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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapters 22-23 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Ife leaves the next morning to visit the cemetery to pay her final respects to Dessalines. Sophie speaks with Atie, and mentions her close relationship with Louise. Atie says ‘when you have a good friend, you must hold her with both hands.’ Atie obviously thinks of Louise as a very good friend, and, likewise, believes that she should hold on to her. Atie also acknowledges that Louise will eventually leave, and says that she will miss her ‘like [her] own skin.’

When Ife returns from the cemetery, Sophie asks if she had a ‘nice visit.’ She relates that whether you willingly visit the graveyard on your own two feet or in a box after your death, it is very difficult.

That night, Atie does not return for dinner from visiting Louise. Ife and Sophie eat in the yard, Ife paying particular attention to a light moving between ‘two distant points on the hill.’ Ife brings Sophie’s attention to the light, and tells her that a baby is being born. The midwife is takes trips from the shack (where the mother is) to the yard where a pot is boiling. Ife says that they will soon be able to tell whether it is a boy or girl that has been born. The reason Ife gives for this reveals the true patriarchal nature of Haiti:

"If it is a boy, the lantern will be put outside the shack. If there is a man, he will stay awake all night with the new child." "What if it is a girl?" "If it is a girl, the midwife will cut the child's cord and go home. Only the mother will be left in the darkness to hold her child. There will be no lamps, no candles, no more light."

This presents a direct contrast between the value perceived in a male child and that seen in a female child. The man will only show interest if the child is a boy, while if the child is a girl, only the mother will be left to hold her in the dark. This culture obviously perceives the girl to be of lesser value- after all, the boy is the male heir, and can become whatever he wants to. Contrarily, the girl can only grow to be married off to another man- and in the worst case, bring social disgrace to her family by losing her virginity prior to getting married. This inculcates the idea that women are less valuable than men in the Haitian society. Note specifically that the mother is left to hold the child alone in the darkness if it is a girl. The man will neither stay with the child nor play a part in her upbringing, leaving the mother to raise her and take responsibility for her wellbeing.

Upon waking the next morning, Sophie realizes that Atie had not returned the previous night from visiting Louise. Instead, she and Louise come walking towards the house in the morning. Louise is trudging a few feet behind Atie, and she enters the yard, takes her pig, and leaves without acknowledging anyone. Ife had threatened to kill the pig if Louise did not come to get it. When Sophie offers to buy the pig, Atie jumps to reject her. Atie obviously does not want Louise to leave, and giving her that money would only quicken her departure.

Danticat follows this with an interesting scene, where Atie uses leeches to suck out ‘bad blood’ from her swollen calf and writes her name in her book over and over as a method of distracting herself from the pain. It’s possible that it was Louise who convinced her to use the leeches, as she had shown concern for Atie previously, and Atie is only seen with the leeches after returning with Louise. Nonetheless, the scene could be interpreted as symbolic. Traumatic memory, like the ‘bad blood’ Atie speaks about, must be dealt with and removed if possible, even though it may be painful. Atie’s way of coping with the pain of trauma is through her writing, as shown in her frantic writing to distract herself from the pain from the leeches. Atie’s writing is self-expression which allows her to combat the pain of traumatic memory.

Sophie offers to cook dinner that night, choosing her mother’s favourite meal, rice, black beans and herring sauce. Atie brings her to a vendor to gather ingredients. On the way there, they pass through a cemetery, where many of Sophie’s relatives are buried. Atie had obviously passed through here often, as she names each of their final resting places on sight. Atie takes this opportunity to explain the origins of their family name:

"Our family name, Caco, it is the name of a scarlet bird. A bird so crimson, it makes the reddest hibiscus or the brightest flame trees seem white. The Caco bird, when it dies, there is always a rush of blood that rises to its neck and the wings, they look so bright, you would think them on fire."

This imbues the name Caco with a particular sense of strength and maverick-esque free-spiritedness. The bird is such a vibrant red, and in its death (like a phoenix), it flares up with blood making it appear on fire. Red, associated with death in the novel, is now directly connected to the Caco family and the incredibly powerful significance of death. This image of the Caco bird’s spectacular death and Martine’s death at the end of the novel are similar, as she too is dressed in bright red for burial (this will be further analysed later).

