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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 4 Analysis

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Tante Atie, for the entire week before Sophie’s departure, leaves for work extremely early and returns extra late. Sophie watches each night as she returns, making sure that ‘she had not run away and left.’ During Atie’s long diurnal absences for work, Sophie would clean the yard (gathering leaves and twigs) after she returned from school. This subtly relates to something Tante Atie says in Chapter 1 when she watches the children jumping in the dried leaves, “You think those children would be kind to their mothers and clean up those leaves. Instead they are making a bigger mess.” She later continues in the same chapter to say “Sunday is Mother’s Day, non? The young ones, they should show their mothers they want to help them.” So, considering these lines, Sophie cleaning the yard is showing that she wants to help Tante Atie, and that she does care deeply about her and thinks of her as her mother.

When Sophie is swept up by Tante Atie and brought inside, she is immediately disillusioned by the suitcase, and its symbolism of her leaving. Sophie reveals that while cleaning the yard, she convinced herself that she would be able to stay for more visits to Granme Ife and more potlucks, even to be taught how to sew as Tante Atie promised in Chapter 1. Upon seeing the suitcase, packed and ready to go, she realizes that she will not have the opportunity top do these things again.

Atie now gives the reason why she had been out so late all week. “I wanted to work extra hours to get you some gifts for your trip,” she says. Atie’s love for Sophie is seen here- she works overtime all week just so that she can have a little extra money to get Sophie some gifts. Tante Atie serves Sophie milk in a silver kettle she usually keeps for display, showing again Atie’s care in that she wants Sophie to feel special on her last day in Haiti. On this special kettle, there is a note attached signed by Monsieur Augustin that says, “I love you from the bottom of my heart.” Thus, we are shown a previous relationship between Atie and Donald Augustin that was disrupted by something (or someone) that resulted in him marrying Lotus (the newer model of Haitian woman). This previous relationship is why Atie began to cry on the porch after watching Augustin and his wife through the window. However, this also hints at a deeper cruelty in Lotus’ determination to extract Atie’s secret in chapter 1 at the potluck. Perhaps it is sheer malice on Lotus’ part in response to Atie’s choice to confide this secret in her husband. Or, it could just be her unadulterated depravity in wanting to undermine Atie (even after acquiring the interest of her former lover) in the face of potential fortune from the opportunity represented by the plane ticket.

During this tense final supper/tea time between the two, there is silence. Sophie, overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of leaving her dear Tante, has to try to hide her tears behind her tea cup. “No crying, we are going to be strong as mountains,” Atie says, seeing her tears. Again, she wants Sophie to remain strong, to find the strength to persevere even in times of perceived difficulty. Atie’s gift to Sophie is a saffron dress embroidered with baby daffodils. Saffron is a golden/bronze yellow. Sophie, as we know, likes daffodils and the colour yellow very much. And, of course, yellow is a symbol used throughout the novel to communicate care, love and warmth, and is present throughout Sophie’s experiences as a young girl.

That night, Sophie’s dreams are again invaded by the image of her mother. She is chased yet again, but this time, her mother (wrapped in yellow sheets with daffodils in her hair) catches her- and Tante Atie cannot save her from her grasp. She calls for Atie whilst being wrestled to the ground and restrained by her mother- but even though Atie was leaning over them, she could not see Sophie. Sophie is lost in the yellow of her mother’s sheets. In the same way, she will be retrained and unable to be saved by Tante Atie once she arrives in New York.

Atie is already dressed by the time that Sophie wakes up the next day. She goes out of her way to pamper Sophie specifically today, her last fleeting moments in Haiti. She lets Sophie dry off from her bath with a white towel, one of many reserved for never-arriving ‘special occasions.’ She covers the dining table with a white lace cloth. She serves Sophie her oatmeal and milk in her special, unused China plates and glasses. She lets Sophie sit at the head of the table. This is the triumphant first chapter of her life in Haiti coming to a close. Despite this, the melancholy mood is evident, not even able to be mitigated by Atie’s forced smile.

There is a slight drizzle outside, which prompts Sophie to ask if she still has to go even if it rains. Well, obviously she does, but the rain in this circumstance could be seen as pathetic fallacy. That is, the sadness felt by both parties here is attributed to the rain.

