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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Chapter 33 Analysis/Summary

When Sophie and Joseph go to visit Martine that weekend, Sophie notices that Martine appears calmer and more well rested. Returning to New York from Haiti, where she had been plagued by nightmares, has evidently allowed her to get better sleep. Possibly, the conversation she and Sophie had shared nights before had done something to calm the nightmares brought about by the pregnancy. Martine now shows affection and acceptance towards Joseph, a man who she had previously not approved of due to the threat he posed to her connection with Sophie. Now her son-in-law, Joseph has proven to be someone who cares about Sophie, and Martine appears to have accepted him as well- even giving him a tour of her house.

Throughout a conversation over their meal, the question of Joseph’s line of work and the type of music he does comes up. Martine mentions spirituals, hymns that used to be sung by slaves, to which she feels a deep connection. Marc points out the similarity between the spiritual Joseph hums and Haitian Vodou songs. This connection is interesting, as it highlights similar themes between African American culture and Haitian culture. Both groups originating from Africa and mostly subjected to slavery, the songs in hopes of freedom and passage to ‘another world’ are very similar. This is why Martine felt she “could have been Southern African American,” the pursuit of freedom represented in the deeply spiritual religion of Southern African Americans (seen in aspects like spirituals) is so very similar to sentiments in Haiti. Both Martine and her family before her would have been working in the fields, so it is natural that she would be drawn to such a group connected through a similar cultural trauma of slavery.

Joseph asks Martine if she has a favourite spiritual, and her choice is “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child:”

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child. A long ways from home.”

This haunting spiritual, another example of African slaves transforming bitter turmoil into beautiful art, was likely formed from the pain of the forcible separation of a mother from child. The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr, includes the writings of Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, on the reality of such occurrences:

“On one of those sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all.

The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do.”

Mothers would be separated from their children, inspiring great sorrow and emptiness in both the bereft mother and the children forced to lead mostly enslaved lives without knowledge of their parents. This particular spiritual has had dozens of renditions in several genres by several artists (even Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and a more recent example, John Legend). This sombre tune conveys deep pain, a pain of having lost something vital to your being and your identity. Martine’s choice of this spiritual as her favourite spiritual indicates that this acknowledgement of pain and separation speaks to her. This appeal seems to work on two fronts, one slightly more literal than the other.

Firstly, Martine’s subjection to violation while still relatively youthful ended up separating her from her own mother. Indeed, Ifé had “sent her to a rich mulatto family in Croix-des-Rosets to do any work she could for free room and board, as a rèstavèk.” Essentially, once Martine had been ‘soiled’ as a woman and made unfit to be married off (in addition to her deteriorating mental condition), her mother had simply sent her away to work. Of course, this isn’t because Ifé did not care about Martine, but the effect was that Martine was left to fend for herself without her mother. She may have felt betrayed, or even doubtful of her own value- creating a sense of emptiness within her.

Alternatively, the rape alienated Martine from her own country (her “motherland,” if you will). She was devalued as a woman in the eyes of her patriarchal country when her purity was stripped from her. Now, her memories in Haiti were infused with the pain and terror of that traumatic experience along with the turmoil that she went through over the pregnancy. Leaving Haiti to seek opportunities in New York was the final blow that separated her from Haiti, and made her feel ‘motherless.’ She feels as though she has no motherland to return to because of the trauma, and has no place there as a woman (i.e. she is not married nor can she be married there because of a lack of ‘purity’).

After her rendition of her favourite spiritual, she requests that it be sung at her funeral- some morbid foreshadowing for her death. Ifé’s planning for her own funeral has rubbed off on Martine. However, Ifé’s planning comes from a belief that she will die soon, and the juxtaposition of Martine’s funeral requests shortens the timeline within the mind of the reader.

Their day together ends, and Martine is very reluctant to let Sophie go. Earlier, Martine said that she wanted to tell Sophie about something she had decided, but they end up having to be separated before she can reveal her decision. As they part, Martine expresses the depressing dichotomy of emotion:

“Us Caco women, when we're happy, we're very happy, but when we're sad, the sadness is deep."

Martine is obviously very happy to have been with her daughter today, but she likely does not want to return to a state of deep sadness that may be brought on later. Joseph, on the ride back to Providence, expresses that he sees Martine as ‘good folk’ and understands why she didn’t like him. He acknowledges that Martine would have been reluctant to ‘give up a gem’ like Sophie.

Sophie calls Martine in response to the messages she left on their home phone. Martine finally tells Sophie what she decided: to “get it out” of her. Martine has decided to abort the baby, and says that she decided the night prior when she heard it ‘speak’ to her. Martine says that it ‘has a man’s voice,’ and everywhere she goes, she hears the voice of the unborn foetus vituperating her:

“I hear him saying things to me. You tenten, malpwòp. He calls me a filthy whore.”

The words ‘tenten, malpwòp’ mean ‘junk’ and ‘nasty’ in Haitian creole. What we see happening in Martine is an inability to stop the association of the child within her with the Macoute that violated her rather than Marc. She has not recovered from the rape, and motherhood for her is still stained by the trauma of that event. Donette Francis explains that Martine’s nightmares regarding her unborn boy reflect “a fear of reproducing a violent misogynistic patriarchy that sits in judgment of her and finds her lacking.” She fears the boy within her, as she fears that she will only proliferate patriarchy by producing a man that may very well also form a part of a society that judges women like her based on purity. Neither migration nor a good man like Marc can erase the pain and terror marked on her body. Martine’s paranoia and fear of the unborn child continues throughout the following lines:

“I never want to see this child's face. Your child looks like Manman. This child, I will never look into its face.” “But it's Marc's child.” “What if there is something left in me and when the child comes out it has that other face?”

She is still adamantly associating her child with the Macoute rather than with Marc, the actual father. Her words seem nonsensical; how could an event 20 years prior affect the appearance of her child now? Still, Martine cannot recover from her trauma, and it manifests in these psychotic breaks and nightmares.

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