Breath, Eyes, Memory is a book written by Edwidge Danticat.
Sophie Caco, age twelve, comes home from school in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, to the house she shares with her beloved, illiterate aunt Atie. Noting sadness in her aunt, Sophie presents Atie with a handmade Mother's Day card she had been meaning to save. But Atie refuses to take it, insisting that the card belongs to Martine, her sister and Sophie's absent mother.
That night, at the konbit potluck dinner, Atie is forced to reveal that Martine has mailed her a plane ticket and instructions to send Sophie to her mother in New York. The gossips are delighted, but Sophie is devastated.
Preparations for the trip begin. Sophie and Atie make a trip to La Nouvelle Dame Marie, Haiti, to obtain the blessing of Sophie's maternal Grandmè Ifé for Sophie's voyage. That week, Atie works late to buy Sophie a new dress for her trip. On the morning of Sophie's departure, the taxi arrives in the middle of breakfast. Arriving in Port-au-Prince, Sophie and Atie find themselves in the midst of a riot over the airport's name change. Sophie is rushed onto the plane along with a small hysterical boy whose father, a corrupt government official, has just been killed in the demonstration.
Arriving in New York, Sophie is met by Martine, who looks scrawny and tired, unlike the smiling woman in Atie's photographs. Arriving home to a poor neighborhood, Martine tells Sophie that her only chance lies in academic success. Sophie promises to work hard. That night, she wakes to find Martine the midst of a violent nightmare. Sophie wakes her, and Martine thanks Sophie for saving her life.
The next night, Sophie and Martine go to a Haitian restaurant with Marc, an affluent Haitian immigration lawyer who has become Martine's long-term lover. Sophie realizes that she is a relic of her mother's past, and is ashamed that she looks like no one in her family.
In the months before school starts, Sophie spends her days with Martine at her various jobs. 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. But this testing stopped early, as Martine was raped by a masked man at sixteen on her way home from school, leaving her pregnant with Sophie. The rapist's unseen face is mirrored in Sophie's own.
Six years have passed and Martine's work is paying off, though her nightmares continue. The Cacos have moved to a small house in a neighborhood near Marc, and Sophie is preparing to attend college. In the past six years, Sophie has done little but study, and has known no men. Now, she finds herself attracted to Joseph, the older musician next door. While Martine works night and day, Sophie and Joseph gradually become friends. He is kind, articulate and respectful. Eventually, he asks her to marry him.
Coming home late the next night, Sophie is caught by a furious, frantic Martine, who takes her upstairs and promptly tests her virginity. In the weeks that follow, the testing continues and Sophie begins to feel depressed and isolated. Finally, in desperation, Sophie impales herself her mother's spice pestle, breaking her hymen. She subsequently fails Martine's test, and is thrown out of the house, whereupon she elopes with Joseph to Providence, R.I.
Sophie arrives in La Nouvelle Dame Marie, Haiti, with her infant daughter Brigitte, not having spoken to her mother in two years. She finds Macoutes wandering the marketplace, a desperate Louise trying to raise money to leave Haiti, and an increasingly alcoholic Atie. Nonetheless, the women are delighted with Brigitte, whom they declare has Martine's face.
The reasons for Sophie's trip gradually become evident. She left while Joseph was on tour, driven to desperation by a hatred of her body and a terror of sex. Though Joseph is understanding and kind, she cannot sleep with him without doubling. She blames her phobia on Martine's testing of her, and in turn on Grandmè Ifé's testing of Martine.
Several days into her trip, Louise arrives in tears with the news that the Macoutes have arbitrarily killed a poor coal seller, Dessalines, in the marketplace. Sophie mediates on her mother's rape, probably due to a Macoute, and on the Haitian obsession with female purity.
The next week, Martine arrives in Dame Marie, summoned by Grandmè Ifé for the purpose of reconciliation. She tells Sophie that although they started off wrong, now that Sophie is an adult, she and Martine can begin again. The sympathy between them returns. That night, Atie and Martine reflect on the mess of their lives. Later, Grandmè Ifé, fed up with Louise's influence on Atie, finally buys her pig so that she will have money to leave the country. Louise leaves without telling Atie goodbye.
