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In the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat gives a detailed account of a struggling Haitian country and its people through the eyes of a young woman named Sophie Caco. Throughout four phases of her life, Sophie tells the reader of the stereotypes of Haitians that make her scared to go to school, and how traditions in her culture can cause women grief and depression. There is also mention of political unrest, and the militia group known as the Tonton Macoutes. This group has instilled a fear in thousands throughout Haiti. Sophie and her family mention how few are safe from the evil of the Macoutes and the pain they have caused many. In Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory, one can find a variety of themes and motifs, but the most prevalent is the physical and emotional violence and the traumatic effect it has on all those involved.
School can be a source of great anxiety for many children, especially for those who are new students. It is obvious that this will be no different for Sophie. In fact, because she is a Haitian immigrant attending school in America, many expect her to be the victim of bullying and vicious name-calling. Martine, Sophie’s mother, informs her that she must stop speaking Creole and learn English when she says, “the American students would make fun of [her],” for speaking differently, “or, even worse, beat [her]” (51). This causes great anxiety for Sophie, and she feels hesitant about going to school.
She has already had to give up so much and move to America for her mother. Now, she has to give up her native language in order to escape punishment and ridicule from other children at school. It would be very difficult for someone, who has been speaking mostly one language his or her entire life, to try to learn an entirely new language to avoid being beaten. Martine also hears from other parents that “children were getting in to fights in school because they were accused of having HBO-Haitian Body Disorder,” and other students, “accuse Haitians of having AIDS because…only the “Four Hs” got AIDS – Heroin addicts, Hemophiliacs, Homosexuals, and Haitians” (51). This shows how emotional and physical violence can be damaging. She has yet to step foot into an American school and is already terrified. She mentions that she does not want to go, but knows that there is no way her mother would allow that. Her mother has huge aspirations for Sophie. She envisions Sophie becoming a doctor, a position that her older family members could only dream about. At the beginning of the novel, it seems as though, Sophie has a sense of pride that she is able to read and write and go to school. That sense of pride seems to diminish when she learns the ways children treat immigrants at school in America.
Moreover, the fact that the novel takes place during a turbulent period of Haitian history -a time when fighting and death were common-further strengthens the theme of violence and its harmful effect. The government is failing. Some government members have been found to be corrupt, and some people in Haiti are starting to fight back against them. This can be seen at the beginning of the novel when Sophie and Tante Atie, Sophie’s aunt, are on their way to the airport in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. While driving the traffic begins to slow. They then see that it is because a car in middle of the road is engulfed in flames. It is not known for sure that people who oppose the government caused his death, but it seems likely when Sophie notices that there is a group of students throwing rocks at the car. She also sees the students being shot and beaten by Haitian soldiers (34).
Later when Sophie boards the plane, she is traveling with a boy who is incessantly sobbing. She overhears the flight attendant telling someone that the boy’s father was a corrupt government official, and he died in the car that was on fire. The little boy’s whole life is going to be changed forever. He lost his father, his only family in Haiti, to violence. Sophie hears the flight attendant say, “He does not have any more relatives [in Haiti]. His father’s sister lives in New York… She is going to meet him there” (38). This shows how violence can dramatically alter someone’s life. As a result of violence, the young boy is being uprooted and moved to New York. He has to start a new life with his aunt, and he does not have a choice in the matter. As for the students, they lost their life standing up for their country. They did not want a corrupt politician running Haiti, and were killed for their actions against one. They will never experience all that they were supposed to, and their families will be forced to grieve at the loss of loved ones. This is just one aspect of the story where it seems Danticat is pointing out that violence has a drastic affect. The only change from the fighting was the loss of life; nothing positive came as a result of the violence.
Another source of violence that Danticat writes about is the merciless Tonton Macoutes. The Macoutes are a militia group, and they are mentioned throughout the novel. They tend to be horrendous people who do not have any moral or ethical boundaries. While Sophie is back visiting Haiti, the town grieves the loss of Dessalines. Dessalines was a coal man who was killed by the Macoutes. Although the reason for the murder is not mentioned, Sophie previously witnessed Dessalines being beaten simply because he stepped on one of the Macoutes shoes. This is just one of the thing the violent acts they perform in the novel. The Macoutes are known to be a strong and proud group of men. They take whatever they believe they are entitled to, including food, housing, and women, and they are not held accountable for anything. This confirmed when Sophie mentions, “[The Macoutes] entered a house, they asked to be fed, demanded the woman of the house, and forced her into her own bedroom. Then all you heard was screams until it was her daughter’s turn” (139). This demonstrates how the Macoutes will attack anyone and this causes distress throughout the city of La Nouvelle Dame Marie and much of Haiti. This one group of people has taken control over Haiti with their violence and has caused Haitians to live in fear of being the next victim of the Tonton Macoutes. These acts of violence did not personally affect Sophie. Therefore, Danticat could have decided to leave them from the novel, but she chose to include them. These details add a lot of support to the theme of violence and the harmful effect on those involved.