The name Caco has other significance, however. In using this word as Sophie’s family name, Danticat actually highlights the histories surrounding the word. The name ‘Caco’ directly links the Caco women to a group of peasant guerillas that resisted the military occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1935. This creates a link based on a legacy of resistance. However, the invocation of the name Caco also calls forth the atrocities suffered by Haitian women at the hands of the American military and the Haitian paramilitary forces. The Cacos, though assembled to guard Haiti from this US imperial regime, ended up abusing and raping the women of the very nation they were meant to protect. The US instituted a radical change in Haiti’s political structure using the legislative power gained by their military occupation, allowing them to rule against the Haitian state as it was now obligated to follow the mandates of the US government than hear the tumultuous cries of the Haitian people. Women ended up highly subjugated by this shift, being abused by American servicemen and the Haitian officers alike. Mary Renda, in Talking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of US Imperialism, highlights that these men ended up being exculpated for these actions on the insistence that they were drunk or ‘mentally unbalanced’ due to their service in the tropics (164). Thus, the blame for sexual crimes against the women of Haiti is transferred to some other, unrelated discourse, such as the civilized men being subject to mental degeneration in the tropics.

Danticat’s use of the name Caco accommodates these conflicting historical narratives. The first, where a local resistance mounts against an oppressive empire, and a second, where the abuse of women (by US military forces, Haitian paramilitary groups and even mothers through testing) is pushed to the wayside and made invisible through ‘strategic acts of concealment’ (Francis 2004).

Sophie purchases the ingredients and returns home. She notes with surprise how quickly ‘the memory of how everything came together to make a great meal’ returns. It is as though she naturally comprehends the meal and creates it almost effortlessly, her fingers being guided by fragrance and memory rather than by precise measurements. This leads directly into something Atie said to Sophie:

Haitian men, they insist that their women are virgins and have their ten fingers. According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself.

One might find it irrational, or at the least strangely particular, that Haitian men traditionally insist upon these characteristics (i.e. virgin, ten fingers). However, I believe that this is due to an internalized religiosity (inherited from colonial Catholic morals) that ascribe a value to Haitian women based on their purity. The use of the possessive their reinforces the patriarchal idea that the woman simply belongs to the man and is a tool to satisfy them as an obedient servant. The remark about the ten fingers solidifies this idea, where in preparation to ‘become a woman,’ Haitian girls are taught that their very bodies (their fingers) have already been dedicated to serving a particular household task. Taking care of all the household duties, like a servant, in their husband’s home is equated to what it means to ‘become a woman.’ Virginity and ability to care for the home are the tenets of womanhood, as propagated in Haitian culture. The duties of a woman are already decided for her, even before her birth, as Atie says. The average Haitian woman’s aspirations are limited to being a house servant, as this is what they are traditionally supposed to do. She has no choice in what is decided for the path of her life, once again tying back to Martine’s statement earlier in the novel when she recalls how her and Atie’s dreams were dashed: ‘we found out we had limits.’ Atie wishes that she could have had ‘two [fingers] left for herself,’ so that she could decide of her agency what to do with them, rather than be forced into a mould for the woman cast by a patriarchal society and adhered to due to the propagation of the idea of females being inferior.

Throughout Sophie’s two years parted from her mother, she hadn’t eaten Haitian cuisine, nor cooked with the special spices of her homeland. Instead, her diet was limited to random, easy to put together foods- food that didn’t bring back any memories of her mother. Atie notes that Sophie’s dish was well prepared, and Ife complements Atie on teaching her how to cook well. It seems that Ife acknowledges the motherly role fulfilled by Atie, and believes that she played her role well. This compliment is obviously surprising to Atie, who, as we discussed earlier, was deeply conflicted with the prospect of letting Sophie travel to New York due to the consanguineous jump that could not be made between her (Sophie’s functional/surrogate mother) and Martine (her biological mother). Atie expresses affection towards Sophie by kissing her on her forehead, after this little event of validation of her role as a parent. Immediately after, she leaves with her notebook in hand to meet with Louise, and it makes sense that these two events are connected- Atie intends to express her emotions at this time through words in her notebook.

