Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Upon returning to the house, Sophie finds Atie reclined in a chair. After retrieving Brigitte, Atie gets up and looks in her notebook. The words used in Sophie’s observation of Atie reading is reflective of a figurative truth (or connotation): “She held the notebook so close to her face, I thought there was a mirror inside.” Just like a mirror, the notebook in which Atie writes reflects her- but instead of the physical appearance, the notebook reflects her innermost thoughts and the deep desires with which she creates a narrative.
When Sophie says that she did not realize that Atie would remember the words of her card for so long, Atie’s response speaks volumes about the significance it had: "When you have something precious, you do not forget it." Atie considered Sophie’s card precious- and even though her response played it off casually when it had originally been given to her, she still appreciated it greatly. It seems that although she verbally rejected Sophie to push her into the hands of her rightful mother, she internally accepted the words of that card and therefore the emotional bond she shared with Sophie as well.
As Atie leaves for the market, she mentions that she is going to seek a remedy for a lump in her calf. Despite a warning from Ife about the violence occurring at the hands of the Macoutes there, she ventures out anyway. Ife has to ask about this lump, showing that she had not known about it before, and highlighting the lack of communication between them (which Ife had pointed out in chapter 17). The only time she figures out about what is likely a tumour in Atie’s leg is in a passing remark intended to justify ignoring her advice.
That evening, when Sophie and Ife eat supper (with the notable absence of Atie, who is likely drinking), Sophie says that she feels fat and guilty after eating her dinner. This is hinting towards Sophie’s eating disorder (which we will discuss in greater detail later on). The guilt she feels after enjoying a meal is seemingly counterintuitive and unfounded- however, it correlates to the guilt felt by anorexia and bulimia nervosa patients which pushes them towards excessively strict dieting and eating control methods.
Ife asks Sophie why she left Joseph (her husband) so suddenly. Sophie reveals that she intends for this to be temporary- only a short vacation. Sophie goes on to reveal that she has trouble fulfilling her marital duty of ‘the night’ (intercourse). Ife says that this duty of a wife is ‘what is most important to a man,’ revealing the importance of sexual satisfaction in marriage in Haitian culture. The exchange between Ife and Sophie, especially Ife’s more traditional references- ‘marital duties,’ ‘what is most important to a man,’- indicates how intercourse is seen as a duty of the wife to the man. This sentiment of obligation to satisfy a basic duty creates a somewhat idealized image of a woman- one who must perform at night. This (at face value) is the source of Sophie’s frustration. She says that the act is painful for her, however, despite Joseph being a good man, she lacks the desire for intercourse because she feels it is evil. The question to consider here is why.
Between Sophie’s lines, Ife says something very interesting- ‘secrets remain secret only if we keep our silence.’ This line correlates to much of the meaning we can interpret from the novel. Breath, Eyes, Memory, as was briefly mentioned at the beginning of this document, is able to vocalise an aspect of Haitian history which had remained silent. The novel retells history through a different perspective- through the eyes of women oppressed on several fronts (be it politically or socially based on race, class, gender, etc). Such narratives, when silent, were basically secrets- separate from the normalized historical narratives seen on the surface. However, speaking these once occluded narratives through literature (as Danticat has done in the novel) releases them from silence. As Myriam Chancy (1997) writes: “[a] witness to her own oppression, she [the Haitian woman writer] boldly affirms her humanity by embodying the power of speech.” This communication, and therefore the dispelling of silence, leads to the identification of the self and furthermore the revolutionization of societal structures. Using language as a vehicle for expression exacts power. The oppressed are always equipped with the tool of communication and thus, are never left completely disempowered. Language is then a tool with which they may shape their own perceptions and those of their oppressors. All of this though, is on a large scale- within the novel, we find a miniaturized reflection of the power of communication. The trauma experienced by Sophie which results in this pain is still a secret when kept silent and within the confines of her mind. After Sophie is first tested, she keeps it a secret from Joseph and tries to avoid him whilst being tested regularly by Martine. She is unable to consult with anyone, as now Martine has become her oppressor. In Haiti now, the message sent by Ife is clear- the traumatic psychological wound associated with this pain may only begin to heal once she dispels its secrecy. In the same way that language gives the oppressed the power to modify perceptions through expression, Sophie will be able to negotiate her trauma through narrativization.
