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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 9 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

The book makes a massive six-year time skip to Sophie at the age of 18 about to start college in the fall. Martine puts in more hours at her two jobs, and is now able to move to a “one-family house in a tree-lined neighbourhood near where Marc lived.” Martine evidently has achieved a great deal in being a single working mother capable of owning her own home in a more upstanding neighbourhood as well as supporting her sister and mother in Haiti.


Martine in this new place begins to grow hibiscus. She has grown tired of daffodils, and they would take too much care. The whole house has been decorated in red. Thus, she has become tired of yellow and the concept of the daffodil (representing youth, optimism and happiness) and instead opted for the colour red and the red hibiscus, which speak more to her pain. The stress of this new life seems to have overwhelmed her, and thus, the pain has consumed her leading her to a change of colour scheme preference.

“Now my first classes at college were a few months away and my mother couldn't have been happier. Her sacrifices had paid off,” Sophie says. Martine’s sacrifices of years of hard work have allowed Sophie to be accepted at a college. So, it makes sense that she is overflowing with joy for her daughter. Before their move though, Sophie attended a Haitian Adventist school called the Marantha Bilingual Institution. She hated this school. Of course, she never expressed this to her mother, as great sacrifices were made for her to attend, and Sophie would want anything but to upset her mother. She claims that it was as if she had ‘never left Haiti,’ most lessons being in French. She was unable to escape certain stigmas against Haitians as a result, and was always caught in the crossfire of rampant discriminatory labels like ‘boat people’ and ‘stinking Haitians.’

For six years, Sophie’s life was a routine progression of three things, (her great responsibility according to Martine) school/study, home and prayer. This monotony is broken however by her new love interest, Joseph:


“Tante Atie once said that love is like rain. It comes in a drizzle sometimes. Then it starts pouring and if you're not careful it will drown you. I was eighteen and I fell in love. His name was Joseph and he was old. He was old like God is old to me, ever present and full of wisdom.”


You will notice throughout the novel that the imagery Sophie uses to represent her love of Joseph is mostly water imagery. Atie’s relation of love to rain and its volatility is likely because of her own experiences with Mr Augustin. This could be considered foreshadowing as it slightly hints at how her love of Joseph will eventually consume her relationship with her mother when they elope (there are other contributing factors though). Joseph is older than her, and she seems to be attracted to a wisdom in him that comes from this age. In Fatherless Women: What Happens to the Adult Woman who was Raised Without her Father (G. Kortsch) Kortsch outlines the possible choice of certain women raised without fathers, the route of choosing ‘daddy’ as a romantic partner:


“women may choose another route, falling in love with an older man and thus marrying 'daddy.' If the man is at all psychologically aware… he may have a vague inkling of what is going on. Therefore, once she starts - within the secure confines of the relationship or marriage - the process of growth, which will inevitably lead her to separate from her husband in some ways that are emotionally and psychologically necessary in order for her become her own woman, he will not blanch in fear at this process, and allow her the necessary space and freedom to do so. In that case, the marriage will in all likelihood thrive and continue to grow.”


Much of this model of relationships involving fatherless women is fulfilled throughout the novel, Sophie’s largest thrust for re-finding her own identity being her impulsive return to Haiti later on. Nonetheless, her attraction to Joseph makes sense based on her current situation. Martine, however, does not trust him. She makes every attempt to communicate a disinterest in any involvement with him, though Sophie tries to do the opposite while avoiding the attention of her mother. Martine’s view of men reveals her own deep-seated paranoia- she tells Sophie to ‘keep away from those American boys,’ essentially trying to transfer her own paranoid outlook to Sophie. Marc is basically the only man they know. More accurately, he is the only man which Martine seems to trust- she is almost irrationally untrusting of all other men. (This is likely because of her rape)

Joseph comes over to their house when Martine is gone to use their phone. Notice how Sophie says he arrives: “one day, like rain, he came to my front door.” Rain is unexpected, and may begin at a moment’s notice- and it continues Atie’s comparison of love to rain. They have an interaction during which they realize that they are both creole, and appear to strike a chord with one another. Sophie, is of course, immediately enamoured, and spends the week listening to him rehearse. His music soothes her, and adds a new aspect to Sophie’s tiresome routine.


