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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 8 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

School for Sophie doesn’t begin for two months, and in the interim, Martine brings her to work every day. Martine has both a day job and a night job, where she is a caretaker for a nursing home. Thus, most of her time is spent away from home, in the nursing home with Martine, and even during this time, Martine is preoccupied with caring for the old people in the home and barely interacts with Sophie. Martine barely sleeps at night in order to do her job, and it obviously takes a great physical toll on her- to the point that Sophie pities her. “I felt so sorry for her. She looked very sad. Her face was cloudy with fatigue even though she kept reapplying the cream she had bought to lighten her skin,” Sophie says. Martine’s emotional health has deteriorated, and it is visible in her face, she has been worn thin by multiple jobs daily to support her sister, mother, daughter and herself. However, Martine is hopeful and exhibits some determination in her next line. "I want you to know that this will change soon when I find a job that pays both for our expenses and for my mother's and Atie's," she says to Sophie. She wants to reassure Sophie, that this difficult situation will change. Moments like this convey Martine’s strength and her optimism in a dire situation- though she is worn thin, she will persevere, and believes that she will eventually find a job that can support all of them.

When Sophie expresses her desire to offload some of Martine’s work burden, Martine reveals that she wants Sophie to attend school and maximize her potential. "That's how it is. Life is no vacation. If you get your education, there are things you won't have to do," Martine says. She acknowledges the inherent hardships of life, and will work hard as long as she can ensure that Sophie’s education grants her license to surpass some of life’s hardship. This mirrors one of the books earlier lines by Atie: "As long as you do not have to work in the fields, it does not matter that I will never learn to read that ragged old Bible under my pillow." In that line, Atie is content with her current situation as long as Sophie does not have to endure the same hardships of the cane fields. In this current line, Martine endures her current difficult circumstance so that Sophie’s success may result in her overcoming the need to endure the same difficulty. Thus, her two mothers have similar intentions for her.

Martine now stares directly into Sophie’s face, something, Sophie says, she doesn’t do often. The importance of this line is that it begs the question, why doesn’t she look directly at Sophie often? After all, she is her daughter. We later learn why she does this- it is because Sophie likely resembles Martine’s rapist and she therefore reminds her of the rape. Martine asks Sophie “am I the mother you imagined?” causing Sophie to think a bout the mother she imagined for herself as a child. She had envisioned her mother as the lavish virgin mother Erzulie.

“the mother I had imagined for myself was like Erzulie, the lavish Virgin Mother. She was the healer of all women and the desire of all men...She never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her. Even though she was far away, she was always with me. I could always count on her, like one counts on the sun coming out at dawn.”

She saw her mother as a paragon of desire and healing, one who had unlimited wealth. For the Caco women, Erzulie is both an ideal of perfect woman and a comforting goddess who looks after them. This vision of her mother as someone always with her is reflective of an idealized goddess-like image resembling Erzulie. Note the yellow imagery here in the sun, as this musing is a part of her youth.

Sophie, in response to Martine’s question says “For now I couldn’t ask for better.” This seems quite cautiously terse, and almost irrelevant in a way. However, it is important that the most basic meaning of this line is understood. It is like she is saying that, given the circumstances, she could not have asked for a mother handling it any better.

Martine then speaks to Sophie about how she met Marc. She sought him as a lawyer when trying get a green card through an amnesty program. Marc had to spend time convincing Martine that she would actually eligible, as she had been very worried that she wouldn’t qualify. This shows a lack of self-esteem and confidence. But why exactly would she feel this way? We learn later on the chapter why her psyche would have been fragile and self-doubting at this point. Through this time, they became friends and went out to specifically Haitian restaurants throughout the country, and even as far as Montreal, Canada. Martine says she admires that he has no children back home that he knows of. Marc has not left behind a family in Haiti, nor has he taken on the role of father or husband and fail to commit. Apparently, he was instrumental in getting Sophie to New York (even though he disagreed with Martine’s way of going about it). Martine says a very important line amidst her storytelling: “In Haiti, it would not be possible for someone like Marc to love someone like me. He is from a very upstanding family. His grandfather was a French man.” This directly shows us the inherent classism of Haiti- people of different classes would not be able to become romantically involved with one another. For Marc, a man coming from an upstanding family to love Martine, being of humble working peasant stock, would have been taboo, unthinkable. In Haiti, marriage seems to be directly related to respectability and honour. Thus, Martine would have been seen as an unfit bride for a man such as Marc simply because of her lower social class. We learn a secondary reason for her unfitness as a bride later in this chapter, her loss of virginity due to rape.

Martine’s reminiscence of her relationship with Marc is followed by a somewhat rigid and uncomfortable exchange between her and Sophie. She questions if Sophie has been ‘good,’ i.e. if she had ever been touched or held hands or kissed a boy. She defends her right to ask as a mother in the form of a question- “you understand my right to ask as your mother, don’t you?” She then launches into describing the traditional practice of virginal testing:

"When I was a girl, my mother used to test us to see if we were virgins. She would put her finger in our very private parts and see if it would go inside. Your Tante Atie hated it. She used to scream like a pig in a slaughterhouse. The way my mother was raised, a mother is supposed to do that to her daughter until the daughter is married. It is her responsibility to keep her pure."

This process of testing is an uncomfortable one to read about, and was obviously very uncomfortable, even agonizing for the girl being tested. Atie is said to have screamed whenever it was done to her, showing how humiliating and painful such a practice was. Haitian culture dictates that a mother ‘is supposed to do that to her daughter until the daughter is married,’ creating the rationality that a woman’s worth is determined by an exchange value measured by her virginity. A non-virgin girl is soiled, and unworthy of marriage, and has no worth in the eyes of society. Martine says that it is the mother’s responsibility to ‘keep her pure,’ foreshadowing an obsession with purity that will become more prominent with the progression of the story. However, testing in itself is limited, and can neither assure a woman’s virtue nor her selection for marriage. The fortunes of Martine and Atie show this: Atie, though tested mercilessly against her will, is not chosen for marriage, and is overlooked by her suitor in favour of another woman, and Martine’s virginity is taken through rape.

Martine’s mother stops testing her early because of the rape. Martine asks Sophie if Atie told her how she was born, and the story is far different- and sadder- than the story of the chunk of sky tale.

“But it happened like this. A man grabbed me from the side of the road, pulled me into a cane field and put you in my body.”

Sophie is the product of a rape. She did not know the man who did this, nor did she see his face. However, seeing Sophie, she knows that she must resemble her rapist. In this chapter, Danticat outlines both the origin of Martine’s eventual obsession with sexual purity and the reason for which she has become so- she has had her ‘purity’ stripped involuntarily. Her lack of purity made her unfit for marriage and essentially worthless in the eyes of patriarchal Haitian society which idealized the virgin woman as an object for male pleasure. Martine (almost like the Virgin Mary in a way) sacrifices herself to fulfil motherhood. At this point, it is already too late for the pain of this event to be soothed, her even tone in expressing it reflects this. The damage has been done.

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