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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 16-17 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020


Sophie awakes the next morning to watch the sunrise. This attests to the natural beauty of Haiti, and also corresponds to the idea of renewal and new opportunity (in the same way that the sunrise represents the renewal of a new day). Sophie now goes to take a shower, and her dissatisfaction with her appearance is revealed. She says that, despite having given birth to Brigitte quite a while ago, she still felt extremely fat. This reflects that she is not happy with her body- the image she has of herself is inadequate. Later on, we will learn about her eating disorder, and how it ties into a need for her to take control of her body.


As she uses the leaves to scrub herself, Sophie specifically notes the tine marks left by the stems on her skin, which remind her of the goose bumps she would get during her mother’s testing. This seems like a passing insignificant remark; however, it can be considered a sort of foreshadowing. In Haiti, Sophie hopes to be liberated from the shackles of trauma and patriarchal expectation, almost as though being cleansed (as she is bathing). To ‘clean’ herself of trauma, she inevitably must bring forth such pains of her past. Negotiating her trauma requires that not only her memories be resurfaced, but also that the traditional practice that is the source of such pain be investigated and the indelible marks they have left on her be brought to the forefront.


Note here the idea of healing communicated: Sophie smells the splendid mixture of ‘flesh-healers.’ Haiti is conveyed to be a place of healing. After bathing, she returns to the house. Atie’s room has no windows, instead, she has large quilts covering the louvers on her wall. This is quite strange- especially in a Caribbean country- for a room to have no windows. This room reflects Atie’s inner sentiments- a feeling of being trapped (which we will explore in greater detail in the successive chapters) and a purely pessimistic outlook. As we discussed previously, Atie feels that she has been ‘blighted’ or is somewhat flawed and insufficient. A stifling room with no windows reflects this.


The final paragraph of chapter 16 reveals that Granme Ife seems to have a sort of tumour, or growth, just like how Martine had had breast cancer before having her tumours removed.


The following day, they eat cassava sandwiches for breakfast. As Sophie eats, she reminisces about times past with Atie in her childhood, when she would give her more cassava whenever she had drowned her cassava in her tea (as she has today). Specific attention is brought to Ife glancing at Atie briefly. This is likely in relation to the tension between them as highlighted by their dispute a few chapters prior. It’s important that we note the development of this tension that seemed non-existent in Sophie’s youth, as more will be revealed as the plot eventuates. A bell is heard tolling in the distance, signalling a funeral. This foreshadows the idea of death, as well as the more serious tone (and violence/death) that will be adapted later in this chapter.


As Sophie hands Brigitte over to Atie in order to accompany Ife to the market, she remembers her childhood with Atie. Specifically, when she says ‘Mommy will bring you a nice treat from the market,’ she hears the echo of her Tante’s voice from her youth. It seems that the motherly kindness exhibited towards Sophie by Atie has stayed with her, and she acknowledges its significance.


The Macoutes are there in the town as Ife goes about her hyper-efficient shopping. One of them, noted by Sophie to be younger than his companions, looks at her whilst making lewd gestures to communicate his similarly lascivious intentions. Sophie communicates her discomfort by quickening her pace. From such an interaction, we are able to understand that the Macoutes have some reason to feel superior and able to communicate their desires openly, even if it results in the discomfort of those around them. This, however, is only the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg,’ as is soon revealed. They encounter Louise as well, who continues to vehemently promote the purchase of her pig. Even when scolded by Ife, she seems unperturbed- proving her unfaltering desire to leave Haiti. Her ability to have chance at leaving hinges of the sale of this animal- and she appears completely prepared to go to all lengths necessary to procure the required cash.


