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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 6 Analysis

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Upon arrival in New York, Sophie and the boy are shaken awake and brought efficiently and unhindered past several lines. The routine and nonchalant way in which the woman pulls them by (waving a manila envelope) without stopping implies a sense of normalcy about this, as though people who migrated sending for their children happens so often that it occurs with such efficiency and hardly needs any verification or checking.

Sophie’s mother Martine comes forward as they enter the lobby and picks Sophie up and spins her around. Martine goes to pay the woman with whom Sophie had travelled, at which point the woman no longer seems to have any interest in Sophie. This reinforces the idea that accompanying estranged children to their parents abroad is a regular task that has become perfunctory for the woman. Martine kisses Sophie on the lips once the woman leaves. Yeah, just thought I’d throw that in there because it seems pretty strange. After all, this is their first face-to-face meeting in 12 years, and Martine is already dropping a full-on kiss.

Martine asks Sophie to say something, to be able to hear her voice, but Sophie doesn’t say anything and only nods in response to Martine’s next question. Sophie describes Martine’s body as scrawny, and subsequent imagery shows a weak or even malnourished Martine. She wobbles under the weight of Sophie’s suitcase as they approach her car. When she wants to lift Sophie into the vehicle, she stumbles under the weight and just puts Sophie back down. It’s likely, then, that living in America and working has taken a toll on her wellbeing. The car is pale yellow with a cracked windshield. This yellow instance is different- the paleness of the yellow represents a loss of the vibrance and vivacity of the youth/hope that yellow represents throughout the novel. In the same way that the yellow fades in the car, so too has youth and hope dwindled for Martine, and so too will happiness and hope diminish in Sophie’s situation.

It's important to note the details of the decrepit jalopy Martine drives in: the windshield is cracked, the yellow paint is peeling off the doors, the cushions on the seats are tattered, loose springs protrude out of the seats and the engine sounds like it’s about to explode. To be succinct, it isn’t exactly the American Dream car.

When Sophie climbs into the vehicle, an exposed spring is sticking into her thigh. She ‘tries not to squirm,’ showing that she doesn’t really want to communicate her discomfort to Martine. It’s possible that she doesn’t want to appear ungrateful, and especially considering that she is unfamiliar with Martine, she isn’t sure how to act. In accordance with Tante Atie’s orders to not fight with her mother, she doesn’t want to conflict with her. It could also be correlated to a psychological issue with Sophie, where she doesn’t want to be perceived as a burden to her mother.

Sophie notes that Martine does not look like the picture on the nightstand- instead, she appears gaunt and fatigued. With a long and hollow face, long spindly legs, dark circles under her eyes and scarred and sunburned fingers, it seems as though she had never stopped working in the cane fields at all. Martine seems frail and enervated. Constant work (or constant harrowing by her night terrors) has likely caused this- so by bringing about a correlation to a cultural trauma in the cane fields, Martine’s unfortunate state becomes much more pressing.

They drive off, bound for Martine’s house, at which point Sophie still had not said anything to her. Martine asks Sophie if Atie still attends night school. Atie does not, and never started it. Martine says, slightly: “The old girl lost her nerve. She lost her fight. You should have seen us when we were young. We always dreamt of becoming important women. We were going to be the first women doctors from my mother's village. We would not stop at being doctors either. We were going to be engineers too.” This shows the great aspirations they had for themselves. Idealistic as they may have been, they did have ambition. This recollection of wide-eyed dreams is followed by a somewhat cynical and defeatist line from Martine. “Imagine our surprise when we found out we had limits," Martine says. This line tells us a lot about Haitian society and especially the sentiments of Martine when it comes to being a Haitian woman. Their seemingly limitless aspiration was stopped short by the lucid realization that they were limited; either by wider society and its patriarchal conventions of a woman’s possible roles or their own limited access to opportunity due to living in Haiti.

Now approaching Martine’s community, ‘the street lights [are] suddenly gone.’ The description of this area is dreary, and it all seems incredibly disreputable. ‘The streets we drove down now were dim and hazy. The windows were draped with bars; black trash bags blew out into the night air. There were young men standing on street corners, throwing empty cans at passing cars. My mother swerved the car to avoid a bottle that almost came crashing through the windshield.’ Everything has an air of being unscrupulous and inspiring discomfort. This area is not reflective of an idealized American Dream of luxury.

