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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat Chapter 34 Analysis/Summary

Presumably the following day, Sophie has a session with Rena. The specific aspect of scenery highlighted at the beginning of the chapter is the river, which appears a “breathless blue.” Rena inquires about Sophie’s visit with Martine, and Sophie reveals a deep worry for her state of mind that was not explicitly shown in her prior conversations. She describes Martine as being like “two people,” a single mind split into “someone who was trying to hold things together and someone who was falling apart.” The reader is able to pick up on this from the contrast between the Martine seen at the beginning of the chapter (“calmer, rested…skin… with a powdered mahogany glow”) and the highly unstable Martine Sophie speaks to on the phone after the day’s conclusion (“everywhere I go, I hear it”). Sophie feels that Martine was only pretending to be happy, and that this pretence is a survival mechanism Martine thinks is necessary. Martine thinks that remaining outside of the clutches of a mental institution is worth covering up her mental instability by appearing well on the surface.


Sophie is also very squeamish in referring to Martine’s plans with the baby, namely abortion. She opts for euphemisms to make Rena understand what she means. This could be for many reasons, one being that Sophie is just uncomfortable with the concept of abortion, and another being that she may have been pleased by the idea of Martine having another child- one not forcibly given to her- and the loss of that opportunity is jarring. The second reasoning is more interesting, as Sophie could have been charmed by having a sibling (as Joseph says, “a kindred spirit”) and is doubly disappointed by losing that opportunity and by Martine’s inability to willingly have a child after the traumatic event of decades past.


After being informed of the recent development of the ‘voices’ Martine hears, Rena suggests that Martine have an exorcism, a release ritual similar to the symbolic acts Sophie would undertake with her sexual phobia group. Sophie expresses that Martine would be afraid of doing that, because it would “make this more real.” Martine has been completely against confronting the reality of her mental state, and that is why she has failed to recover. By fleeing from making her experience real, she has surrendered her ability to change it. Rena knows this, and says that “it has to become frighteningly real before it can fade.” However, Sophie also sees Martine’s perspective. She proposes that it has always been real to Martine- she has experienced years of nightmares forcing her to relive that night over and over. The child within her now has brought her back to the time that she was carrying Sophie; the feeling of being forced to bear a child. This all raises the question: is Martine capable of recovery? After all, years of her trauma being “frighteningly real” have only contributed to further pain rather than healing. Nonetheless, an optimistic outlook would propose that a radical change must be necessary for Martine to begin healing, and a symbolic ritual like an exorcism could kickstart that. This, though, cannot shake the strange pessimism surrounding Martine’s fate.


When Rena refers to Marc as Martine’s ‘lover’ while asking if she had told him about the abortion, Sophie seems uncomfortable with this term for Marc. The answer to Rena’s question is likely no, as Martine has expressed previously that she believes the choice regarding the baby is hers to make (“It's my decision. Supremely, it's mine”). Rena suspects that Sophie’s discomfort with referring to Marc as Martine’s lover is because the term is “too sexual” to be linked to her mother:


"Too sexual to be linked with your mother? I think you have a Madonna image of your mother. Part of you feels that this child is a testimonial of her true sexuality. It's a child she conceived willingly. Maybe even she is not able to face that."


The suggestion that Sophie has a ‘Madonna image’ of Martine is highly possible. In chapter 8 Sophie had revealed “as a child, the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother.” She had once imagined her mother to be like the Virgin Mother, so it is likely that she still holds this view of her mother- an idealized image in which she places hope. What is interesting about the baby being a ‘testimonial of Martine’s true sexuality’ is the implications that has on the ideology to which she has been bent. Haitian practices like testing would have forced Martine to be alienated from her own sexuality, normalizing an aversion to the sexual act. The rape stripped her of the purity that had been so dearly protected and held of utmost importance. Thus, when in the situation she is in currently, having conceived a child willingly, she has contradicted a deeply inculcated value of supressing her own sexuality. Above this, she is bringing back the body memory of being subjected to involuntary conception. Until she erases these muting, contradictory ideas and memories, she won’t be able to accept her autonomy in her own body.


Sophie expounds on Martine’s two-faced act when she tells Rena that Marc probably believes the baby is ‘the best thing that’s ever happened to her’ because of how Martine acts. It’s evident that Marc wants to help Martine as well, and would not push her to have the baby if he knew the pain she was going through. Rena tells Sophie that she should convince Martine to seek help, and Sophie relates her mother’s backwards mentality: "I can't convince her, she's always thought that she was crazy already, that she had just fooled everybody." Martine’s thought process, is, of course, dangerous- she seeks no help for a mental condition that will only continue to deteriorate because she believes that she can ‘fool’ everyone into thinking she’s stable.


When Sophie leaves, she stops by Davina’s house to visit their group room. Danticat includes an interesting pair of details here that could both be considered as foreshadowing:


“I went in and sat in the dark and drank some verbena tea by candlelight. The flame's shadows swayed across Erzulie's face in a way that made it seem as though she was crying.

On the way out, I saw Buki's balloon. It was in a tree, trapped between two high branches. It had deflated into a little ball the size of a green apple. We thought it had floated into the clouds, even hoped that it had travelled to Africa, but there it was slowly dying in a tree right above my head.”


The first detail is the apparently crying statue of Erzulie. Erzulie, ‘the healer of all women and the desire of all men’ as well as the model for the mother Sophie imagined for herself, is weeping. This imagery tells the reader that a sad event or loss is about to occur, something surrounding Erzulie or the duties held by Erzulie. The loss will be Martine, who dies by the following chapter. Erzulie’s weeping could be a representation of her inability to ‘heal’ Martine as is her duty as ‘healer of all women,’ but it could also be due to Sophie’s connection of Erzulie to her mother.


The second detail shows Buki’s balloon, which was released earlier in chapter 31 (“Buki blew up a green balloon. We went to Davina's backyard and watched as she released it in the dark. It was hard to see where the balloon went, but at least it had floated out of our hands”). The balloon is green, a colour which represents life, hope and healing in the novel. The fact that this balloon of life has become trapped in the branches and deflated to insignificance is morbid, and another layer of foreshadowing for Martine’s death in the following chapter. The hope that was so alive only a few chapters ago- a hope for life, healing and recovery- is now dying right before Sophie’s eyes.

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