opportunity.

Rena asks if she had a chance to ‘reclaim [her] mother line.’ This line sounds cryptic, after all- what could be meant by Sophie’s mother line and how exactly could she ‘reclaim’ it? The mother line could be most simply regarded as the line of descent from a female ancestor to a descendant. In this case, the mother line connects Sophie to the Haitian women that came before her, including Ifé and Martine. Likewise, each of them is a daughter as well as a mother- Sophie having recently become a mother herself. The mother line represents the connected experiences of mothers across generations; their equal suffering, joy and memories of which they become a part when entering motherhood. Reclaiming this line, then, means wrestling control of the narratives surrounding it. In “Stories from The Mother line: Reclaiming the Mother-Daughter Bond, Finding Our Feminine Souls,” Naomi Lowinsky suggests how women should reclaim the mother line and its definitively feminine experiences:

We must find our way past a patriarchal view that separates the maternal and the sexual, the Virgin and Mary Magdalene, Eve and Lilith, body and spirit, the birth-giving and the death-dealing aspects of the feminine.”

Undoubtedly, Sophie’s Haitian mother line has been shackled by the patriarchal ideals that force an obsession with purity, and aim to separate and alienate the female sexuality. This results in deeply painful practices such as testing, which contribute to lifelong trauma only justifiable by some semblance of ‘honour’ based around male preference. For Sophie to reclaim her mother line must mean to separate herself and the women that came before her from such practices and the views that institute them. She must acknowledge the simultaneously maternal and sexual aspects of herself and the mother line as well as the experiences that they share as mothers.

Sophie’s response to Rena’s question is commendably resolute, and indicates a strength and confidence that she seems to have gained through her mother line:

My mother line was always with me… No matter what happens. Blood made us one.”

She understands the importance of the connection that exists within the matriline, as well as the fact that their bond is unbreakable by virtue of their consanguinity. The following exchange between Rena and Sophie reveals a lot about her uncertainty about her emotions toward Martine.

Sophie is highly reluctant to say that she ‘hated’ Martine. She is obviously at a point where she is slowly recovering from the pain in her past, and is beginning to separate Martine from the pain she felt. She doesn’t seem to justify the pain she felt as reason for hating her. She sees now Martine’s desire to be ‘good to [her],’ as though the maternal responsibility to ‘protect her child’s honour’ in some way through purity-obsessed practices has been stripped away, and that goodwill instead shows in the friendship she seeks with Sophie. She finds the statement of ‘hating’ Martine to be ‘not right’ and possibly not true. To despise Martine, to whom she is bonded through the Mother line, Haitian heritage and shared pain, doesn’t seem right, nor does it seem like it could be true. Sophie is eager to reforge her relationship with Martine, and, in a way, reclaim her own narrative hand in hand with her mother.

Sophie’s approach with Martine is reluctant to confront the secrets of the past that her therapist constantly pushes her to. Instead, she wants to forget their past together and view her as a person she is meeting for the first time.

Rena asks if Sophie was able to find out the reason that mothers test their daughters. She relays that Ife said it was ‘to preserve their honour.’ She also reveals that it was difficult to be angry with Ife, since the practice was their attempt at being ‘good mothers.’

Further conversation prompts Sophie to reveal Martine’s pregnancy. Martine had never slept with Marc while she was home, the reason for which Sophie says is the fact that it would be ‘a bad example.’ Martine’s inherited and deeply inculcated dogma of despising the immoral and impure condemns any sort of expression of sexuality. Having a man in the house with Sophie around would be hypocritical, and highly contrary to the values Martine sees as so important.

Rena attempts to elicit some emotions from Sophie by asking if Martine’s ‘betrayal’ of her standards of purity after all these years makes her angry. After all, she would be justified- despite years of alienating Sophie from her own sexuality out of an obsession with purity, she has in fact partaken of the act anyway. Sophie isn’t angry, however, and seems unwilling to condemn Martine with such harsh emotions. She instead feels sorry for Martine, as the child within her has brought painful emotions back from her past. Instead of seeing Martine as an oppressor, Sophie sees Martine as someone being oppressed- and rightfully so. Sophie now understands that Martine inflicting pain on her is a reflection of the pain that she has been subjected to.