Returning to the question of why Sophie feels that the act of intercourse is evil, we can attribute this sentiment to the ideals pressed upon her by Martine. The act of testing, preserving the virginity of a girl like a treasure, directly links the value of the girl to it. So much so, in fact, that a girl who is not whole being handed over for marriage brings shame on her family. Martine’s obsession with Sophie’s purity constantly presses upon her the idea that her purity is paramount. Testing as a tradition creates a very dangerous and painful cycle through its intergenerational propagation. In the Haitian patriarchal society, mothers face the possibility of being socially disgraced or shunned if they do not test their daughters. This practice, in its twisted oppressiveness, has some of the qualities of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The belief is spread throughout Haitian society that it is a wife’s duty to satisfy the husband sexually, and a mother will be disgraced socially if her daughter is not whole when given to a man for marriage. Thus, the mother believes that it is her responsibility to preserve the virginity of her daughter through constant testing. This inevitably leads to the repression of female sexuality. By upholding purity, women should not enjoy sex or their own sexuality- at least not before marriage- because those are simply duties they must carry out for the pleasure of their husbands. The women are forced to see their sexuality as something dangerous and volatile. This is why mothers feel the need to keep their daughters as virgins, or pure, as they see it. Once any expectation in this ‘chain’ of oppressive beliefs is held by society, the rest of the conditions will continue to fulfil themselves. Women will always be forced to see their sexualities as dangerous and averse to the unrealistic standard of purity under this. That is why Sophie sees the act of intercourse as evil. Martine’s obsession with purity is the result of Haitian patriarchal belief systems, which ultimately put Sophie in a position where she is repressed by the same ideals meant to ‘protect her.’
Sophie reveals candidly her own opinions on testing:
"I call it humiliation; I hate my body. I am ashamed to show it to anybody, including my husband. Sometimes I feel like I should be off somewhere by myself. That is why I am here."
These remarks disclose the deep psychological wounds left by testing on Sophie. The importance of voicing this to Ife is that it quite literally makes Ife a witness to her trauma, creating the first steps in Sophie’s narrativization. The testing has greatly humiliated her- forcing her to look upon herself with shame. She now holds hate for her own body- after being evaluated only based on her purity, she longs to be away from the eyes of others. She reveals that she has returned to Haiti because of the wounds testing has left on her.
That night, Sophie notes the following:
“The stars fell as though the glue that held them together had come loose. They were not the stars you could wish upon. In Dame Marie, each time a star fell out of the sky, it meant that somebody would die.”
This is subtle foreshadowing of the death that will occur in the story. The stars over the night sky of La Nouvelle Dame Marie are differentiated from other stars. Instead of being stars on which you would place your wishes and hopes, they are lights which correspond to the existence of a life.
It is at this point that we hear the fifth folk tale in the book told by Ife. It is about a lark who sees a beautiful little girl from his perch atop a pomegranate tree. This lark wanted to have the girl for himself, and charms her with his own handsome appearance and beautiful pomegranates from his tree. Incrementally, the lark trades pomegranates for the honour of looking at the girl’s face, and then kissing her. Eventually, the lark asks the girl to ‘go to a faraway land’ with him. The girl is reluctant, and doesn’t want to abandon her family and village. However, the lark is able to coerce her into going with him by showing his sadness and questioning his worth in her eyes. The lark mentions that there is a king in the land he will carry her to who needs a little girl’s heart to live. The girl is able to trick the lark into letting her return home by telling him that little girls would always leave their hearts at home. She escapes to her family and never returns to the lark.
At face value, this story seems to tell little girls to heed the warnings of their parents- to guard themselves against strange men with ulterior motives like the lark. This is just like how Martine warned Sophie against Joseph. However, an alternate reading of this tale highlights that it is the girl’s intelligence that gives her the opportunity to escape. Thus, in the same way that Sophie is treated well by Joseph due to a discernment of his character, it is education, intelligence and love that will allow women to steer themselves clear of men who intend only to use them for their hearts and bodies.
When Atie returns that night, Ife asks her to read something for her. Atie explains that she is ‘empty,’ and thus cannot read for her. This is interesting coming from Atie- it seems that, like a dry calabash, she has poured out all of her contents and has nothing left. Her own bleak outlook reflects her own sentiments that she has nothing left to give in life. After all, as we already covered, Atie feels that she has been unable to fulfil any basic societal duty, and thus, feels spent.