Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Breath, Eyes, Memory was written by Edwidge Danticat and first published in 1994. As a book, it gives a voice to the voiceless women of Haiti and underlying issues of race, gender, psychosexual trauma, the intergenerational perpetuation of traumatic experiences, political instability and identity- interconnected and united under a plotline following the protagonist, Sophie Caco. You don’t have to read Breath, Eyes, Memory- CSEC lets you choose which question you want in the essay, and SparkNotes is a real team player in this situation. But Danticat elucidates something we’ve likely been blind to for a long time. In our own Caribbean community, is Haiti, a land that has been buffeted by several hardships and despotic political leadership, but is far more than that. In many of Danticat’s works she reminds us the impressive resistant triumph of Haiti and its people, and (as she does in her essay ‘We are ugly but we are here’) that ‘this land was the first Black Republic, home to the first people of African descent to uproot slavery and create an independent nation in 1804.’ You don’t have to read Breath Eyes Memory, but in the story, you will find something that you might not be used to- a perspective that may be so foreign that it changes your own.
Sophie Caco at the beginning of the story is 12 years old. She lives with her Tante Atie in Croix des Rosets in Haiti. The first thing we ever see Sophie do in the book is carry the card she made for her aunt for Mother’s Day as she returns from school. The card has a small flattened daffodil on the front, a flower used throughout the book by Danticat as a symbol. Tante Atie is her aunt, but is her mother, she’s the only person to act as mother in her life. They share an intimate and loving relationship- Atie the ‘surrogate mother’ and Sophie the child. She wants Atie to come to her school for the reading classes as her parent. Atie is traditional, and has a sense of her own pride- she doesn’t want to learn from children. She’s the adult, she should be teaching the young. But Atie knows that this cannot be, in this case. She cannot read. Her time to be in school, she believes, is long gone. As a child, she worked in the fields, cutting cane; there was neither time nor opportunity for her to attend school then. She also seems slightly bitter; our first taste of bitter Tante Atie- embittered by the fact that she no longer has the opportunity to learn to read simply because of her age and an insinuated idea of obligation. However, she is content with the fact that she cannot read, as long as Sophie doesn’t have to go through the same hardship of cutting cane instead of bettering her mind.
The sugar cane fields for Atie are a symbol of her pain and sadness. Sophie remarks that Atie would speak about these fields whenever she felt sad or distraught. Working in the sun daily without rest, she and her family would watch someone die day after day from sun stroke. A particular point of trauma for Atie occurred in the cane fields- the death of her father. Atie’s father (and Sophie’s grandfather) simply leaned forward one day whilst working and died. This stark image of a man forced to work to the very limits of his life punctuates Atie’s bitter tone and gives reason for why she is willing to remain content with illiteracy as long as her charge, Sophie, doesn’t has to suffer the same way. Atie’s father’s passing leaves only her mother Ifé, Atie herself and her sister Martine- only females left to carry the family onward. Thus, the idea of death surrounding them in Haiti is established. The cane fields and death/trauma are somewhat intertwined from this moment on in the story. Later in the book we learn that Atie’s sister and Sophie’s mother, Martine, was raped in the cane fields- another source of trauma.
Tante Atie is a faithful player of a lottery type game, where she pays for a certain number on the off chance that it is chosen and she receives a sum of money. Yeah, the lottery. She has never won before, however, in her seemingly irrational commitment to playing it, she chooses 31 this time, Martine’s age, hoping that it will bring her luck. Her reasoning for continuing to play is simple, and is in line with what becomes characteristic of Atie (somewhat bitter and reflective of a deeper pain). She says that the lottery is like love; providence was not with her, but she was patient. In this, she alludes to likely failed attempts and misfortunes in her own love life.
Sophie says near the beginning of chapter 1, “Mother’s Day will make you sad, won’t it Tante Atie?” This line, apart from being a really big callout- carries a great deal of weight, because Sophie believes it is because Atie wants her own daughter to do things with, but it will likely be sad for her because Sophie is leaving (as we later learn). Seeing her aunt this crestfallen triggers Sophie to give her the card early, hoping to cheer her up. Atie rejects it. She says she can’t accept it this year because it is not hers to accept. By definition, a Mother’s Day card should go to the mother of the child, and Atie believes that the card should be sent to Sophie’s real mother, Martine. However, this is the conflict between Martine’s biological relation to Sophie and her emotional relation. Sophie has never met Martine. She sees her picture on the nightstand – a single unchanging capture of a still moment of her mother, but she doesn’t know who she is. The poem Sophie wrote in the card is for Atie. The love put into that card is for Atie. She wrote the poem for a mother figure who she knows and cares deeply about- Tante Atie- yet still Atie insists that it be sent to Martine, someone who has only witnessed Sophie’s growth and maturation as a still frame on a nightstand. It’s paradoxical and contradictory to us the reader and Sophie, and, presumably Tante Atie as well. But Atie insists this nonetheless because she knows something that we and Sophie do not yet know at that point in the story- Martine has sent for her child. But when Atie says it is for ‘a mother, your mother,’ it gives the impression that she doesn’t think of herself as a mother. Combined with an urgent call from Martine for her child, Atie cannot accept this card. She won’t even let Sophie read her the poem. In rejecting her own role as ‘othermother’ of Sophie, Sophie herself feels rejected as a daughter. Sophie plucks the daffodil from the card and crushes it underfoot. Her hope to express her love to Tante Atie and bring her joy with this card is crushed, just like the flower.