Their conversation leads into the topic of Sophie’s father. Sophie feels uncomfortable calling that man her ‘father,’ as evidently such an endearing term should not be ascribed to the depraved violator that irreparably traumatized her mother. However, Rena provides some perspective on her ‘father.’ That is, for Sophie’s recovery, it is necessary for her to address him at some point, and ascribe a face and identity to him. According to Rena, Martine’s inability to give the rapist a face gave him the power of a shadow, able to control her through her emotions. “I’m not surprised she’s having nightmares. This pregnancy is bringing feelings to the surface that she had never completely dealt with.” The violator remains a faceless entity within her mind that is able to take on any form, whether that is the unfamiliar feature in Sophie, or the child growing inside of her. In this boundless versatility her avoidance of confrontation allows, her pain can only grow worse and be exacerbated over and over again.

Note throughout their conversation Rena’s tendency to be very blunt (straight-forward) when referring to everything in Sophie’s situation. Earlier on, she highlights Sophie’s reluctance to say she “hated” Martine. She refers to Martine’s violator as Sophie’s father. She even corrects Sophie calling Marc Martine’s ‘friend,’ as his actual function is more as Martine’s lover. This straight-forward attitude is necessary, as she wants to coax Sophie into a state where she will confront the truth of her circumstances.

Rena tells Sophie to imagine her mother in the sexual act. Of course, Sophie imagines Martine in pain, and Rena points out the parallels between the image of Martine Sophie imagines and Sophie herself. They both try to ‘be brave,’ that is, go through with the act despite feeling pain and finding no enjoyment. Sophie sees intercourse as a necessary part of her marriage to Joseph- something she must do to ‘keep him.’ She fears being abandoned, just like Martine. She reveals “I feel like my daughter is the only person in the world who won’t leave me.” Now, Sophie is able to understand why Martine had been so adamant against Sophie getting involved with a man. Martine’s words in previous chapters which may have seemed overbearing or maybe strange, like “You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before,” and "Sophie, I will never let you go again," now have context. Martine was convinced that Sophie would never leave her. Her interest in Joseph threatened their inseparability.

Following this is a particular focus on a seemingly random aspect of the environment:

“We stopped at a bench overlooking the river. Two swans were floating along trying to catch up with one another.”

It appears somewhat out of place, or at least unnecessary. However, it could be considered as a use of imagery as a metaphor for Sophie and Martine. Both women have been separated from each other for a while, a time over which Sophie has matured and made strides in her recovery, and Martine has apparently remained hurt by trauma but has moved forward in her relationship with Marc. In this way, they are trying to ‘catch up’ to one another. Sophie is now learning more about the origins of practices like testing while also becoming more familiar with the emotions and instincts of a mother that would have been felt by Martine (unbeknownst to her previously). Martine is also seeing the woman Sophie has become and is trying to become a part of her life as a friend.

Rena asks Sophie if she returned to the spot where Martine had been violated. Highlighting this is interesting at this point in the novel is interesting, as it hadn’t yet been revealed to the reader that Sophie had even been aware of the location of the exact spot. In returning, Sophie (as she says) was seeking understanding, likely of the origins of the ritual of testing. However, her diction in expressing avoiding returning to that spot reveals that she was possibly unprepared to confront that area: “I ran past it.” Sophie simply runs past the cane fields, a place that holds such significance in the cultural trauma of slavery, the death of her grandfather under such working conditions, and the trauma of Martine. This could indicate her growth in terms of being able to ignore the cane fields, but it could also show that she was unwilling to face the intergenerational trauma and memory that existed in those fields. In the final scenes of the book, Sophie will be seen attacking a cane stalk- which may seem strange at first- but releasing her pent-up anger on the cane fields is necessary for her to become ‘whole.’ In the cane fields exist the conditions of the past that disabled Martine, and, by extension, her whole family. Enacting revenge on the fields rather than on herself ends up being what frees her. Rena’s analysis of the importance of walking away from the cane fields is spot-on, then:

“You and your mother should both go there again and see that you can walk away from it. Even if you can never face the man who is your father, there are things that you can say to the spot where it happened. I think you'll be free once you have your confrontation. There will be no more ghosts."'

Considering this freedom in the final scene amidst the calls of “Ou libere?” indicates the importance of confrontation. Facing the spot, this “scene of subjection” so tightly intertwined with painful memories, allows for Sophie to establish her own narrative, reclaim her own body, and lash out against the site that almost irreparably produced three generations of broken bodies laden with traumatic body memories. Martine’s intense aversion to returning to Haiti (epitomized in her line in chapter 28, “I want to go back there only to be buried”) will prevent her from experiencing this healing- and is why she is overwhelmed by her pain and takes her own life by the end of the novel.

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