A conflict breaks out between the Macoutes and a coal seller for an incredibly minor issue. The coal seller had simply stepped on the Macoute’s shoe accidentally- but this elicited an unfounded rage, sparking him to ram the seller’s ribs with his gun. Such a violent response is already an unjustified cruelty on the part of the Macoute, but it appears that such outbursts are not uncommon, nor do they end simply. Ife pulls Sophie away, hoping to shield her from the grim outcome of this altercation. Her knowledge of how it will end is a testament to the frequency of such events. The Macoutes are presented as unnecessarily violent men armed with guns oppressing the local people- all being sanctioned by the despotic leader of Haiti at the time. (This presentation is grounded in fact, of course- the Tonton Macoute were a paramilitary force established by Francois Duvalier in 1959, authorized to commit violence and human rights violations to suppress political opposition).


The flamboyant tree is mentioned here as Ife and Sophie begin their journey home to escape the violence about to occur. The flamboyant (or Royal Poinciana, scientifically Delonix regia) is known for its magnificent display of orange red flowers. It is present directly during the atrocity occurring before them, furthering the interrelation of the colour red with death and violence in the story.


Sophie, though having been pulled away from such terror turns to steal a glance at the development of the small initial interaction. The Macoutes have all collectively begun to beat down on this helpless coal seller, a display of pure cruelty. Everyone around is unable to help, shocked with no choice but to watch in silence.


As Sophie and Ife return home, they pass Louise’s shack, in front of which Ife spits in the dirt. She reveals that she does not approve of Tante Atie’s disposition since returning from Croix-des-Rosets. She says that she and Atie have become adversaries, like milk and lemon (a contrast as to how Louise describes her own relationship to be with Atie in a previous chapter: ‘we are like milk and coffee.’) Atie, according to Ife, now grieves (seemingly for herself) and drinks tafia (a cheap rum distilled from molasses or the waste of sugar production). Ife seems to think that Louise has influenced this defeatist attitude in Atie. When Sophie suggests that Atie may simply miss Croix-des-Rosets, Ife says that it would have been better if she had stayed there. Most significantly, Ife says that if Atie had married in Croix-des-Rosets, she would have stayed. Of course, we have already learnt that Atie was rejected by her initial lover (Mr Augustin) in favour of Lotus. If Ife was aware of this in her statement, then it may be that she expected Atie to marry someone nonetheless, or blames her in some way for not marrying. Atie definitely knows that she would have remained in Croix-des-Rosets had she married- and thus, her remaining in La Nouvelle Dame Marie now is simply a testament to her inability to marry. In addition to that, Sophie says that Atie stays because she wants to take care of Ife, but Ife insists that she would take care of herself as she had in the years prior. She says that Atie must not stay with her out of some sense of duty, but rather out of love. Atie staying there seems but a perfunctory obligation- she cannot be identified under any of the main roles of women in society, and thus, is found with little direction for herself. She feels trapped in La Nouvelle Dame Marie, as that is the only place where she seems to have some sense of duty. Martine had departed to America followed soon by Sophie, one she treated as her own daughter. She had been thrown to the wayside by her lover in favour of someone else. Her defeatist attitude, though unappealing, makes sense- her life and identity seem to be in a state of flux with no clear direction of purpose.


Ife reveals that they barely speak to one another. She says that she would tell Atie that she does not want her to stay if she ever actually spoke to her. However, Sophie acknowledges that Atie learning to read and write has granted her a sense of freedom. Through it, she has been able to write down the words of Sophie’s poem which meant so much to her and begins a process of narrativization of the trauma she experiences in her tragic other-motherhood.


At the end of the chapter, Ife recalls the following story told in the valley:

“An old woman has three children. One dies in her body when she is pregnant. One goes to a faraway land to make her fortune and never does that one get to come back alive. The last one, she stays in the valley and looks after her mother.”


This solemn story mirrors the situation of the Cacos and foreshadows what will happen to Martine by the end of the novel. Martine is the one that leaves to make her fortune abroad. However, that tale dictates that she will not be able to return alive, foreshadowing her death by the end of the novel. Atie is the last child, who stays behind to look after her mother.

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