Martine confirms the existence of a prior relationship between Donald Augustin and Atie. Atie was the one that was supposed to marry Donald- but, as Martine says: “the heart is fickle, what can you say? When Lotus came along, he did not want [Atie] anymore.” And, as we know, Atie is left unmarried to this day- her previous relationship with Augustin made meaningless once Lotus, a more attractive alternative, came along.

Upon their arrival at Martine’s home (covered in graffiti and random writing), she begins to make affirmations and definitive statements in relation to Sophie. "Your schooling is the only thing that will make people respect you. You are going to work hard here," Martine says, making it completely clear what she expects of Sophie. It is likely that she has experienced a lack of respect or seen such things happen due to insufficient schooling, and she intends to be strict with Sophie’s education. Martine does care about Sophie’s wellbeing and her outcome, and she knows that she must be sufficiently educated. However, this commanding tone (imperative mood) of Martine’s language is seen increasingly more times throughout the book- where she tells Sophie what she intends for her to do without regard for Sophie’s own opinions. (In this case strictness with regards to schoolwork is reasonable, especially considering what she says next.) ‘No one is going to break your heart because you cannot read or write. You have a chance to become the kind of woman Atie and I have always wanted to be.’ The first part of this line calls back to Atie, and how her illiteracy ultimately ended in her having her heart broken when the man she loved chooses another woman who can read and write (presumably, as this isn’t explicitly said, but it makes sense based on how Martine communicates it). The latter part of the line places Martine’s hope in Sophie. The broken dreams of Atie and Martine to become important women can now be fulfilled by Sophie because of the grand opportunity she has been granted. “If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads.” This connects directly to something Ife says later on in the book, regarding disgrace. If your child is disgraced, so are you. The contribution made by each person in a child’s life and the duty held by the mother especially are all rewarded in the success of the child, and in the same way, they all share the disgrace. The phrase ‘you can raise our heads’ is an interesting one used here, a shortened form of a longer phrase ‘raise our heads above the clouds.’ The implications of such a phrase is covered briefly in Raising our Heads Above the Clouds (Caleb Wakhungu): “We must find ways to raise our heads above these clouds and to work towards the world we hope for: where joy, peace, and comfort lie.” Raising their (the Caco women’s) heads correlates to them overcoming the hardships that restrict them so vehemently. Sophie’s opportunity to do this is incredibly special, and it is acknowledged as such by everyone back in Haiti and especially Martine.

They now enter Martine’s home, and Sophie notes the presence of a red plastic tablecloth cover and a red sofa. Red often precedes instances of death, pain, anger, and very often, the visibility of Martine’s own mental instability. She tells Sophie to wait in one place and then returns with a doll. Pretty weird thing to do. She even says “we will show you to your room,” before taking her to the room, which is quite unsettling. It’s obvious that being alone in New York has taken more than a physical toll on her.

In the room, Sophie sees a picture of Atie holding a baby in her arms. She somehow knows that that baby was her, and that she shared no resemblance with any of the other Caco women. She hadn’t resembled them as a child, and she didn’t resemble them now. She feels she doesn’t belong because she doesn’t look like the rest of her family.

"You're not going to be alone; I'm never going to be farther than a few feet away. Do you understand that?” Martine says, trying to comfort Sophie. This seems to be Martine assuring her, trying to communicate her care for Sophie. However, we will revisit an alternate meaning of this line later on in the chapter. When Martine asks if Sophie would like to sit and talk, she opts to go to bed. Sophie still seems to be uncomfortable in this new environment, and certainly isn’t used to her mother yet. When Martine reaches over to unbutton the back of Sophie’s dress, Sophie says she can do it herself. Once again, the reader sees a very uneasy situation between a mother and her daughter reunited. Martine, as we discussed before, is completely unfamiliar to Sophie. Thus, having left Atie (the woman who she considers a mother) and now being thrown cold-turkey into a strange new environment, Martine is foreign to her. They can’t have a conventional ‘mother-daughter relationship,’ nor can it be expected that they pick up where they left off 12 years ago, as the role of mother was filled by Atie.

