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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 12 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Sophie doesn’t tell Joseph about the violation she experienced at the hands of her mother. She is likely both embarrassed because of this and making every attempt to avoid a confrontation with him. He leaves for five weeks, and Martine continues to test Sophie weekly. Even after Joseph returns from Providence, she continues to avoid him, and hopes that he will simply forget she ever existed and leave her. However, Joseph is persistent in getting in touch with Sophie, and knocks at her door for two hours one night to tell her that he will move to Providence for good after the following week. Their interaction is cold and terse, showing that Martine’s testing has led to Sophie’s denial of her own sexuality and romantic interests.

Since Martine begins the testing, she rarely speaks to Sophie, and becomes increasingly emotionally isolated from her. When Sophie refuses to go out with her and Marc, she shows no desire to take her along anyway. Thus, it appears that the testing has forced a divide between Sophie and the two most meaningful people to her in Haiti- her mother and Joseph. Martine has emotionally distanced herself from Sophie by essentially becoming her abuser, someone who has taken her sense of control and agency.

Sophie feels ‘alone and lost…like there [is] no longer any reason for [her] to live.’ This feeling of distress, a feeling of worthlessness and insignificance brings about the turning point of part two of the novel. Sophie takes a pestle from her mother’s kitchen to bed with her, and pierces her own hymen with it. In this, she enacts harm on the only thing she truly holds any power over- her own body. This ‘embodied protest’ of testing is a reclamation of agency over her body, a vigorous alteration of the dire circumstances she finds herself in. The pestle in this scene is then a symbol of Sophie’s resistance; a protest of the dehumanizing testing and a reclamation of power over her own body. During this self-inflicted bodily harm, she recounts the fourth folktale of the novel, about a woman who could not stop bleeding from her unbroken skin. This woman consults with Erzulie, the virgin mother, and it becomes apparent ‘what she would have to do.’ The woman must ‘give up her right to be a human being,’ and become something else, no longer able to be a woman. She chooses to become a butterfly- a free, small animal unbound by any restraints- and never bleeds again. This tale brings into focus the true meaning of Sophie’s actions here. Under the patriarchal Haitian society, a woman’s worth is directly tied to her virginity. The mother is tasked with ensuring that it is kept intact for the daughter to be eventually handed over to a man in marriage. So, in taking her own virginity, Sophie makes herself ‘worthless’ as a woman in the eyes of Haitian conventions. Just like the woman must give up her right to be a human being to escape this horrid affliction of constant bleeding, so too must Sophie forfeit the idea of sexual purity and the notion of value assigned with it to stop Martine’s testing and to overcome the patriarchal restraints of Haitian culture which testing perpetuates. The tale serves another function, however: it conveys the idea that a transformation must be made to overcome a trauma. This foreshadows what will eventually happen to Martine. Martine, to heal from the trauma of her rape must transform and become free- and the same goes for Sophie. However, Martine’s transformation is that she gives into her pain ‘to live as a butterfly’ as Sophie says towards the end of the novel. Her freedom comes in death, and her passing allows her to free Sophie as well. Interestingly enough, this folktale is best read in relation to the male-imposed standard of virginity for women. But, in the end, the woman is not destroyed by her oppressors, and is instead freed in losing the restrictive identity of a woman under such standards.

When Martine returns, she tests Sophie. She fails the test, and Martine is incredibly angry- throwing Sophie’s books and clothes at her whilst crying profusely. To Martine, Sophie has both betrayed her trust and betrayed a duty she holds to her family. In a way, when Martine is unable to fulfil her gender role as a wife when her virginity is taken in rape, she passes on this expectation onto Sophie. Thus, at the realization that Sophie has become ‘sexually soiled,’ she is furious.

Sophie waits until Martine begins a night terror to go over to Joseph’s house. She is ready to get married, and certainly ready to be happy in Providence with Joseph. She has sacrificed her maternal relationship with Martine to regain control over her own life and make her own decisions- to be happy outside Martine’s dictator-like constraints over her.

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