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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 11 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020



On the first night Joseph returns from his gig with the band, she goes out with him to hear him play. Martine was working, so Sophie takes a chance, a really large risk considering the situation. She wears a tight-fitting yellow dress which she kept hidden under mattress. Yellow, as we previously discussed, is a symbol of youth, happiness, optimism and warmth, and wearing this dress is a sort of denial of Martine’s red and a show of the optimism and joy she finds in her relationship with Joseph. Sophie has kept this dress hidden under her mattress, away from Martine’s prying eyes. It isn’t communicated when exactly she bought this dress, but a dress that so displays feminine features would not be approved of by Martine.


When they return from an evening ‘like a daydream’ to Sophie, Joseph gives Sophie a small silver ring, and Sophie lets in her first kiss. After a while of not seeing each other, Joseph brings Sophie out for dinner again and asks her to marry him. She neither accepts his offer nor denies him, she wants time to think. It appears that the only person holding her back from saying yes is Martine, who would go crazy at the very suggestion of her marrying any American man- much less Joseph, of whom she has expressed great disapproval.


Martine returns from work and carries Sophie out to watch the lights on the bridge again, and Sophie feels compelled to tell her that she loves someone. She instead attempts to cover up her lie by saying that Henry Napoleon is never coming back. "It's too bad, I hear from Maryse at work that he is in medical school in Mexico," Martine replies. Sophie, obviously surprised at the notion that there is a real Henry Napoleon, is incredulous. "You didn't know? I thought he was the one sending you these letters from all over the country." Sophie now knows that Martine’s entire story about the Napoleons was fabricated. Despite Sophie’s attempts to intercept Joseph’s letters before she sees them obviously have not worked. Martine’s silence likely reflects a disappointment with Sophie for being dishonest with her. She says ‘there are secrets you cannot keep, not from your mother anyway,’ as if saying that as her mother, it is impossible for Sophie to keep anything from her.


Sophie sees Joseph the next night, and returns to find Martine sitting in the living room with a belt in her hand. Martine had been extremely worried about Sophie, and now returning at 3 AM, Sophie finds it difficult to argue that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Sophie notes Martine’s lifelines becoming ‘more and more red’ continuing the association of red with anger. Learning that Sophie is going out, Martine feels betrayed by her- she no longer trusts her. Martine’s feelings are enhanced by her childhood traumas and she feels that Sophie is attacking her personally by going out. Martine now tests Sophie, carrying out the same disturbing practice which she so detested as a child to regulate Sophie’s blossoming sexuality. At this apparent disloyalty on the part of her daughter, she reverts to only the most basic understanding of the duty of the mother in Haitian culture- to protect the virginity of her daughter before marriage. Although the overt motive for testing Sophie is to ensure family honour, Martine also seeks compensation for her own feelings of betrayal.


During this, Sophie tries to relive pleasant memories in her mind, the beginning of a habit of doubling. While this act could be interpreted as an act of resistance of Sophie to detach herself from instances of bodily pain, D. Francis in Silences Too Horrific to Disturb argues that it is an attempt to ‘separate the material body from consciousness’ in the psychological state of dissociation. At the same time, Martine tells the third folk tale of the book, about the Marassas as if to distract her from the violation. It seems as though the story is told for the purpose of concealing the bodily violation and placing her focus on the ‘moral lesson’ to be learned here. The story is of “two inseparable lovers” who “were the same person duplicated in two.” The lesson seems to be one in sexual purity. Martine states, “when you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your Marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul.” However, Martine goes on to state that she should fear him and that kind of closeness because “when you look in a stream, if you [see] that man’s face, wouldn’t you think it was a water spirit? Wouldn’t you scream? Wouldn’t you think he was hiding under a sheet of water or behind a pane of glass to kill you?” Martine implores Sophie to be her marassa and in doing so offers a non-misogynistic reading, one in which all Sophie will need is maternal love. It is an expression of mother-daughter love. This story also may be interpreted as an expression of fear and anxiety around separation and around rape. Martine’s assertion that the man could be hiding waiting to kill Sophie, shows, in some way, that Martine has not quite gotten past her own rape in which the scenario played out similarly- a man with nothing but malintent exploiting her body and leaving her to deal with the consequences of trauma.


In telling the story, Martine conveys how Sophie’s wanting to be with Joseph is also a desire to leave her. Martine’s line from chapter 6, “Sophie, I will never let you go again," is now verified in full force- even the desire to leave with Joseph is a betrayal of their bond to Martine made more vivid by her own trauma. After the humiliating act of testing, Martine echoes her line from earlier, “there are secrets you cannot keep,” as though they are already Marassas and share all things between them.


Sophie feels humiliated and stripped of control over her own body- violated. Ironically enough, she is already 18 when Martine begins this; the age when she would be expected to have freedom of control over her own body. Nonetheless, like Martine’s doll from all those years before, she is held at her mother’s control with, seemingly, none of her own agency. The doll, therefore, is a symbol of the submissive daughter over which she held all control. Though Sophie felt jealous of it and the endless attention and care lavished upon it at first, Martine soon gets rid of it, as Sophie has replaced the role of the doll. Martine, though, seems to continue to want Sophie to be like the doll, a calming presence for her that will never leave, and someone who she can govern and restrain, someone who she has power over. I argue that Martine’s need for control here stems from the loss of control she experienced whilst being tested as a child and during (and after) the rape, where she could neither control her body from the violation of the man nor the new life growing within it. Now given the role of mother, she is given the power to control and test her own daughter. Disturbing as it is, testing is a traumatic heirloom which Martine herself has helped to propagate. Sophie can now understand why Atie screamed when her mother tested her- she has experienced the humiliation, violation and pain first hand.

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