Martine sees the card sticking out from Sophie’s dress pocket after she undresses. She begins to read it, and as she does so, Sophie tries to slip under the yellow sheets. Not only is this another instance of yellow imagery, but it mirrors Sophies nightmare a few chapters prior: “I was lost in the yellow of my mother's sheets.” The nightmare reflected her being unable to escape the grasp of her mother, and now, finally with her mother, she has truly been lost in the yellow of her sheets. Sophie struggles to fit into the bed with the doll while Martine reads the card. The doll leaves little space for her in the bed. A clever illustration by Danticat: the doll was the one who ‘kept Martine company’ in the years Sophie wasn’t with her (like a replacement daughter). The doll also represents a subservient ideal daughter for Martine to whom she can do what she pleases and controls absolutely. Now that Sophie has come to join Martine, it is difficult for Sophie and (yep) Martine’s doll to coexist.

After reading the card, Martine removes the doll from the bed with Sophie and places it in the corner. When she asks if the card was for her, Sophie says "Tante Atie said I should give it to you." Sophie is, of course, adamant on the fact that the card was meant for Tante Atie, and offhandedly communicates that it was Atie’s command for her to give it to Martine. "Did you know how much I loved daffodils when I was a girl?" Martine asks. Her love of daffodils is now directly correlated to her youth (because she says loved when I was a girl).

It's clear that Martine appreciates the card deeply, running her fingers over the card and pressing it to her chest like some sort of precious necklace or keepsake. She says that she hasn’t gone out to look for daffodils since her arrival in New York, showing that this symbol of hope, youth and resilience has been absent in her New York life. When she asks if there are still lots of daffodils in Haiti and Sophie says yes, “Her face beam[s] even more than when she first saw [Sophie] at the airport.” She is incredibly elated that this symbol confirming the possibility of survival far away from one’s place of origin still exists.

That night, Sophie is unable to fall asleep. It is understandable since she has been uprooted from her comfortable life in Haiti and placed into a new awkward environment. She now reminisces about Tante Atie, as she would stay up with her whenever she couldn’t sleep and tell her stories. This brings us to the second folk tale in the novel, which serves to deal with the now prominent conflict with Sophie’s conception. She has just realized that she resembles no one in her family- not her mother, and none of the other women. So, her characteristics must come from somewhere else. She remembers asking Atie how she was born with a mother and no father. Tante Atie tells Sophie the story of a girl “who was born out of the petals of roses, water from the stream and a chunk of the sky. That little girl, she said, was me [Sophie].” Using this story, the reader can infer that Sophie’s conception involved pain and hard work—as well as the love of her mother—and not her father. Note the presence of the petals of roses. The rose imagery is often a symbol for virginity and this is the topic of later tales and much of the strife throughout the rest of the novel.

It is this same night that Sophie hears Martine screaming during a night terror. Sophie wakes her up, and Martine hides her face and avoids Sophie’s eyes, as though ashamed to show this unfortunate, powerless and oppressed part of herself to her daughter on the first night of her arrival. Sophie climbs onto the bed to try to comfort her. Martine’s reaction is strange- she seems to be trying to do the motherly thing and comfort Sophie, but her words may be more likely directed towards herself. The excerpt from the book is as follows:

"What is it? Are you scared too?" she asked. "Don't worry." She pulled me down into the bed with her. "You can sleep here tonight if you want. It's okay. I'm here."

She pulls Sophie into the bed while speaking as though she has a choice. Sophie replaces the doll as a comforting presence for Martine. Martine feels somewhat embarrassed for appearing so vulnerable before her child. When they wake up the next morning:

"Sophie," she whispered. Her eyes were still closed. "Sophie, I will never let you go again." Tears burst out of her eyes when she opened them. "Sophie, I am glad you are with me. We can get along, you and me. I know we can." She clung to my hand as she drifted back to sleep.

Here, we again see a vulnerable Martine, who seems to be remorseful for letting Sophie go originally and leaving her in Haiti. She is happy that Sophie is with her now, and feels that she can truly form a bond with her and face troubles together.

Sophie gets up to go to the bathroom and sees her red eyes in the mirror. She is tired, and she feels as though she has aged significantly in the timespan of one day. New York is a new challenge for her to face, and she accepts it willingly as “[her] mother’s daughter and Tante Atie’s child.”

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