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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes Memory by Edwidge Danticat Chapter 35 Analysis/Summary [Final Chapter]



When Sophie returns home, Joseph alerts her to a message left by Marc on the phone: "Sophie, je t'en prie, call me. It's about your mother." (‘Je t’en prie’ essentially means ‘I pray you to’ or ‘I request you to’) This cryptic message is left in a voice Sophie suspects is feigning a casual nature. Marc leaving this message (as opposed to Martine) combined with his quivering tone causes Sophie to become immediately fearful, as seen in her aggressively grabbing Joseph’s collar. Joseph attempts to steer her to calmness as she calls back.


The answering machine picks up instead of an actual person, and Sophie’s description of her mother’s ‘leave a message’ note is somewhat reminiscent of an elegy:


“Finally her answering machine picked up. "S'il vous plait, laissez-moi un message. Please leave me a message." Impeccable French and English, both painfully mastered, so that her voice would never betray the fact that she grew up without a father, that her mother was merely a peasant, that she was from the hills.”


This style of speech at this point in the novel really conveys the idea of Martine’s passing. Apart from describing Martine with the reverent, story-like diction of an elegy, this line also shows that Martine has been presenting a face contrary to reality on several fronts. Prior to this, the reader was aware that she had done her best to appear stable at the surface level even though she was mentally broken in order to dissuade suspicion. Bleaching her skin was also a manifestation of her desire to hide her origins. Down to the language/diction she used on her answering machine was crafted to hide the reality of her heritage. This habitual denial of her own identity could even be seen in her migration abroad to escape her past- and it begs the question: was Martine doomed to fall victim to herself simply due to her obstinate denial of her own reality?


Sophie and Joseph remain at the phone for the whole night, until Marc finally calls at six the following morning. Marc’s calmness and composure seem to be gone as he apologizes to Sophie before breaking the news. Sophie is understandably outraged once Marc tells her that Martine is dead, and she shouts in demand of explanation. The scene of Martine’s death seems almost twistedly poetic:


"I woke up in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I wake up and she's not there, so I was not worried. Two hours passed and I woke up again, I went to the bathroom and she was lying there." "Lying there? Lying where? Talk faster, will you?" "In blood. She was lying there in blood." "Did she slip and fall?" "It was very hard to see." "What was very hard to see?" "She had a mountain of sheets on the floor. She had prepared this." "What?" "She stabbed her stomach with an old rusty knife. I counted, and they counted again in the hospital. Seventeen times." "Are you sure?" "It was seventeen times."


Martine stabbing her stomach with a rusty knife (the rust being a slight example of red in the scene apart from the blood that surrounds her) is similar to Sophie’s self-mutilation with the pestle in a previous chapter. However, while Sophie had used the pestle as a means of freeing herself from the humiliation of testing, Martine uses the knife to liberate herself from the endless torture she has been forced to bear since the rape. In both cases, the women’s resistance manifests on the body as the only entity over which they hold control. Martine had previously insisted that the choice of what to do with the baby was supremely her choice, and she has undertaken that choice to full force. In the ambulance, she had said that “she could not carry the baby.” In her actions, Martine ended the possibility of remaking herself in a new environment and succumbed to the pain.

When Sophie arrives at her mother’s house, she partially expected a large commotion of some sort-flashing lights and detectives- but the place is empty, and this reminds her of the regular nature of suicides in New York. Martine’s passing almost seems ordinary and insignificant in this context. The trail of her dried blood is still present on the staircase to the floors and street. However, the site of her suicide in the bathroom has been cleaned thoroughly- only the pile of bloody sheets in the corner betraying the gruesome incident prior.


Martine’s death turns Sophie’s world on its head and puts her into a state of anxious lack of control:


“It was as if the world started whirling after that, as though I had no control over anything. Everything raced by like a speeding train and I, breathlessly, sprang after it, trying to keep up.”


Her mother, to whom she wanted to be a support, and whose friendship she wanted to accept in spite of the past, is now gone. Before this, there is an exchange between her and Marc that seems to end in culpability being placed on Sophie:


“Why did you give her a child? Didn't you know about the nightmares?" I asked.

