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Black Women’s Literature of Diaspora: “Breath Eyes Memory” by Edwidge Danticat Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 15th, 2021


This analytical essay presents information about the book “Breath Eyes Memory” by Edwidge Danticat, presenting information about the presentation of mother/daughter relationship in the book along with certain other themes. The Works Cited page appends five sources in MLA format.


The book under consideration is known as “Breath Eyes Memory” and has been written by Edwidge Danticat. The book is about a girl of nearly twelve years, who goes by the name of Sophie Caco, and is sent from her impecunious village of Croix-des-Rosettes to New York, to be joined up with a mother of whom she barely has any memories at all. In New York, the girl discerns secrets that should not be known perhaps by any child, and what she comes to find out is a bequest of humiliation that can only be cured by her going back to Haiti to get in touch with the women who played a part in rearing her.

The story starts off in Haiti, on Mother’s Day, when adolescent Sophie learns that she will have to go away from the only home she has ever known with her Tante Atie in Croix-des-Rosettes, Haiti, to go live with her mother in New York City. The beginning chapters that are related to Haiti are divine, ingeniously inducing the affectionate, excruciating relationship that exists between a child who does not have a mother and a woman who does not have a child but feels nobility bound to look out for the natural mother’s rights to the girl’s fondness above her own. Danticat also the first few pages of the book to limn a vivacious representation of life in Haiti ranging from the cups of ginger tea and baskets of cassava bread that is served at neighborhood potlucks to the folk tales of a “people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads.”


With Sophie’s changeover from a comparatively contented existence with her aunt and grandmother in countryside Haiti to life in New York with a mother who she has no memory of, Danticat’s roots as a short-story writer become more apparent; “Breath, Eyes, Memory” begins to comprehend more like a compilation of associated stories than a flawlessly developed narrative. In a combination of short chapters, Sophie comes into New York where she gets to know about her mother, forms social contact with her mother’s new boyfriend, Marc, and figures out that she was the result of a rape at the time when her mother was a mere teenager in Haiti.

The novel then moves a couple of years forward to Sophie’s graduation from high school and her fascination with an elder man who is basically their neighbor. Regrettably, this is, in addition, the point in the novel where Danticat begins to put down her themes on with a trowel as opposed to a brush: Sophie’s mother somehow becomes preoccupied with protecting the virginity of her daughter, by going to the point where she would conduct physical “tests” on a customary basis, which are tests that lead sooner or later to a fissure in their relationship and to Sophie’s great effort with her own sexuality.

Almost immediately the litany of unfair treatment is flying substantial and high-speed: by the final third of the novel, female genital disfigurement, incest, rape, standoffishness, breast cancer, and abortion are the subjects that arise, in due course obscures both fine writing and discerning categorization under an inundation of anguish. As is said, “Late one night, as Martine is babysitting an invalid old woman; she reveals to Sophie that her own mother used to test for virginity by making sure her hymen was intact.” (Breathe, Eyes, Memory: Summary, p.1).

Sophie falls in love with a boy by the name of Joseph and when one night she comes home late, she is faced by an enraged, hysterical Martine, who forces Sophie to come upstairs and quickly tests her virginity. In all of the upcoming weeks, the constant tests for virginity come to take place and Sophie begins to feel disheartened and out-of-the-way. As a final point, in extreme anxiety, Sophie spears herself with her mother’s spice grinder, flouting her hymen. She, as a result, fails Martine’s test and is thrown out of the home, at which point she elopes with Joseph to Providence, R.I.

Sophie comes into La Nouvelle Dame Marie, Haiti, with her newborn daughter Brigitte, and has not been on talking terms with her mother in two years. She finds Macoutes itinerating the marketplace, a distressed Louise trying to heave money to go away from Haiti, and a progressively more alcoholic Atie. Nevertheless, the women are overjoyed with Brigitte, whom they announce has Martine’s face.

The motivation for Sophie’s trip slowly but surely becomes apparent. She went away while Joseph was on an excursion, driven to extreme anxiety by an abhorrence of her body and a fear of sex. Despite the fact that Joseph is sympathetic and kind, she cannot sleep with him without doubling up. She blames her irrational fear on Martine’s constant tests that were carried out on her, and in turn on Grandmè Ifé’s testing of Martine.

After a number of days into her trip, Louise turns up in tears with the information that the Macoutes have without rhyme or reason killed a poor firewood seller by the name of Dessalines, in the marketplace. Sophie intercedes on her mother’s rape, almost certainly due to a Macoute and on the Haitian fascination with the purity of the female sex.

In the coming week, Martine disembarks in Dame Marie, called upon by Grandmè Ifé for the rationale of squaring off. Sophie is told by her that even though they started off incorrectly, now that Sophie is an adult, she and Martine can make a new start. The understanding that existed between the mother and the daughter seems to come back. The very same night, Atie and Martine reveal the clutter of their lives. Afterward Grandmè Ifé, despondent with the influence of Louise on Atie, finally buys her pig so that she can make arrangements for enough money to leave the country. Louise goes away without even saying goodbye to Atie.

All the way through her journey to home, the constant worry of being in Haiti leaves Martine physically ill. She is supported and helped out by Sophie as she spends the night with her, and the next morning Martine discloses that she is pregnant by Marc. Consequently, she finds that the horrors of her rape have started getting worse, and she is at a loss of just what she can and should do. Sophie comes back home to Joseph, who she finds is extremely angry over her for going away like that, despite the fact that he loves her very much. All the way through that week, Sophie focuses on her sexual phobia group and has constant sessions with her therapist, Rena, while Joseph tries to help her restore to health.

