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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 21 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

After their meal, Atie reads a poem from her notebook:

She speaks in silent voices, my love. Like the cardinal bird, kissing its own image. Li palé vwa mwin, Flapping wings, fallen change Broken bottles, whistling snakes And boom bang drums. She speaks in silent voices, my love. I drink her blood with milk And when the pleasure peaks, my love leaves.”

This poem, cryptic at first in what it hopes to express, is significant in that it tells the same story as the man who kills his young bride because he wants to prove her virginity. This story hasn’t been told to the reader at this point in the novel, however, the difference in Atie’s poetic representation is that it is told in her own voice. This is an aspect of narrativization, where Atie retells a part of history- a tale reflective of the deleterious obsession with virginity- in her own voice, and is therefore able to cope with the idea. The line left in creole (untranslated) suggests and interconnectedness, as it says ‘she speaks in my voice.’ Atie as the speaker and her love speak in the same voice, and thus are connected- or are even one in the same. The final two lines mirror the traditional tale, except that Atie occupies the male’s position and is not definitively male-identified.

The position of this poem seems strange, as what separation has Atie had with one she loves at this point in the novel? The poem most likely speaks about her relationship with Louise. The end of the poem, which defines their partings, reflects how their union is not accepted in their community. Atie and Louise, who have no husbands and seem both without someone on which to rely, choose each other as their primary source of emotional support. This is rejected, of course, by Haitian society, vocalized by Ife in her constant reproach and disapproval of the relationship. As Ife says, ‘the Gods will punish me for Atie’s ways’ (p. 167), showing that Atie’s choice of Louise as a main companion is sinful in her eyes, and worthy of divine punishment. Nonetheless, Atie and Louise are connected. As Atie says in the poem ‘Li pale nan vwa mwen | She speaks in my voice.’ They speak the same language, in the same voice- they understand each other’s pains and comprehend the intricacies of one another’s situations more intimately than anyone else. As a result, Atie will defy the values of her mother and the Haitian community, strolling with Louise ‘into the night, like silhouettes on a picture postcard.’

Ife continues to listen to Martine’s cassette from her room, and Sophie is able to hear her mention that she is still having nightmares. Even so many years after the traumatic experience, she is still having nightmares. Even after thinking that it would subside, the fear seems to be resurging like a tide reaching further inland of her psyche.

Sophie converses with Atie while Ife is asleep. When she asks if Atie is in a ‘sour mood,’ because of her seemingly contrary remarks, she replies that her ‘life… is nothing.’ This dismal remark is the culmination of several contributing factors to her sorrow. She says that Croix-des-Rosets was ‘painful.’ La Nouvelle Dame Marie, however, is ‘nothing at all’ to her. Everything seems empty. As the reader, we understand that Atie’s Croix-des-Rosets was full of loss, and standing by as pieces of her life and identity fell away. Sophie says that she wished she had never left Atie, showing the care Sophie has always held for her. However, Atie understands that Sophie had no choice. Similar to Atie’s own lack of control over the changes in her own life, Sophie lacked the ability to or the opportunity to oppose the forces of change in hers as well. Sophie still feels great remorse for not staying with Atie. She wishes she had stayed, both for her own sake and Atie’s. Atie is resolute, however. She knows that time has already gone by, and with it, the ability to influence events of the past. ‘Sometimes, there is nothing we can do.’

When Sophie poses the question of whether Atie would like to ‘go back to Croix-des-Rosets,’ despite all the pain associated with it, Atie sheds some light on the idea of obligation which has now consumed her life. She says:

“I have been taught never to contradict our elders. I am the oldest child. My place is here. I am supposed to march at the head of the old woman's coffin. I am supposed to lead her funeral procession. But even if lightning should strike me now, I will say this: I am tired. I woke up one morning and I was old myself.”