"You knew better about the nightmares," he said, "but where were you?"

Neither of them can really take responsibility for Martine’s unfortunate end- Marc was likely fooled by Martine’s obstinate pretence of normalcy, and Sophie ability to assist was limited by Martine’s insistence on avoiding professional help or any method of coping that faced the reality of her past. At any rate, Sophie has just lost her mother and may want to blame someone or something for the unjust death.


Instantly, Sophie starts packing to return to Haiti for her mother’s funeral. Joseph at first insists on going with Sophie, but she seems set on going alone for the sake of simplicity and keeping Brigitte safe- something that Joseph takes as a hint to stop insisting and support her choice. When she arrives to Martine’s house, she races around to each room while Marc attempts to get her seated for a discussion about the proceedings. When she sees Martine’s closet, all the clothing is in shades of red- the colour which became her favourite after leaving Haiti since it better suited her pain.


Marc explains the details regarding the transfer of Martine’s body to Haiti. Sophie is upset with Marc, and decides that she would never again speak to him. She evidently blames him at least partially for her mother’s death (he did give Martine the baby which proved too much to bear after all). He also states that he has notified Martine’s family, and Sophie feels as though this method of notification is unfitting or disrespectful. Ifé would be receiving the news of her daughter’s suicide via telegram- and Sophie sees remote communication of such shocking and even potentially deleterious news as an unforgivable misstep on Marc’s part.


Marc offers to let Sophie stay at his house until the flight the following night, but Sophie’s vow of silence against him is still in effect. She does not intend to go to Marc’s house, and prefers to stay at her mother’s instead. When Joseph calls, Sophie tells him that this is a trip she must make alone, suggesting that the significance of her mother’s burial and returning to Haiti in this way is a responsibility that only she can undertake. She is obviously shell-shocked by the incident, as she remains in a foetal position on the bed all night ‘fighting evil thoughts.’ In her mind, thoughts are surfacing accusing herself of being the catalyst for Martine’s suicide:


“It is your fault that she killed herself in the first place. Your face took her back again. You should have stayed with her. If you were here, she would not have gotten pregnant.”


She simultaneously chides herself for her presence (awakening memories in Martine with her face) as well as her absence (leaving her mother to elope and therefore making Marc her only line of support in New York). Now faced with the grief of maternal loss, blaming herself makes the most sense. From her perspective, her existence was a reminder of Martine’s painful past. On top of that, when she left Martine and essentially betrayed the bond of the mother-daughter relationship, Martine had to seek support in only Marc (“Since you left, he stays with me at night and wakes me up when I have the nightmares"). She stays with Marc and obliges his requests (reference chapter 8: “as long as he didn't make any demands that she couldn't fulfil”), until he gives her a child- a demand which she evidently could not fulfil.


The following morning, Marc asks Sophie to select an outfit for Martine to be buried in, and his voice is noticeably laced with pity. The outfit Sophie selects is a two-piece suit of very vibrant, bright red- a combination of loud crimson that even Martine had feared wearing to church:


“I picked out the most crimson of all my mother's clothes, a bright red, two-piece suit that she was too afraid to wear to the Pentecostal services.”


This choice is deeply symbolic- Sophie makes it despite knowing how malapropos the shocking colour is for a burial:


“It was too loud a color for a burial. I knew it. She would look like a Jezebel, hot-blooded Erzulie who feared no men, but rather made them her slaves, raped them, and killed them. She was the only woman with that power. It was too bright a red for burial. If we had an open coffin at the funeral home, people would talk. It was too loud a color for burial, but I chose it.”