As a gesticulation of benevolence, Martine calls over Sophie and Joseph to expend that Saturday with her and Marc. The day is depleted eating, being amused, and singing spirituals. When Sophie, Joseph, and Brigitte come back home, Martine phones them up to tell Sophie that the baby has started to talk to her in the voice of the rapist and that she has determined that she needs to go for an abortion.

The day after that, Sophie comes back home from therapy to an insistent message from Marc. When she, at last, gets through, he tells her that Martine has killed herself by wounding herself in the stomach with a corroded knife seventeen times. She tells Marc that she can not have the baby and dies in the ambulance. A trip is made to Dame Marie for Martine’s burial by Sophie and Marc. Throughout the funeral, not capable of watching dirt being spaded over her mother, Sophie sprints into the cane fields, which remind her of the scene of her mother’s rape, and starts aggressively attacking the stalks.

The story basically tells us of how a child, who barely remembers her mother, unites with her. It presents to us the relationship that exists between females. It shows that even though Sophie did not know her mother since birth, she is still greatly attached to her to a point where things just go wrong between them due to the beliefs of purity that irritated Sophie. In the book, we go through a family custom that is passed from mother to daughter that leads to self-destruction and then lack restrictions for the next age bracket of adulthood of women (Breathe, Eyes, Memory: A Novel, p.1). “Are you free, my daughter?” is the basic question posed to Sophie Cacu Woods after the internment of her mother, Martine, in their mother country of Haiti.

Both mother and daughter have been debilitated by ill-treatment that is female-centered and basically is generational in nature: Martine, a person who has survived rape, and Sophie, a sufferer of her family’s tradition of virginity testing. Over time the disturbance of the rape and testing shows the way to the collapse of Sophie and Martine’s relationship. When Sophie at last “fails” the test, the women take apart pursuing lives that take account of matrimony and motherhood, sexual dysfunction and bulimia, sexual compliance, and the use of chemicals to lighten the mark of African background.

Danticat’s way of managing issues related to virginity testing in relation to rape and family tradition goes further than the instantaneous impact of the practice. As is said, “This tradition is followed in several countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Turkey.

A resurgence of the practice has come about due to the widespread of HIV/AIDS, both as a means of preventing the disease and a way to fulfill the belief that a cure can be found in the purity of a virgin” (Book Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory, p.1). The book portrays the long-standing effects of the act: Sophie causes physical abuse to herself so as to get away from the testing when she becomes conscious that her mother will not stop until a time comes when she fails. Martine’s sister, Atie, also experiences a life devoid of male camaraderie and short periods of depression as a consequence of testing and family commitment.

The overriding culture’s challenging fascination with female purity is best observed by the twosome of Martine and Atie. Growing up, the sisters’ cleanliness was cautiously watched over by the embarrassing practice of testing. Still, Martine faced rape at age sixteen, while Atie, deceived by her fiancé, never married. None of them achieved the adulthood for which she was prepared, symptomatic of at first that this is the foundation of their despondency. But the eventual force of their stories discloses a disconcerting cohesion between ‘pure’ and fallen women. The sisters’ twin calamities support the toll of a life span of doubling, of living in a setting that keeps the woman sore in her body.

The faction of female purity focuses on a fascination with the woman’s body, as it is prominent to the category of sacred object. It is not the woman’s own anymore but as an alternative a representative vessel of reputation, whose usefulness and reason are decided by others. In this circumstance, the woman is estranged from her body, spellbound by the weight of her very own flesh (Levine, 2007). Martine’s rape gives way to insanity, bad dreams, a figment of the imagination and voices, as violent behavior done to her body is brought about by her body’s repeated hostility against her soul. The particulars of Martine’s suicide propose an effort to obliterate the body of the rapist, which has become impossible to tell apart from her own.

Consequently, while Martine’s familiarity represents a more thespian version of the incarceration that her female generation feels, it is a dissimilarity only of scale. Atie’s falling back on alcohol corresponds to a similar flee, an endeavor to counteract the physicality of her disastrous womanhood and the broader corporeal trap of being wedged in Dame Marie.

The outstanding effects of the virginity faction are able to be seen in Sophie’s incapability to have sex without doubling, and her own complicatedness with her body in the novel’s concluding sections. It is Sophie’s cognizant attempts to take in hand this split, to bring together her body and soul by means of therapy, description, and love, which demonstrate a power to move further than the catastrophe of her mother’s and aunt’s experience (Knowles, p.1).

Even after all that, there is much to have high regard for in the book “Breath, Eyes, Memory,” and even though at times the stratagem becomes impassioned, Danticat’s expressive, flamboyant prose offers some genuine delight. If nothing else, this narrative is sure to tempt readers to search for short stories written by the author of the book.


In the light of the above discussion, we can hereby culminate that the book under consideration.

Works Cited

Book Review: Breath, Eyes, Memory. Web.

Breathe, Eyes, Memory: A Novel. Vintage. 1998. Pp.1.

Breathe, Eyes, Memory: Summary. Web.

Knowles, Roberta. Edwidge Danticat. Breath, Eyes, Memory. St. Croix. 1994. Pp.1.

Levine, M. Book Review. Suite101. 2007. Pp.1.

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IvyPanda. "Black Women's Literature of Diaspora: "Breath Eyes Memory" by Edwidge Danticat." September 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/black-womens-literature-of-diaspora-breath-eyes-memory-by-edwidge-danticat/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Black Women's Literature of Diaspora: "Breath Eyes Memory" by Edwidge Danticat." September 15, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/black-womens-literature-of-diaspora-breath-eyes-memory-by-edwidge-danticat/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Black Women's Literature of Diaspora: "Breath Eyes Memory" by Edwidge Danticat'. 15 September.

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