Ife begins to listen very closely, and is somehow able to hear a girl going home far away, out of sight. She says that there is an emotion that calls out to her, which allows her to hear the girl. ‘If your soul is linked with someone, somehow you can always feel when something is happening to them,’ she says. The identity of the girl going home is Ti Alice. She is rushing home to her mother from meeting with a boy. Ife explains that Ti Alice’s mother is now pulling her inside to test her. Hearing this word (‘test’) is enough to send chills through Sophie’s body, bringing back memories and painful associations.

I have heard it compared to a virginity cult, our mothers' obsession with keeping us pure and chaste. My mother always listened to the echo of my urine in the toilet, for if it was too loud it meant that I had been deflowered. I learned very early in life that virgins always took small steps when they walked. They never did acrobatic splits, never rode horses or bicycles. They always covered themselves well and, even if their lives depended on it, never parted with their panties.

The obsession with purity is here compared to a cult, where the preservation of virginity and mannerisms of the pure is paramount. The strange assertions about the mannerisms of virgins are disconcerting. This idea of ‘purity’ is shoved into the faces of young girls against their wills, and, as a result, the idea of purity being of utmost importance is inculcated into them as well.

At this point, the seventh folk tale of the novel is told. An extremely rich man chooses to marry a poor black girl simply because she was a virgin. He purchases the whitest sheets and nightgowns he could possibly find for her on the wedding night, and for himself, he purchases a can of goat milk to sprinkle some of her hymen blood into for drinking (a strange, but hyper-masculine Haitian tradition). On their wedding night though, the girl does not bleed. The man is now frantically concerned about his honour and reputation- after all, what proof would he have of his new wife’s purity if she did not bleed enough to spot the sheets with blood. Only concerned about the implications for himself, he cuts the girl between her legs to get some blood to show- but the blood continues to flow profusely from the wound. The girl dies from this excessive loss of blood. The man parades her blood-soaked sheets during the funeral to show that she had been a virgin on their wedding night, to preserve his own image. He drinks his blood-goat milk concoction by her graveside and cries, likely out of guilt for his own selfish hand in her death.

This tale is likely told in Haiti to promote girls to remain untouched and chaste, lest they be presented with the opportunity of a fortunate marriage and be killed inadvertently by a man overly concerned with his own image and dignity. The story is only meant as a ‘scare tactic’ approach to disciplining potentially promiscuous girls, but Danticat’s use of it here forces us to re-evaluate this tale in terms of the absurdity of the man and the virginity cult which encourages this way of thinking. In truth, the man is absolutely deplorable for considering it acceptable to mutilate his bride for the purpose of parading around a memento of her claimed virginity. In the same way that this alternate reading of the story forces us to question the obviously immoral actions of the man, we must also question the obsession with virginity propagated by the virginity cult. The trauma it forces girls to endure for the purpose of satisfying the egotistical, primitive desires of men is unjustifiable.

Sophie now explains the mechanism of doubling she adopted while being tested. Martine told Sophie stories while she tested her, trying to distract her from the pain and humiliation of the ritual. Doubling here is the name given by Haitians for what is essentially dissociation. Freyd and Zurbriggen hypothesize that the purpose of dissociation is ‘to keep emotionally threatening information from conscious awareness.’ Sophie’s reason for doubling lines up with this- she is attempting to dissociate from her current circumstance and ignore the physical trauma she is experiencing. The fact that she continues to double when she and Joseph engage in intercourse shows that the association between sexual activity and guilt is still painful. She attempts to dissociate to escape the current moments of pain while testing, but maintains that same method of coping into her own marriage.

Sophie now confronts Ife about the idea of testing, asking her why mothers do it. Ife’s response echoes the values presented by the story with the rich man:

"If a child dies, you do not die. But if your child is disgraced, you are disgraced. And people, they think daughters will be raised trash with no man in the house."