By dressing her mother in this powerful red, a colour that has thus far represented pain, Sophie is conjuring the image of Erzulie, the virgin mother. If we observe the cultural significance of Erzulie, the connection between the deity and the characteristics Sophie wants to highlight in Martine become more evident. Joan Dayan in Erzulie: A Woman’s History of Haiti analyses the deep lineage of the Vodou goddess. According to Dayan, Erzulie is usually presented in three emanations: “Erzulie-Freda, the lady of luxury and love; as Erzulie-Dantor, the black woman of passion... and as Erzulie-ge-rouge, the red-eyed militant of fury and vengeance.” Erzulie is also considered the national loa (spirit) of Haiti due to her involvement in the slave revolt of 1791 (taken from Kevin Filan’s Ezili Danto: Single Mother with a Knife):


“At a 1791 ceremony in Bwa Cayman, a Vodou priestess possessed by Ezili Danto slit a black pig's throat. Those present drank its blood, and then swore that they would drive out the French slave masters or die trying. A week later, 1,000 settlers were dead, the rich plantations of Cape François were in smoldering ruins and the Haitian Revolution had begun. Some say slavers cut out the priestess's tongue as punishment for participating in the revolution, while still others claim Danto was made mute by the black guerrillas so that she could not betray them under torture if captured. All agree that thirteen years later the last French soldiers were gone, and the Free Black Republic of Haiti was born.”


Thus, Erzulie is intertwined with the struggle for freedom of Haiti- but was also punished for participation in the revolution (or alternatively, was punished for the power she held as a witness to their activity). Outside of this (and several other stories), Erzulie appears to be a woman capable of transcending all rules that seem to bind women. She is both a proliferous lover and a seductress of both men and women. She is simultaneously called the ‘virgin mother’ whilst being sexually free, and a controller of men. To the women of Haiti, she is a protector and a consoler as the perfect mother. When viewed through this paradigm, Erzulie is a somewhat contradictory deity who stands in resistance against the oppressive patriarchal shackles which restrict women. While societal norms in Haiti would render the sexuality of women to be obscured, hidden and controlled, Erzulie encourages these women to free themselves.


The defiant, “hot” nature of Erzulie and her powerful characteristics are those which Sophie hopes to confer on Martine in dressing her in the bright red (red is associated with Erzulie, along with green and blue). Interestingly enough, Sophie does not only confer the identity of Erzulie as a powerful, fearless woman on Martine, but she also gives her Erzulie’s role of protector. In death, Martine has become the guardian of her daughters, Sophie and Brigitte- just like Erzulie is a protector of all women.


When Marc sees the apparel Sophie has chosen, he is understandably shocked. He remarks that St Peter “won’t allow [Sophie’s] mother into heaven in that.” Either his remark or the reassurance in her mother’s freedom causes Sophie to forget her mental vow of silence towards Marc:


"She is going to Ginen… or she is going to be a star. She's going to be a butterfly or a lark in a tree. She's going to be free."


Here, she makes a very clear distinction between heaven and Ginen; Ginen being the ancestral home in the afterlife (and where Martine is going) as opposed to heaven, the Christian afterlife. The rest of Sophie’s line alludes to the folk stories told throughout the novel: the stars being brave men, the bleeding woman becoming a butterfly and even the lark who was fooled by the girl. Each of these stories, when placed in the context of what form Martine might take next, now show a new connection to her situation. The stars are ‘brave men,’ but Martine too may soon join the lights in the sky due to her bravery in living with trauma for most of her life. Like the woman who couldn’t stop bleeding, (and this line shows up at the end of the chapter) Martine gives into her pain to be reborn, maybe as a butterfly. Even the lark, which is said to be always waiting for “a very very pretty little girl who will never come back” shares some similarities with Martine, as the little girl could be Sophie who left with Joseph or even Martine herself untainted and unbroken by trauma in the past.


At the funeral home, Sophie remarks that her mother’s face is “a permanent blue.” Sophie decides not to sit next to Marc; she is still upset by the part he played in Martine’s death (even if it wasn’t deliberate and only a product of unfortunate ignorance). The plane is not full, since few people actually go to Haiti other than for familial obligations and events. If we compare that to the description of the plane as ‘nearly full’ in chapter 5 when Sophie is travelling to New York, then the difference is very evident. More people seek an escape from Haiti in search of better opportunities than those looking to return. Even those coming back only want to temporarily, and those repatriating permanently are most likely there to be buried like Martine.


