54 pages 1 hour read

Edwidge Danticat

Breath, Eyes, Memory

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1994

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Breath, Eyes, Memory is a novel by Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat, first published in 1994. The book is semi-autobiographical: like the protagonist, 12-year-old Sophie Caco, Danticat herself was born in Haiti but moved to the United States at a young age. She has since written several novels and short stories about Haiti, immigration, and the complex ways that one’s identity is formed by where they are from and where they now live. The novel is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, following the life and development of Sophie Caco from the age of 12 in Haiti to her adulthood in the United States. It explores the themes of generational trauma, home as a construct, and motherhood as they apply to Sophie in her life as a Haitian American.

This guide uses the Second Vintage Contemporaries Edition, first published in the United States in May 1998.

Content Warning: The source material includes discussions of rape, sexual abuse, self-harm, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, and suicide.

Plot Summary

Sophie Caco is a 12-year-old girl living in Haiti with her aunt Atie, whom she largely views as her mother figure. Sophie’s own mother, Martine, left her when she was a baby to move to the United States. Sophie comes home from school with a Mother’s Day card to give to her aunt, but Atie refuses it, telling her that she must give it to her mother. At the community potluck dinner, it is revealed that Sophie has been summoned to New York by her mother and will be moving there soon.

Although their lives in Haiti are largely supported by Martine and the money she sends back to them in Haiti, Sophie still feels bitterness and anger toward her mother and resents having to uproot her life to join her in New York. The only image she has of her mother is a photograph in a frame on her bedside table, and she often dreams of her mother coming to steal her away and to take her inside the picture frame with her. Despite Sophie’s protests, Atie insists that Sophie must go to New York because it is the right thing for a daughter to be with her mother.

Once in New York, Sophie is immediately confronted with the realities of her mother’s situation. She is living in a rundown apartment in a city Sophie perceives as dirty and overcrowded, and she is working two full-time jobs to support herself and send money home to Haiti for her family.

Their initial interactions are uncomfortable, as Sophie largely refuses to respond to her mother’s awkward attempts to connect with her. Martine questions Sophie on whether she is still a virgin, telling her that she and Atie were “tested” by their mother to ensure their virginity throughout their adolescence. She also reveals to Sophie that she was raped by a Tonton Macoute and that was how Sophie was born, shattering the image Atie had placed in her head of her being born from the sky.

When Sophie is 18 and has graduated from school and moved with her mother to a new home, she meets an older musician named Joseph who lives next door. She begins seeing Joseph in secret, going to his house and even out to see him perform when her mother is at work. However, her mother comes home one day and is distraught that Sophie is not there. When Sophie returns home, her mother angrily performs the virginity “test” on Sophie, using her fingers to ensure that Sophie’s hymen is not broken. Sophie feels violated and traumatized, and ultimately mutilates herself by breaking her own hymen with a pestle so that she will fail the virginity “test.” When her mother discovers this, she kicks Sophie out of her home and forces her to flee to Joseph. Sophie goes to Joseph and agrees to marry him and move to Providence with him. Shortly thereafter she has a baby, Brigitte.

A few years later, Sophie decides while Joseph is away that she wants to return with Brigitte to Haiti to confront her grandmother and her aunt about the “testing” and the reasons for it. It is revealed that over the years since leaving home, she has struggled with the trauma of what her mother did to her and what she did to herself, which has left her unable to enjoy sexual intercourse with Joseph and has left her with night terrors.

In Haiti, Sophie interacts with her aunt and her grandmother, Ifé, in an effort to understand the ritual. Both admit that they understand the trauma that it caused, but neither is able to give her a reasonable explanation as to why.

After several days in Haiti, Sophie’s mother arrives, and the two are forced by Ifé to reconcile. Sophie confronts her mother about the “testing,” but her mother is also unable to give her a reason other than she did it because her mother had done it to her. Although this largely leaves Sophie without answers, she feels better for having confronted her trauma, believing that she will now be able to avoid passing further trauma on to her own daughter.

Back in the United States, Sophie’s relationship with her mother grows closer. However, it becomes clear that Martine is struggling deeply still with the trauma of her rape, and she admits to Sophie that she is pregnant. As time passes, she becomes more and more certain that she will be unable to have the child, as the pregnancy reminds her of her rape, retraumatizing her.

Meanwhile, Sophie struggles to deal with her trauma after having recognized it and faced it. She deals with bulimia and nightmares, and she fears that her daughter will inherit these struggles. She attends a support group with other women who were sexually abused, as well as seeing her therapist regularly, who helps talk her through her own grief and understand what her mother is going through.

When Martine finally becomes consumed by her fears of giving birth to a child, afraid that it will have a piece of her rapist and even claiming to hear it speak to her and threaten her, she makes the decision to stab herself in an effort to kill the child. As she dies, she tells the ambulance driver that she could not carry the child.

Sophie returns to Haiti for her mother’s funeral. Afterward, she flees into a cane field—where her mother was raped—and angrily destroys the sugar cane as her family watches. Her grandmother tells her that she now is “free,” as she can finally build her own life free from the traumas of her past.

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