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CSEC English B: Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapters 26-27 Analysis/Summary

Updated: Nov 5, 2020

Ife and Martine return from the notary’s the following morning, having officially coined a deed that divides the ownership of Ife’s land in La Nouvelle Dame Marie between them all. Martine is once again described as glowing, more likely describing her joy in having completed such a monumental/significant task in what it represents for their bond as a family than her physical appearance. Being owners of their own land as women in a patriarchal society is impressive in and of itself, but being able to share this land equally between themselves as daughters of Haiti bonds them as a family, and gives them a sort of matrilineal strength.

Atie is gone when they return, and Ife’s reproachful statement reflects her disapproval of Atie’s intimately friendly relationship with Louise:

The gods will punish me for Atie’s ways.”

Ife has a traditional outlook that is corroborated by the religious beliefs of Haiti. She believes that it is completely wrong for them to seek primary emotional support in one another and thus, thinks that she will have to atone for Atie’s ‘sins’ as a mother unable to deter her daughter from this sinfully perverse way.

When Atie returns for dinner, Ife notes her dismal disposition and reveals her own confusion with Atie’s rapidly shifting moods. She implores Martine to ‘take [Atie] with [her]’ when she returns to New York. Martine says that Atie opted to stay with Ife rather than come with her to New York. This is interesting, considering what Atie said when asked if she would be going to New York in Chapter 1: “perhaps it is not yet the time.” Her line there suggested that she had harboured some hope to go to New York at sometime in the future, but now, Atie is resigned to remaining in Haiti with her sole duty being Ife’s caregiver. This connects to what she said in Chapter 25 to Martine: “You can keep all the brightest [stars], when you are gone, I will have them all to myself.” I had analysed this line initially based on its foreshadowing; however, it also communicates that Atie feels she will always be the one left behind. She is resigned to remaining in the same place, her fate according to the prophecy, even while Martine leaves.

Ife once again shows her disapproval of Atie’s obstinate resignation to ‘stay with her,’ remarking that Atie ‘feels she must.’ Instead of being out of love, remaining with Ife is done out of a feeling of duty, reinforced both by the strange prophecy of the valley and Atie’s feeling of emptiness.

Ife and Martine continue to converse while passing a pipe between them. Martine says that she wants to be buried in Haiti upon her death, but Ife lets her know that this wish can only be carried out by Sophie, her daughter. After their talk, Martine paces in the corridor for a majority of the night, obviously pensive and contemplating something important. She quietly enters Sophie’s room and walks over to her bed. Involuntarily, somewhat of a conditioned reaction for the pain associated with such a situation in years past, Sophie crosses her legs and shivers as though fearful that she will be tested yet again. She instinctively attempts to deny Martine’s violation of her, even though the testing has long ended. This aligns with a neuropsychological hypothesis known as body memory. The sexual trauma Sophie was subjected to is long gone; however, the reaction of her body communicates indubitably that there is traumatic memory being evoked by a situation so similar to being tested. Thomas Fuchs elaborates on traumatic memory in The Phenomology of Body Memory:

“The most indelible impression in body memory is caused by trauma... The traumatic event is an experience that may not be appropriated and integrated into a meaningful context. As in pain memory, mechanisms of avoidance or denial are installed in order to isolate, forget, or repress the painful content of memory. The trauma withdraws from conscious recollection, but remains all the more virulent in the memory of the lived body, as if it were a foreign body. At every turn, the traumatized person may come across something that evokes the trauma. It is re-actualized in situations that are threatening, shameful, or in some other way similar to the trauma, even if the person is not aware of this similarity… the victim re-experiences feelings of pain, anxiety, and terror again and again, combined with fragments of intense images. Most of all, the intercorporeal memory of the traumatized person has changed deeply: He or she retains a sense of being defenceless, always exposed to a possible assault.” (pg. 17-18)

This concept of traumatic body memory is seen in both Sophie and Martine throughout the novel, and this is simply one example of Sophie’s body reacting with an attempt at self-defence when faced with something bearing similarity to a traumatic image for her.