Sophie notices the keen attention Marc is paying to everything around him, as he is trying to notice the differences that have developed in his country since his migration many years ago. The specific aspects of Haiti highlighted here show some of the economic and social issues which rear their heads in and around the airport:


“He was observing, watching for changes: In the way the customs people said ‘Merci’ and ‘au revoir’ when you bribed them not to search your bags. The way the beggars clanked the pennies in their tin cans. The way the van drivers nearly killed one another on the airport sidewalk to reach you. The way young girls dashed forward and offered their bodies.”


Each group of people referred to in this short clip is seeking gain from the visitors, those people fortunate enough to be able to afford travel to and from the US while also being at the benefit of better economic opportunities abroad. The customs officers will overlook their duties for these returnees’ money, the beggars try to gain their attention, van drivers fight each other ruthlessly for a chance at chauffeuring them and getting paid, and even young girls will try to offer their bodies for a chance at becoming beneficiaries of these relatively affluent returnees.


When they arrive in La Nouvelle Dame Marie, they have to walk through the market (apparently), and the environment triggers fear and discomfort in both Sophie and Marc:

“I felt my body stiffen as we walked through the maché in Dame Marie. Marc had his eyes wide open, watching. He looked frightened of the Macoutes, one of whom was sitting in Louise's stand selling her last colas.”


Sophie has experienced first-hand the irrational cruelty of the Macoutes in the past, and Marc’s fear suggests that he too had been familiar with their oppressive and violent tendencies.


They arrive at Ifé’s house, where she is sitting on the porch, looking at the road. Sophie and Ifé run to each other, and Sophie divulges all the details regarding Martine as well as her sentiments of culpability yet unshared. Ifé says that she was already aware of all of it, even before she was told. The proverb she uses to explain this is “when you let your salt lay in the sun, you are always looking out for rain.” It can be assumed that she means that, when Martine migrated and entered an unknown environment (and became ‘salt in the sun’), she was always expecting something to happen. It would have made sense to expect some form of end for Martine, especially since she was so mentally unstable. Tante Atie is wearing a black scarf around her head, and Sophie notes that she is “clinging to the porch rail, now with two souls to grieve for.” The diction of ‘clinging’ to the rail gives the impression that Atie is depending on the structure for support as she is unable to stand on her own. Now, Atie has lost Louise (with whom she had a bond due to their shared loneliness) and Martine, her dear sister. She has lost these people as her support, and here physical comportment here reflects the difficulty of her loss.


Ifé also reveals that Martine had never told her about Marc. It is possible that Martine speaking to her mother about her possible romantic partner was unappealing because it betrayed the standards of purity imposed on her in childhood. Just like how Sophie opted to keep her interest in Joseph secret despite being of a reasonable age to begin romantic pursuits, Martine also keeps Marc and her pregnancy secret from her mother. However, Martine seems to do so out of shame while Sophie’s choice seemed to come from an understanding of her mother’s obsession with purity and micromanaging her sexuality.

That night, they have a wake in all but name. The wake song they sing could be considered the eighth and final folk tale of the novel:


“Ring sways to Mother. Ring stays with Mother. Pass it. Pass it along. Pass me. Pass me along.”


The song makes it evident to both the reader and Sophie that women play a very essential role in perpetuating history and retaining culture. Like the ring, the culture and practices of each maternal generation are passed along the mother line. The song makes Sophie think to herself about the prolific mother-daughter motifs in Haitian songs and stories:


“Listening to the song, I realized that it was neither my mother nor my Tante Atie who had given all the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they told and all the songs they sang. It was something that was essentially Haitian. Somehow, early on, our song makers and tale weavers had decided that we were all daughters of this land.”


In her thesis Of Griottes and Pantomimes, Marsha Jean-Charles compares the significance of these songs and the roles of mothers as culture-keepers:


“The song makers and tale weavers made all their songs and stories about daughters. This may very well be because they made these stories about themselves, or inclusive of characters that reminded them of themselves. In this logic the song makers and tale weavers would be women. As these productions are means through which culture is promoted and kept, the song makers and tale weavers are culture keepers. Women, again, are the culture keepers in this novel as well as in Haiti. The songs sung by the men in the sugar cane fields are about women. Sexually liberated, domestically abused for the sake of male pride—and in the name of love— fantastical women. The stories meant to keep children safe are about little girls; witty, intelligent, beautiful and often maltreated little girls. These are the stories of the Caco women. These are the stories of Haiti.”