Strangely, this line seems to favour the idea of death over social disgrace, which is the same line of thought that led to the rich man inadvertently killing his bride. The disgrace of a child spreads to their parent. Ife also seems to want to overcome the expectation that the absence of a father leads to poorly raised children. The following exchange reveals much of Sophie’s own pain, but it also forces Ife to acknowledge the trauma pressed upon Sophie because of testing:

"Did your mother do this to you?"

"From the time a girl begins to menstruate to the time you turn her over to her husband, the mother is responsible for her purity. If I give a soiled daughter to her husband, he can shame my family, speak evil of me, even bring her back to me."

"When you tested my mother and Tante Atie, couldn't you tell that they hated it?" "I had to keep them clean until they had husbands."

"But they don't have husbands."

"The burden was not mine alone."

"I hated the tests," I said. "It is the most horrible thing that ever happened to me. When my husband is with me now, it gives me such nightmares that I have to bite my tongue to do it again."

"With patience, it goes away."

"No Grandme Ife, it does not."

"Ti Alice, she has passed her examination." The sky reddened with a sudden flash of lightning.

"Now you have a child of your own. You must know that everything a mother does, she does for her child's own good. You cannot always carry the pain. You must liberate yourself." We walked to my room and put my daughter down to sleep.

"I will go soon," I told my grandmother, "back to my husband."

"It is better," she said. "It is hard for a woman to raise girls alone." She walked into her room, took her statue of Erzulie, and pressed it into my hand. "My heart, it weeps like a river," she said, "for the pain we have caused you."

I held the statue against my chest as I cried in the night. I thought I heard my grandmother crying too, but it was the rain slowing down to a mere drizzle, tapping on the roof.

When Sophie asks if Ife’s mother tested her, it is interesting that Ife’s immediate response is in defence of the ‘responsibility’ of the mother to preserve her child’s purity. She feels that she has to defend the practice, not despite, but because it causes so much pain to the girls who endure it. Note that she uses the word ‘soiled’ to describe a girl who is not a virgin before marriage, reinforcing what we already have discussed about the value of Haitian women being equated to their ‘purity.’ In a situation where a man is given a ‘soiled’ daughter for marriage, he now reserves the right (according to Haitian culture) to shame her family and even return the daughter like a bad product.

Sophie mentions Atie and Martine’s hatred of the tests, and asks if Ife was able to recognize that they hated it while testing them. Ife’s response is once again defensive, citing her responsibility to ‘keep them clean until they had husbands’ as the reason for testing her daughters, even though they evidently hated the ordeal. Ironically, neither of them have husbands now, but Ife says that the burden (of marriage) was not hers to carry alone.

Sophie now opens up about her own pains associated with testing. She considers the tests to be ‘the most horrible thing that ever happened to [her],’ the pains created by the testing even making it painful for her to be with Joseph. Throughout this interaction, Sophie has made Ife a witness to her trauma. She essentially gives testimony to her own trauma, and, in doing so, repossesses the narrative of the trauma. In Dori Laub’s Truth and Testimony, the importance of reclaiming one’s own trauma by reliving it in the presence of a witness is explained:

“…repossessing one's life story through giving testimony is itself a form of action, of change, which one has to actually pass through, in order to continue and complete the process of survival after liberation. The event must be reclaimed because even if successfully repressed, it nevertheless invariably plays a decisive formative role in who one comes to be, and in how one comes to live one's life.”

Sophie creating a witness in Ife is a step towards her own recovery. Ife expresses her own regret for the tradition of pain and trauma that has been propagated through testing. Ife presents her with a statue of Erzulie, the Haitian goddess similar in stature and dignity to the virgin mother of Christianity. Erzulie is a strong-willed female figure who functions as the ideal woman. She is both powerful and sensual, and directly opposes the obsessive idea of purity in Catholicism. Erzulie becomes a symbol of the woman who breaks the binds that usually hold women down, and, especially in the novel, encourages women to free themselves.

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Aryan Patrawala
Aryan Patrawala


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