She tells Sophie to not be afraid (presumably of going to stay with her mother) because she was a wonderful sister, and will be a wonderful mother as well. This seems to based around the fact that Atie knows that Sophie loves her, and wants to convince her that Martine, as her sister, will show her the same kindness and earn her affection as well.

Atie hands the card back to Sophie- it has become wrinkled and slightly faded at that point (possibly from carrying it around as a keepsake for the short while she could). Sophie begins to read the words of the card for Atie:

“My mother is a daffodil, limber and strong as one. My mother is a daffodil, but in the wind, iron strong.”

These words, meant for Atie, are an homage to her strength, and the love Sophie has for her as a mother figure. However, Atie seems to be unaffected by the words: “You see, it was never for me,” she says as she shrugs nonchalantly. The entirety of the book is narrated by Sophie (first-person perspective), so from her point of view it may very well seem that way. However, we know that this poem stays with Tante Atie, for so long, for so many years, that when Sophie returns to Haiti around 8 years later, Atie has learned how to write and is able to write the poem down from memory. Understanding the effect that this poem has on Atie behind the steely nonchalant façade allows us to understand the significance of this moment. Sophie can’t feel right knowing that the mother figure she wrote the poem for would never hear the words (or read them due to her illiteracy), so she reads them to her anyway. Atie, as evinced by what occurs later in the book, is touched by the poem, but shows minimal reaction to reinforce the idea that the woman she is going to is her true mother. Since the poem speaks of Sophie’s mother, Atie can’t accept it openly- and just like before, she must deny her own role as mother and (in a way) deny Sophie as a daughter.

After this short interaction, the lottery agent returns. He gives Atie the news that she has won ten gourdes for the number she paid for (Martine’s age). This is quite ironic given the circumstance. Having never won the lottery ever before, the one time that she plays Martine’s age, and, on the exact day that she loses Sophie no less- she wins the lottery (it’s only ten gourdes though).

The taxi comes to pick them up- and Sophie must leave with her “breakfast uneaten and the dishes undone.” This gives us the impression of something (her life in Haiti) being incomplete, or unfinished- not concluded (synonyms, yay). This incompletion recalls what Sophie said on the previous afternoon- where she remarks that she will never be able to attend more potlucks, visit Granme Ife again or get that long-awaited sewing lesson. The Augustins bid them farewell as they prepare to leave.

As Sophie and Atie enter the car, Sophie describes themselves as ‘sunflowers, staring directly at the sun.’ They are facing their current unfortunate separation head-on, without fear. As Sophie says, their faces are dry (without tears) and their heads are up (in confidence and determination)- they are resolute in being as strong as mountains.

The driver compliments the cleanliness of their yard before pulling away, and Atie, whether in error or deliberate misinformation, refers to Sophie as her child being the one who cleans it. This could be a ‘Freudian slip’, in that Atie, truly loving Sophie and seeing her as her own child, refers to her as such. This could however also be because she is ashamed of not being Sophie’s true biological mother and wants to hide it from the taxi driver. According to Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera, The New Mestiza (1987), the Catholic church demarcates women to certain roles: “For a woman of my culture there used to be only three directions she could turn: to the Church as a nun, to the streets as a prostitute, or to the home as a mother.” These Catholic values imbued in Haitian culture due to colonialism create a strict convention dictated by patriarchal society. Atie cannot place herself in any of these categories, and thus neither she nor her identity may be tethered in these basic functions of women. This is why she may have been motivated to hide her non-true motherhood of Sophie. Or, y’know, it’s just because she loves her. Yeah.

But now, as they leave, with the community members waving them farewell, a red dust rises between Sophie and the only life she has ever known. This is the first instance of red within the novel- and as the story progresses, we begin to see more and more of Danticat’s clever uses of red to signify pain, anger and death. Notice the words Sophie uses throughout the rest of that paragraph: “There were no children playing, no leaves flying about. No daffodils.” The image is stark and devoid of happiness, and especially devoid of the daffodils of warmth and love which Sophie loves so much. The life she has known in Haiti is coming to a close. The new chapter of her life will be far melancholier than the last.

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