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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 28 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Now on their way to the airport, Martine keeps ‘her eyes on the barren hills… outside the window.’ This mirrors a scene from earlier in the book (chapter 3), where Sophie looks outside and sees the ‘bare hills that border the national highway.’ In both of these situations, the barren hills reflect the pessimism of the current situation and foreshadow coming misfortunes. In chapter 3, the barrenness of the hills foreshadowed tumultuous and strange times for Sophie with Martine in New York. Here (chapter 28), the emptiness/lack of growth in these hills corresponds to dark and difficult times coming for Martine (which, coincidentally, result from her own lack of ability to grow after a traumatic experience). Martine has received no real benefit by returning home, and she will inevitably face psychological adversity that drives her to a breaking point.

As the van passes through Port-au-Prince, Martine is transfixed by the buildings and sights of the town, reminiscing at the places she visited in the past. When she was younger and living in Haiti, as was stated in chapter 5, she and Atie would come to Port-au-Prince on Christmas Eve after saving their pennies all year. They would pretend to be more affluent and influential than they really were, while tourists flirted with them and they enjoyed the lights. In this way, Port-au-Prince was representational of a fantasy of being these affluent ladies who were able to enjoy city life in such a carefree manner and live the wealthy lives they described. If even for one night, at the price of a whole year of savings, they were able to live under the pretence that they were something they weren’t. Revisiting this place for Martine will reignite good memories; memories of wearing the guise of free, wealthy women when her dreams and aspirations still appeared attainable through the lens of her own unyielding audacity.

Upon arrival to the airport, Sophie notes how crowded it is, with “peddlers, beggars and travellers” filling the lobby. Travelling abroad means better opportunities than those in Haiti, so the travellers fortunate enough to afford a plane ride (rather than a boat trip like Louise) will seek a better life abroad if possible. The beggars and peddlers are positioned strategically in hopes of benefitting from either the charity or the patronage of these fortunate travellers.

Sophie looks up the murals on the airport ceiling, which depict Haitian men and women ‘selling beans, pushing carts and looking very happy at their toil.’ Though innocent seeming at first, these murals contradict with many of the hardships faced by some in the real towns. In the novel specifically, Sophie witnesses Dessalines, a humble coal-seller, being beaten mercilessly by Tonton Macoutes for simply stepping on one of their shoes. Ife’s response to the situation suggested that it had happened several times before to many innocent people trying to make a living. So, the mural, depicting such jovial people, unafflicted by any adversity in their toil, is almost hypocritical and at the least contradictory- as the systems put in place by the same government that constructed that airport (the paramilitary Macoutes) are oppressing the people of the country who simply want to live their lives.

While on the plane, Martine is evidently nauseous, going to the bathroom at repeated intervals. She explains that it is her ‘discomfort with being in Haiti’ that is inducing such potent nausea. She hopes only to return there to be buried- a morbid wish that is actually granted by the end of the novel, so this could be considered foreshadowing. Martine’s trauma- both her testing and the rape- are deeply connected to Haiti. The familiar scenery in Haiti reawakens those memories of her traumatic experiences, forcing the reality of those experiences to resurface. Having left her homeland to escape the trauma, she has become unable to erase the association of Haiti with the trauma. They have become one in the same, and she finds being in her own country repulsive- to the point of evoking a physical response. It is as if her bond to Haiti can only be restored in her death, and thus, she could only ever find it tolerable to return if it were her final resting place.

Martine notes Sophie’s meagre eating habits, and Sophie reveals that she has bulimia (bulimia nervosa). People with bulimia will eat large amounts of food uncontrollably- binge eating- and then attempt some sort of compensatory behaviour afterwards (like self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise or fasting) trying to prevent weight gain. Martine’s response conveys her lack of understanding of such a condition:

"You are so tiny, so very petite. Why would you do that? I have never heard of a Haitian woman getting anything like that. Food, it was so rare when we were growing up. We could not waste it."