She is obligated, according to Haitian customs propagated by elders, to be the eldest child who ‘remains in the valley.’ Even if there is nothing- a lack of feeling and regard- in La Nouvelle Dame Marie, a desire to leave does not change where her place is. After being plagued by loss for several years, unable to satisfy any convention of a patriarchal Haitian society, she is tired. She no longer feels that spark of juvenile tenacity best described by Martine in their dream to become ‘important women.’ Now, she has been relegated to a basic role- the caretaker of her mother, and the one to lead her funeral procession. The line she chooses to end on, stating that one day she woke to find herself old, is interesting in that is suggests several things. The elderly are said to be wise; however, Atie’s bitterness here doesn’t convey that feeling old gave her some sort of new wisdom. Instead, I propose that Atie’s feeling old is in the sense that she felt resigned to her fate. Like Ife, who is resigned to the idea of her imminent death, Atie is resigned to the idea that her life has amassed to nothing except being the one who cares for her mother in her final years and leads her to her final resting place. Atie goes on to express the painstaking training and quality control she and all other women in Haiti were put through as girls in order to be married off to husbands:

"They train you to find a husband. They poke at your panties in the middle of the night, to see if you are still whole. They listen when you pee, to find out if you're peeing too loud. If you pee loud, it means you've got big spaces between your legs. They make you burn your fingers learning to cook. Then still you have nothing."

They’ refers to the mothers of Haiti, whom Atie seems to regard with reproach. She was trained to find a husband- put through years of uncomfortable and even traumatizing circumstances for the purpose of being worthy of marriage. In the end, however, Atie is left with nothing. She has no husband, as she was rejected by her previous lover. She has no children of her own as a result. Her life as a Haitian woman, obviously meant to be as a wife, is now empty. Her ambitions are dashed, she is now resigned to only one basic task.

Louise rushes in the next morning in tears to tell the Cacos that the Macoutes killed Dessalines. There is some symbolic significance in the name Dessalines. In fact, a former slave by the name of Jean-Jacques Dessalines became a leader of the Haitian revolution in 1802. He became the first ruler of an independent Haiti under the 1805 constitution, and in so doing, led Haiti to become the first country in the Americas to completely abolish Haiti. He is considered a founding father of Haiti, and was named the first Emperor of Haiti (Jacques I) by the generals of the Revolution Army of Haiti. Danticat’s use of such a symbolically meaningful name gives new weight and significance to the careless murderous spree of the Macoutes. This symbolizes how Duvalier’s regime, bolstered by his oppressive Macoute army, disassembled the victory, pride and safety that had been claimed by revolutionary leaders like Dessalines. The tyranny of Duvalier took away the freedom of the people that had been so tirelessly fought for in the fight against slavery. The Macoutes killing Dessalines symbolizes how it is the Macoutes that destroy freedom and keep slavery alive through the oppression of the Haitian people.

Danticat, at this point in the story, presents Atie and Louise in a strangely erotic scene:

‘Louise buried her head in Tante Atie's shoulder. Their faces were so close that their lips could meet if they both turned at the same time.’ It seems out of place, however, these two women define each other as their primary sources of emotional support, and, considering what was discussed in the poem at the beginning of the chapter, their relationship must always be riddled with constant separation. If they turned their heads, their lips would meet, but they do not turn their heads.

Now, the story of the Tonton Macoute is finally told:

“In the fairy tales, the Tonton Macoute was a bogeyman, a scarecrow with human flesh. He wore denim overalls and carried a cutlass and a knapsack made of straw. In his knapsack, he always had scraps of naughty children, whom he dismembered to eat as snacks. If you don't respect your elders, then the Tonton Macoute will take you away. Outside the fairy tales, they roamed the streets in broad daylight, parading their Uzi machine guns.”

This is the sixth folk tale of the novel. The Tonton Macoute in both the mythical and real world represent abusive entities. The myth serves to validate abuse as a method of disciplining children, or a subordinate who has stepped out of line, as the Macoute dismembers the misbehaving children to eat. Duvalier uses the name of a mythical creature to identify a real-world oppressive paramilitary force. Donette Francis outlines it best in ‘Silences Too Horrific to Disturb’ (2004) “Embedded in the very word is a cultural linguistic block that already discredits the reality of women’s stories of sexual abuse by relegating abuse to the realm of the unreal.” The violations at the hands of the Macoutes are camouflaged by this mystical, fictional identity. However, Danticat now wrenches the idea of the Macoute back into reality by reading the ‘gendered and potentially violent sexual assumptions insinuated in the folklore’ (Francis 2004). The Macoutes are allowed to walk free, and make any demand of a household then expect that it be satisfied without resistance. They, no different in their moral violations from ordinary criminals, are given privilege to roam the streets unchallenged, with their depraved deeds justified by the guise of mysticism.

