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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 19 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Despite her remark about being empty the night before, Atie appears happy the following morning. Today, Atie will accompany Louise to register her name in the archives as having lived in the valley. Ife wonders aloud why Louise wants to have her name archived, as she intends to leave for America as soon as she can gather enough money. Atie explains that Louise wants people to be able to know that she lived in the valley if they wanted to find out. However, Ife’s opinion clashes with hers. She does not believe that some arbitrary document or piece of paper is necessary for someone to be remembered. She says ‘if a woman is worth remembering, there is no need to have her name carved in letters.’ She obviously believes that the meaningful legacy of a woman is enough to carry her memory throughout generations without needing to be chronicled in some sort of document. Her belief of someone’s memory remaining intact when they are gone due to the worth and impact of their life is traditional, and carries with it a sense of stubborn dignity.

Sophie says that she nearly refused to let Joseph take picture of her with Brigitte after giving birth. She reveals that she was ‘too ashamed of the stitches on [her] stomach and the flabs of fat all over [her] body.” It seems nearly illogical for a mother to be so fixated about the appearance of her body after giving birth to her own child; however, Sophie has been forced into a state of mind where she feels ashamed of her body perpetually. As we discussed earlier, Martine’s testing was ultimately based around the idea of purity being paramount. Sophie, caught in the crossfire of this tradition, was forced to be averse to her own sexuality and therefore, her own body. Having defiled herself to escape what was essentially torture at the hands of Martine, her body is ‘soiled’ according to Haitian principle, and as a result, must bear the shame inculcated by a traditional conditioned mindset.

As she looks at the small picture of her ‘wedding,’ she recalls the two days she had to spend in a hospital and the four weeks she had to spend with stiches between her legs because of what she did with the pestle. Sophie’s next line is very significant: “Joseph could never understand why I had done something so horrible to myself. I could not explain to him that it was like breaking manacles, an act of freedom.” It seems that Sophie understands that Joseph could not put himself in her situation and fully comprehend the torturous situation Martine’s testing created for her. The pestle and her self-mutilation allowed her to break free from the testing. This violent act made it possible for her to reclaim her own agency, but Joseph is unlikely to understand why self-mutilation was necessary for her. Her body, the only entity over which she can exercise power, was therefore the only vessel through which she could enact resistance.

This liberating act was only a transient victory, however. The consequences for the battle won on the grounds of her own body were far-reaching. This contributed to her trauma and created a phobia of sex with her husband, as it would be incredibly painful. Despite how painful the intercourse would be, Sophie was fixated on the idea that it was her duty as a wife. This idea of obligation is largely traditional. It is a duty of the wife to the husband in Haitian culture to satisfy him in this way, thus, Sophie forces herself to engage in the activity in order to comply with the tradition. However, she also expresses that she believes she ‘owed it to him,’ as though her unfettered compliance would be collateral for being presented like this (soiled and unfit in the eyes of Haitian society because she is not ‘whole’).

Danticat ends this chapter by describing the image of Eliab flying a kite. Initially keeping near to ground level, the child begins to unravel some of the thread to allow it to fly higher. Another kite, armed with razors and broken glass, swoops down and severs the kite’s tether. The kite slowly flies further and further away until it dives and collides with the ground below, out of sight. It seems out of place, such a dismal image- however, it must bear some symbolic meaning. I propose that this image is meant to draw parallels with Martine’s tragedy. Martine, throughout childhood, was grounded and tethered to the social expectations and evaluations of Haiti, just like how the kite is tethered and kept near the ground. Here, the kite’s movement is kept in check easily, its movements have a limited range. In the same way, Martine was likely controlled and always reined in by her mother through testing and other disciplinary measures. However, when the kite is made to fly higher- similar to Martine’s increase in age- it is attacked (for no apparent reason) by a kite obviously made for the destruction of others. The kite’s tether to the ground is slashed, and it is no longer controlled. It is doomed to fly erratically until it eventually crashes, with no tether to rein it in. Martine’s situation is parallel to this. Her increase in age, like flying higher amongst the other kites, put her in a precarious circumstance where she would be exposed to the evils of the world. The man who raped her (likely a Tonton Macoute, part of a group created for the purpose of subjugation, oppression and destruction just like the razor-armed kite built to destroy others) severed her tether to groundedness and (in a way) Haiti overall, her roots included. This instance of trauma soiled her in the eyes of Haitian society- making her impure and ‘unworthy’ to be married off to a man. In this way, she was separated from Haiti. Not only must she be considered defiled in this way, but she must also live with the post-traumatic stress repercussions and the consequences of the rape (like Sophie, her child). Haiti becomes a place associated with her trauma, and she feels that she must escape it. Thus, Martine is severed from Haiti, like the kite, and must fly erratically about in a place she is unfamiliar with (New York). The foreshadowing in this short image is that she must eventually dive and crash like the kite as well. She too will eventually be violently reunited with the trauma of Haiti like being pulled to the ground by gravity.

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