Martine cries as she watches Sophie and Brigitte asleep. There are several possibilities for her tears here. It is most likely that she is realizing her own role in pushing Sophie away from her with testing, or acknowledging the opportunities she lost to reconcile with Sophie over their years apart. She may also be recalling the traumatic memories of her own past and recognizing that she most likely caused Sophie to inherit her pain as well. In any case, Martine is in emotional distress, and she reveals more of her discomfort the following morning.

Martine says that the nightmares are worse for her in Haiti than when she is abroad. Returning to Haiti, the trauma of her past has been vividly revived. It is no longer a distant memory that she relives from a place far away, but rather one that she must interface with actively and directly because of the familiarity of her surroundings. Sophie expresses her sympathy for Martine, revealing to the reader that she, too, had experienced her own nightmares.

Sophie says to Martine that she had believed her face brought on the nightmares, because she likely resembled the rapist. Martine reveals that she had been frightened at first by Sophie’s appearance, but she reaffirms that it was something beyond either of their control. She says that Sophie is now different, with a face that has changed; her nightmares had always plagued her, it had only been more potent then because it was her first-time seeing Sophie’s developed face- the one that resembled her violator at that.

Sophie’s next question is one that she has evidently been holding in, since she blurts it out as though involuntarily: “Why did you put me through those tests?” Sophie intends to understand Martine’s reasoning, so that she won’t repeat such a humiliating practice herself with her daughter. Martine’s answer seems to bear with it some shame and penitence for the violative nature of testing:

"I did it," she said, "because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse. I realize standing here that the two greatest pains of my life are very much related. The one good thing about my being raped was that it made the testing stop. The testing and the rape. I live both every day."

Martine’s reason for testing Sophie is simple- one could even consider it unsatisfactorily so. However, we must understand that the Haitian daughter (as presented) is subjected to testing- and not only testing, but also a strict set of guidelines for their lives and conditions of womanhood. They have no control over their own bodies in testing, nor do they control how society sees them and the unreasonable standards they are held to. We see this in the Caco women (who, to be clear, do not represent every Haitian woman), constantly being under the control and mercy of others: be it in their sexuality, futures or otherwise. When they become mothers, they are able to exact control over someone- their daughters- under the guise of it being ‘what’s best for them.’ They gain the slightest semblance of control and power, even if it is through a tradition dictated by a patriarchal society. That is what allows the tradition to survive. Martine tested Sophie simply because her mother had done it to exact control over her- and though she carries the trauma of that humiliating practice, she still tested Sophie for such a simple reason.

Martine here also tells us al lot about her trauma. She has had to carry the weight of two pains: testing and rape. Although the rape, like Sophie’s pestle, stopped the testing, Martine was still left as a helpless victim forced to live a life burdened by pain and recurrent nightmares. She relives both of these painful experiences every day, unable to escape them as they continue to wear away at her. Martine reveals he intention to become friends with Sophie- to start over anew as good friends:

‘She turned back to me and said in English, "I want to be your friend, your very very good friend, because you saved my life many times when you woke me up from those nightmares."’

The chapter ends with the reveal that Louise has left Haiti without a word to Atie. Atie seems dazed, devastated even, and gives hints that she is angry. Louise had sold her pig to Ife and left, leaving just like in Atie’s poem (‘when the pleasure peaks, my love leaves’).

Sophie and Brigitte sleep with Atie in her room on their final night in Haiti. Atie turns away to hide her tears from Sophie, and Sophie attempts to comfort Atie. She says that Louise would have found the money to go anyway. Atie feels pathetic for considering Louise a friend- since she just left with no regard for her, at least, not enough to give her a proper goodbye.

Sophie expresses a wish to return to the past with Atie, when they were younger- but Atie seems to chide her: “The past is always the past… Children are the rewards of life and you were my child.” Atie sees no reason to dwell on the events of the past, but this phrase seems to communicate that she has accepted Sophie as her child. As we discussed previously, Atie’s trauma in motherhood is not being acknowledged as Sophie’s true mother. In this line, she expresses that she feels blessed or rewarded to have been able to share that time with Sophie- and even if she isn’t acknowledged as so, Sophie was her child.

Martine, Brigitte and Sophie part with Ife and Atie the following morning. Atie advises Sophie to treat Martine well, as she will not have her forever, a small bit of foreshadowing at the end of part 3. As they leave in the van, there is the red imagery of Atie under the flamboyant tree, associating this ‘parting scene’ with a sense of death.

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