Danticat informs the reader that Sophie and her family have experienced the pain the Tonton Macoutes can cause firsthand. Although it is never officially confirmed, it is hinted at that a Macoute is responsible for raping Martine when she was younger. The experience was very traumatizing for Martine, and it affected her for the rest of her life. For example, Sophie mentions that when still living in Haiti “[Martine] was afraid that he would creep out of the night and kill her in her sleep…At night, she tore her sheets and bit off pieces of her own flesh when she had nightmares” (139). The quote gives an idea about what life was like after being a victim to a violent attack. The assailant stole her sense of safety, and she chose to leave Haiti for a different life in the United States.
The nightmares she suffered through caused her to scratch and thrash, and try to kick or choke anyone that was near her while she was sleeping. Until she was raped, she was a virgin, pure, and desirable; the attacker took that innocence away from her. He also took away her youth and freedom by impregnating her. Although Martine loves Sophie, she finds it hard to look at her sometimes because she assumes that she has her father’s face. This is learned this when Martine says, “I never saw his face…but now when I look at your face I think it is true what they say. A child out of wedlock always looks like its father” (61). In order to be with her daughter, Martine is forced to think about her attacker when she looks into the face of her daughter, who she desperately wants a relationship with. Martine’s nightmares continue into adulthood. This leaves Sophie and Marc, Martine’s boyfriend, to look after her and wake her up when they get out of hand. Martine suffers serious mental issues all throughout the novel, all of which were attributed to her being raped. The cruel act of rape that she experienced as a young woman severely damaged her, and lead to her taking her life at the end of the novel. Danticat spent a lot of time explaining all the grief Sophie’s mother went through, to stress how one violent act can affect someone for the rest of his or her life.
Finally, the most emotionally violent and traumatizing action that Danticat writes about Breath, Eyes, Memory is the ritual of testing. In Sophie’s culture, the mother is in charge of ensuring that her daughters are virgins until marriage. In order to do this, the mother will test her daughter by sticking her finger up her daughter’s vagina to see if her hymen was still intact. If it is, she passes the test. If it is not, she fails and is considered a disgrace to her family. In this culture, when a man is looking for a suitable wife they want her to be a virgin. If she is not, she is thought to be impure and undesirable. Throughout the novel, Danticat writes that the testing was scarring to many women. Martine admits this when she says, “Tante Atie hated it. She used to scream like a pig in a slaughterhouse” (60). Women hate it so much but put up with it because it is their culture. Eventually, they even start to test their own daughters, as is the case with Martine and Sophie. When Sophie gets tested for the first time, she tries her best to distract herself, but she cannot. She feels a strong emotional pain deep inside of her for what is being done.
After several weeks of testing Sophie finally reveals that “[She] was feeling alone and lost, like there was no reason for [her] to live” (87). The emotional pain she experiences from the testing is so severe that she develops a deep depression, and does not feel like she should continue living. She eventually finds a means to fail her testing, and when Martine discovers this she tells her to leave. The emotional damage that this has caused Sophie is very intense. She feels resentment toward Martine for testing her, but she knows that she was only trying to be a good mother. The testing has also caused her to have issues in her marriage. Sophie feels that a women should always be there for her husband sexually, but the testing and what she did to herself makes being intimate very painful. She has to fight back tears from the pain most of the time. From all the negative consequences of the testing, Sophie has managed to find one positive. She vows that she will not be a mother who tests her daughter because she knows personally the pain and depression that it causes women.
In Edwidge Danticat’s novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, the theme of the effects of physical and emotional violence is shown throughout. The violent events, such as: the bullying of Haitian immigrants, the Tonton Macoutes actions, and the testing of a daughter’s virginity, cause the characters in the story a great deal of pain, anxiety, or depression. These emotions can be short term but many stay with character throughout the story and take control of their lives. The constant emotional suffering that is experienced does not allow for them to lead the lives that they want or deserve. Thanks to Edwidge Danticat and her novel, the violent actions that affect many Haitians have been exposed and can hopefully be brought to an end.
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