Sophie goes on to explain the story of Martine’s rape in intricate detail, as though a witness to the graphic encounter:

“My father might have been a Macoute. He was a stranger who, when my mother was sixteen years old, grabbed her on her way back from school. He dragged her into the cane fields, and pinned her down on the ground. He had a black bandanna over his face so she never saw anything but his hair, which was the color of eggplants. He kept pounding her until she was too stunned to make a sound. When he was done, he made her keep her face in the dirt, threatening to shoot her if she looked up.”

Martine was likely raped by a Macoute. Sophie relates more graphic detail than Martine did in her explanation. The violation of Martine resulted in her being ‘too stunned to make a sound,’ unable and unwilling to speak. This faceless man wrenches away her sense of control in this situation and implants in her body a memory which indelibly associates the act of intercourse with this pain and violation. Curiously, the silence she is forced into during this traumatic violation likely ends up saving her life, as this violent Macoute probably wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot her if she had brought attention to the scene. However, it is this silence in Martine- her inability to speak about the trauma, to communicate it and overcome its effects- that eventually leads to her death at the end of the novel. Martine will eventually be wholly subsumed by the trauma and its consequences because she attempts to escape it. She tries to forget about the trauma by running away from it, but inevitably is unable to confront the trauma at its source- in her own minds. She refuses to acknowledge the subjectivity of the trauma and the undeniable alterations it has made to her body and her mind. This is what causes her destruction.

Sophie continues to explain what eventuated after Martine’s traumatic experience. The perpetrator of the act still haunted her. She slept in fear, thinking that the man would kill her and the child growing inside of her. Living in such anxiety, she mutilated herself and her sheets as she was plagued with endless nightmares.

Ife sends Martine away to work as a servant in a rich mulatto family’s household in Croix-des-Rosets. This choice seems callous, for a mother to send away a daughter who is obviously not in the best mental condition. And yes, it is. The choice is justifiable in a Haitian cultural pretext, however. Now no longer a virgin, Martine cannot be married off, as a woman losing her virginity before marriage is a terrible social disgrace. The only choice for Martine would then be to work as a servant in another person’s home, as the Haitian society’s practices would never permit her to marry and be a servant to a husband.

Martine returns to La Nouvelle Dame Marie after giving birth to Sophie. Still being plagued by nightmares after several months, she attempts suicide several times. Atie is the one who takes care of Sophie during this time, serving as a mother even in Sophie’s infancy. The family for which Martine worked helped her apply for papers to leave Haiti, and, after four years, she was finally able to leave.

Sophie and Atie converse later that night, and Atie reveals that Ife will send a cassette to Martine to tell her that Sophie is in Haiti. Sophie is obviously bitter when it comes to her mother, saying that her mother ‘does not concern herself’ with where she is. Atie believes that this judgement is far too harsh, and that Martine truly does care, however, Sophie reveals that she had attempted to communicate with Martine while in Providence, through monthly letters and pictures. Martine never replied. Atie is convinced that Martine will come to Haiti, especially since Ife will be begging her to come and reconcile.

Ife records the cassette the following day, and Sophie makes it clear that she has nothing she wants to say to Martine. Atie returns from a night of drinking, as her eyes are red and her breath smells like rum. She considers it a vice, something she uses to forget her troubles- although no amount of drinking would erase the potent melancholy Atie seems to wade through. She leaves again, but returns very early the following morning with Louise, who expresses concern for Atie’s swollen calf. She and Atie must part again, as is necessary in a bond not generally accepted in Haitian culture.

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