Joseph returns one afternoon with a ham sandwich as a thanks for letting him use the phone. This is obviously a great gesture of kindness on his part (because you would typically only give a verbal thanks on the day they let you use the phone) and a gesture of trust and openness for Sophie to let him in. She eats slowly, likely to lengthen the time he will stay and speak. Joseph asks what Sophie will study in college, and she says “I think I am going to be a doctor.” She is unsure and hesitant, as this career path has been imposed upon her by Martine since her first arrival. This path was chosen for her regardless of her own opinions, and this line reflects exactly how detached she is from the idea. Joseph presents an alternative view to Sophie; he says that one must have a passion for what they do. Martine, however, has told Sophie that it is important for them to have a doctor in the family, regardless of Sophie’s own passion. She presents it as though Sophie has an obligation to their family to become a doctor. When Joseph asks, “what if you don’t want to be a doctor?” the ideology inculcated by Martine comes out in a direct quote Sophie makes: “There’s a difference between what a person wants and what’s good for them.” This phrase is both foreshadowing and somewhat of a maxim of many Haitian practices (and many things which Martine does). Firstly, it foreshadows how many of the things that Martine will do to Sophie (namely testing) will be done against her will and under the claim that it is what is ‘good for’ her. Secondly, this is a ‘tenet’ of many Haitian practises. For example, testing is done not because it is what the daughter wants, but rather because it is thought to be what is ‘good for her.’ This practice is done to preserve the daughter’s virginity to keep her fit for marriage, and the decision that this is good for the daughter is made by the mother (and indirectly by a patriarchal society).

Joseph’s belief is the antithesis of Martine’s, however. He posits that Sophie’s passion must be present in the career she chooses. “What would Sophie like to do?” the tight constraints placed by Martine on her aspiration come to light. She is unsure of what she wants. One might argue that it is at moments where Sophie considers what she wants that significant changes are made in the novel. Up to this point, all of her life has been controlled by an outside force- Martine- who swayed her in any direction she so pleased. Martine uprooted her from a peaceful life in Haiti, Martine dictated her day-to-day routine, and Martine restricted her only possible career path to a doctor. This concept of autonomous thought and aspiration (although it sounds funny) is alien to Sophie- she has never dared to dream on her own (this will be a pretty good point to include if you’re ever asked to describe Sophie and Martine’s relationship). She is a dictator of Sophie’s life, and Sophie herself has never dared to explore her own dreams and indulge in her own ambitions.


Sophie’s lack of her own life plan is not jarring to Joseph, he even seems to welcome it. He says that it means you ‘can flow wherever life takes you.’ This carefree approach to life, Sophie says, ‘is not Haitian,’ it’s ‘very American.’ Thus, there is a culture clash; Sophie has been accustomed to a rigid Haitian culture, but, for all this time in New York, has never embraced the somewhat insouciant American culture. Joseph’s response is that he is not American, but African-American. This continues into a romantic line, but the meaning itself should not be lost. Understanding and embracing American ideals doesn’t subtract from his African identity. Instead, he has become a hybrid, like the daffodil, of two cultures, and Sophie must do the same to survive.


Sophie begins to visit his house next door daily, and they become very acquainted with one another, learning each other’s life stories and bonding over Joseph’s music. He says that he will marry Sophie, even though Martine will be immensely upset. Joseph is older than Sophie- in fact he is about her mother’s age, which would be off-putting to some, but appears to not affect Sophie in the slightest. She really wants to go and hear him play with his band, but lives in fear of what her mother would think. Sophie’s fear of what her mother thinks due to Martine’s unfaltering strictness ultimately creates a divide between them, as Sophie is uncomfortable with sharing things with Martine.


Joseph returns from a show late one night and knocks at Sophie’s door. He is ecstatic, charged with joy from a successful performance. He invites Sophie out to go eat at a café in his seemingly limitless emotional high, to which Sophie agrees. This is really the first time Sophie goes out in her life, and definitely the first time she leaves outright behind Martine’s back. Sophie enjoys herself immensely, and experiences a great emotional high, one that, presumably, has been missing from her life for a long time.


Returning from their late-night escapade, they stop on Sophie’s porch. Sophie says that she can tell that he likes her, but is reluctant to admit her reciprocation: "You will not respect me if I say yes." To Joseph, this notion is ludicrous, hilarious even. He doesn’t consider it some sort of act of dishonour for a woman to admit their romantic feelings. On the other hand, Sophie’s ideas about men are those transferred to her by a paranoid Martine. She muses, "How do I know you're not just saying these things so you can get what you want?" as though constantly suspicious of some ulterior motive. However, Joseph doesn’t seem to be some sexually charged male looking to exploit a naïve girl- he seems to only want to be happy with Sophie.


Sophie has obviously fallen in love with Joseph and his music, and as she hears his music through the walls: “The notes and scales were like raindrops, teardrops, torrents. I felt the music rise and surge, tightening every muscle in my body. Then I relaxed, letting it go, feeling a rush that I knew I wasn't supposed to feel.” Her love is again conveyed with imagery involving water. In this moment, she feels a rush of love and warmth- like a torrent of water running through her, and she cannot help but feel slightly guilty for this emotion.

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