Thus, a connection to the mother line is made even more important. Being a daughter of Haiti inherently connects them to the culture passed along like the ring described in the song. Becoming disconnected from Haiti (the motherland) could be likened to losing connection to the mother line- surrendering the rich culture and tradition preserved by generations of resilient women.


When Sophie, Ifé, Atie and Marc go together to claim Martine’s body, Sophie wears a plain white dress, representative of purity. Ifé wears a new black dress, symbolic of the new grief she carries in addition to that for her husband. Note that up to this point, Atie has not said anything (at least recorded in the novel), and Sophie describes her as ‘numb and silent.’ She has undergone four successive losses in her life: the loss of her father in the fields, the loss of her first love Donald Augustin, the loss of Louise and now of her dear sister. An amount of numbness is what she is apparently experiencing- a development of insensitivity to loss because of the constant repetition of misfortune.

The coffin Martine is placed in has an olive-green lid; another example of the colour green that could be related to the ‘healing’ Martine has achieved through death. The expression of the corpse is calm, a stark contrast to the often-pained expressions worn by Martine whenever she was suffering from a night terror. Ifé avoids looking into Martine’s face, but rather stares at her red gloves and shoes. The shocking (and traditionally malapropos for a funeral) colour is likely what is drawing her attention. However, she is also experiencing the acute grief for the loss of her child after seeing Martine’s body for the first time. Tante Atie ‘falls on the ground; her body convulsing,’ obviously overwhelmed by emotion in seeing her sister in this state. Even when she is picked up by Marc, she continues to cry. Ifé says ‘let us take her home,’ and they begin the procession to bring Martine’s body to its final resting place. Martine’s soul will be returning home, which is presumably Ginen.


They take Martine’s coffin up the hill in a cart. A small procession joins them, as there as some people who hope to share Ifé’s grief. Sophie says that the “ground [is] ready for [her] mother,” which is somewhat strange wording for what she most likely means (that a hole has been prepared in the ground for the coffin). The diction makes it seem like the earth was some entity prepared to welcome her mother. It may be useful to consider death as a phase into which Martine must pass for freedom, and this phase is indeed ready to grant it.


Each of the women throw individual handfuls of dirt over Martine’s coffin:


“My grandmother threw the first handful of dirt on the coffin as it was lowered into the ground. Then Tante Atie, and then me. I threw another handful for my daughter who was not there, but was part of this circle of women from whose gravestones our names had been chosen.”


Sophie looks down from the hill and sees their house, between the hills and the cane fields. This positioning of the house, especially when highlighted here, is interesting. The cane fields are the site of several layers of trauma: Sophie’s rape, the death of Ifé’s husband, and the wider cultural trauma of slavery. The hills are a place that, because of the Cacos’ origin there, have become a part of their identity. They were an aspect of Martine’s identity which she attempted to obscure- if you remember from the beginning of chapter 35 and even in chapter 7, being ‘from the hills’ is an undesirable thing:


“Impeccable French and English, both painfully mastered, so that her voice would never betray the fact that she grew up without a father, that her mother was merely a peasant, that she was from the hills.” (Chapter 35)


“They could wound just as brutally by cursing your mother, calling you a sexual misfit, or accusing you of being from the hills.” (Chapter 7)


Juxtaposing the cane fields (trauma and memory) with the hills and placing the Cacos right between them highlights the precarious heritage of the family. The cultural customs/oppression of the cane fields and the stigma of the hills disabled Martine and the entire Caco family.


Sophie is unable to bear seeing them shovel dirt over Martine’s coffin. She turns and runs down the hill, while feeling her white dress tearing from her extreme movement. The tearing could be symbolic, as the action she is about to take will be akin to removing the necessity of purity and the cycle of pain that came with that. She runs through the field and begins to attack the cane. The cane field is the primal site of terror for the Cacos, a primary scene of subjection to which she must return in order to heal and become whole. As stated above, the cane fields are representative of years of oppression and several layers of traumatic memory that have suppressed the Cacos. Attacking