You see, Atie is Sophie’s othermother, described by Simone Alexander in her study Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women (2001) as “the substitute mother who takes on and takes over the nurturing role from the biological in times of need or crisis, becoming a pillar of strength and support for the estranged daughter. The othermother is a positive influence for the daughter and therefore encompasses a nurturing, supporting image. Apart from being an othermother, that is, a surrogate other, I extend “otherness” to the biological mother, meaning she is often seen as an “other” mother, an enemy to her daughter, particularly when she appears to advocate colonial habits and mannerisms.” This is indubitably what occurs in this novel, where Atie is the symbol and pillar of strength for Sophie, and Martine is simply a stranger with biological connections to her.
Sophie recalls seeing her mother in her dreams, chasing her: “I sometimes saw my mother in my dreams. She would chase me through a field of wildflowers as tall as the sky. When she caught me, she would try to squeeze me into the picture with her. I would scream and scream until my voice gave out, then Tante Atie would come and save me from her grasp.” This nightmare is a recurring one for Sophie. She doesn’t want to be pulled into the confines of her mother’s frame, she wants to be with Tante Atie, free (woah that rhymed).
At sunset, Sophie, Atie and the entire community join in warm communal camaraderie for a potluck. Sophie still sees Atie’s unhappiness. “When I made the card, I thought it would make you happy. I did not mean to make you sad,” Sophie says. “You have never done anything to make me sad, that’s why this whole thing is going to be so hard.” What will be hard? Well, losing Sophie. It’s foreshadowing by the author here building up to the eventual reveal of Sophie’s leaving.
The members of the community carry out food for the potluck. The men carry out the food, but as there is no man in Atie’s household, she and Sophie carry the food instead. In a way, this calls attention to the lack of a male figure in their household. The grandfather passed when Atie was a child, and all who remain are Martine, Atie, Sophie and her grandmother Ifé. However, in highlighting a lack, Danticat also shows their ability to do what they must nonetheless. Everyone at the potluck enjoys the company of one another over food, a symbol of togetherness and joy in the novel. The potluck is a traditional gathering where everyone, regardless of where they come from can partake in an evening of eating, dancing, laughter and celebrating life. This close-knit community of people, connected by their history, culture and cooperative mutual support is shown to be innate in Haiti throughout the book, a nature of the people to join with each other and support one another whether at home or in a foreign land.
Atie and Sophie are fortunate, as they can live in their own home, not shared with several others or simply a shack or hut for the basic purpose of shelter. They live off of ‘New York money’ as Tante Atie calls it; money sent to them by Martine working abroad. Hence, although Martine is not present, she is able to support financially. The opportunity to know her own daughter through her childhood is still lost by her migration- but at the very least, her contribution to their subsistence and relative privilege is undeniable.
As the potluck continues, Madame Augustin begins to question Atie, bringing up a large package that she was delivered. Madame Augustin knows that she was delivered a plane ticket- and once Tante Atie strongly reaffirms that she won’t be leaving, it becomes obvious that Martine has sent for Sophie. “It is the best thing that is ever going to happen to you,” a voice says as they pat Sophie’s shoulder. Sophie obviously does not agree. The irony in this is palpable- it seems that the unnamed person speaking to Sophie recognizes the opportunity to migrate from Haiti as the ‘best thing that will ever happen’ to her. But Sophie cannot see that, as it isn’t as black and white for her. Leaving for the land of opportunity and the American Dream in New York seems an incredible stroke of fortune for her from an external perspective, but this New York is far away from her homeland Haiti, and far away from her dear Tante Atie. This is terrible news to her, but it is once again repeated by Monsieur Augustin that ‘it is good news.’ He concurs that ‘a child belongs with her mother, and a mother with her child.’ This seemingly reinforces a concept of Atie’s ‘trauma in motherhood.’ As she is not her biological mother, society will never recognize her as a mother to Sophie. She cannot anchor her identity to any of the traditional conventions for women. It is this confusion that leads to obsessive drinking and gambling in Atie later on in the novel. To Sophie, Martine isn’t a mother, that role has been filled by Atie, with whom she was left from birth. However, Sophie must realize that biological relationship/consanguinity somewhat gives Martine the right to disrupt her peaceful world.
When they return home, Atie watches Monsieur Augustin and his wife through the window, and a tear runs down her cheek. The idea of Atie’s bitterness or past misfortunes with love is substantiated. We later learn that she was supposed to marry Augustin before he met Lotus, his current wife. This again brings out a sense of insufficiency in Atie; not only in her inability to qualify as the mother to Sophie but also in her inability to be the wife to the man she loved.
Atie herself put off telling Sophie about the plane ticket for as long as possible, saying that she ‘needed time to reconcile’ herself. From this, we know that Atie is deeply saddened by Sophie leaving. This mutual love they share resembles that of a mother and daughter, but it is… more complicated than that. Atie, as we saw earlier in the chapter wants to reject Sophie to protect them from the inevitable heartbreak that occurs when Martine reclaims her child. Sophie, sees Atie as a mother and cannot hold the same sentiments for her biological mother as she does her. Atie wants desperately to protect them both from heartbreak and pain; she tries to formulate a plan that will result in Sophie being happy in New York without resistance. This cannot happen though. Such a severance cannot happen smoothly. In a way, Sophie is being abandoned by her mother again, but this time, by a mother she truly knows, shipping her off to a stranger.
(This analysis and the analyses for other chapters are currently being produced and compiled into a video, so look out for that!)