Of course, bulimics aim to make themselves very thin out of a distorted perception of their body shape and weight. Martine asking why Sophie would put herself through this bulimic cycle despite her small stature is something only reflective of not fully grasping the nature of eating disorders and their psychological origins. Sophie’s subjection to the sexually abusive testing and its conceptual idolization of purity interfered with her natural sexual maturity, causing her to feel revolted by her own body in a way that manifests in exaggerated concern over body weight and shape. By seeking control over her body weight through the compensatory behaviour of bulimia, she makes an effort at taking control over her own life, even though her perception of her own sexuality has been so significantly warped.

When they land in New York, Martine gets their bags and asks Sophie to stay the night with her before she returns to Providence. Sophie agrees, but asks if Martine has anyone to call to pick them up from the airport. Martine’s response, “the only person you have to count on is yourself,” conveys her distrust in others- one seen previously in her wariness with Joseph and again in her insistence on Sophie being suspicious of men.

They take a taxi back to Martine’s house, where the décor of her living room is still predominantly red, just like it was before Sophie eloped with Joseph. The presence of red here, a symbol of death and pain, reflects the continued presence of pain for Martine. Despite the passage of time, she is still in as much pain as she was before. She has been unable to combat the stain of trauma on her psyche, and thus, the pain still surrounds her.

As Martine listens to the messages on her answering machine, most of them come from Marc, who expresses affection for Martine. Their relationship has obviously developed over time, where they are at least more intimate with one another emotionally. Danticat uses some very erotic language here to communicate Martine’s sentiments towards Marc through her actions:

She moved closer to the machine, blocking my view of it, as though he was there in the flesh and she was standing with him and they were naked together.

Through this, the reader instantly understands the intimacy of their relationship- Martine’s movements are affectionate even when only hearing Marc’s voice.

Sophie goes to her old room along a literal path of red (the carpet on the stairs is red), which could symbolically correspond to walking along a path that is infused with painful memories. Martine had stripped the room of everything except the bed, even the posters she had gotten from Joseph were gone. Martine seems remorseful for this, though Sophie seems undisturbed by her mother having purged the contents of her room. She reveals that out of her passionate anger, she burnt Sophie’s clothes. Sophie’s response is calm and understanding, which prompts Martine to say:

"In spite of what I have done to you, you've really become an understanding woman."

Of course, Martine acknowledges the hardship she has caused Sophie and admires the quality of understanding she has been able to acquire as a woman. Martine insists that Sophie have some dinner, and despite explaining the conditions of bulimia, Sophie is coerced to accept the offer.

She notes that the ‘cooking smells of the house’ have changed, as her mother is now preparing spaghetti rather than the traditional Haitian cuisine. It is revealed that Martine ate only spaghetti after Sophie left home, as everything Haitian reminded her of Sophie. A coping method quite characteristic of Martine- attempting to push painful things from her mind by banishing or escaping things that remind her of them. She had been convinced that Sophie would, at some point, return to her- humiliated by her foolish choice to defy her mother after all. But that did not happen, and Martine had to accept the error of her ways as a result.

Martine is still seeing (in a relationship with) Marc, but does not think she should marry him- simply because of how late it is in her life.

Sophie calls her home phone using Martine’s phone after Martine leaves. She leaves a message, to which Joseph promptly returns her call. Joseph begins the conversation casually, something that requires quite an impressive amount of maturity, understanding and self-control- especially coming from a man speaking to a wife who left (with their child) with no warning. He queries Brigitte’s wellbeing, then attempts to understand Sophie’s actions. He gives a synopsis of her sudden departure:

“I was afraid something awful had happened to you. I call at all hours and you're never there. When I rush back to Providence all I get is a note. 'Sorry I needed to go somewhere and empty out my head.'”

He had apparently only been granted the courtesy of a single note from Sophie when she left. He is worried, and completely unsure of whether or not she will impulsively leave again. Though he is aware of her psychological problems regarding her body, he was of the view that the therapy she had been doing was helping. Joseph comes across as very supportive here, even going as far as to say that ‘as long as it [Sophie’s recovery from her sexual phobia] takes, [he] will wait.’

Joseph further reveals that Martine had insisted on going to Haiti for Sophie herself, and had expressed a fervent desire to see her.

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