On the plane home, the stress of being in Haiti leaves Martine physically ill. Sophie spends the night at her mother's house, and the next morning Martine reveals that she is pregnant by Marc. As a result, her nightmares of the rape have been getting worse, and she does not know what to do.
Sophie returns home to Joseph, who is furious at her for leaving, though he loves her very much. In that week, Sophie attends her sexual phobia group and meets with her therapist, Rena, while Joseph tries to help her heal.
As a gesture of goodwill, Martine invites Sophie and Joseph to spend that Saturday with her and Marc. The day is spent eating, laughing, and singing spirituals. When Sophie, Joseph and Brigitte return home, Martine calls to tell Sophie that the baby has begun speaking to her in the rapist's voice, and that she has decided she must have an abortion.
The next day, Sophie returns from therapy to an urgent message from Marc. When she finally gets through, he tells her that Martine has committed suicide by stabbing herself in the stomach with a rusty knife seventeen times. She died in the ambulance after telling Marc that she could not carry the baby.
Sophie and Marc make the trip to Dame Marie for Martine's burial. During the funeral, unable to watch dirt being shoveled over her mother, Sophie runs into the cane fields, the scene of her mother's rape, and begins violently attacking the stalks. She has finally become free.
- Sophie - The story's first-person narrator and its principal protagonist. Sophie is Martine's daughter, Atie's charge, Grandmè Ifé's granddaughter, Joseph's wife and Brigitte's mother. A child of rape, Sophie is raised in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, by her maternal aunt Atie before being called to New York by her mother at the age of twelve. Notably, Sophie does not look like her mother, her face reflecting the unseen face of Martine's attacker. As the child of a poor immigrant in New York, Sophie must take on the full weight of her mother's and aunt's dreams, spending six years doing nothing but studying and attending church. She must also contend with her mother's trauma, insomnia and nightmares, and with her own conflicting roles as independent woman, loving daughter, savior from nightmares, and reminder of the past. As an adult, Sophie's insomnia, bulimia and sexual phobia echo her mother's own problems and insecurities, even as her loyalty, love, determination and strength reflect her mother's, aunt's and grandmother's spirit. Yet Sophie's relentless and honest examination of herself and her inheritance has perhaps paid off: her daughter, Brigitte, is strong and implacable, suggesting both Caco courage and a break with the more destructive patterns of her maternal line.
- Tante Atie - Sophie's maternal aunt and first guardian, Martine's sister and Grandmè Ifé's daughter. Atie is devastated by two great betrayals: in her youth, Donald Augustin promises to marry her and then suddenly marries another woman, and in her old age, Atie's best friend, Louise, leaves for Miami without so much as a goodbye. She is a character of great perseverance, faithfully caring for Sophie at the novel's beginning and for Grandmè Ifé at the novel's end. Yet as the novel progresses, she becomes understandably bitter at a world that has given her all the restraints of being a poor woman, a daughter, and a virgin, with none of its rewards. Illiterate for much of Sophie's childhood, Atie is taught to read by Louise shortly before the latter's unceremonious departure. Bound to Dame Marie by duty to her mother, Atie refuses to join Martine in New York and instead turns increasingly to alcohol. Throughout, Atie remains deeply loyal to Martine and to her mother, and loves Sophie greatly. Sophie, the beloved child, remains one of Atie's few consolations against the cruel and indifferent march of fate.
- Martine - Sophie's mother, Atie's sister and Grandmè Ifé's daughter. Martine was raped at the age of sixteen by a masked Macoute in a cane field on her way home from school. The rape left Martine with a child, Sophie, and a lifetime of vivid nightmares. Martine's emigration to New York after Sophie's birth, where she works tirelessly at menial jobs, has meant some precious money for the family. It has also meant Sophie's chance to leave Haiti and to get an American education, a chance that Martine invests with all the power of what has been denied her. Martine's continual struggle to be a good mother to Sophie and a sexually adequate lover to Marc remain powerfully informed by the twin violations of rape and of her own mother's practice of testing for virginity. She is a deeply loving and deeply wounded character, hoping to show her daughter a way beyond her own life even though she cannot help but perpetuate some of its troubles.
- Grandmè Ifé - The matriarch of the Caco family. Grandmè Ifé lives alone in the remote village of La Nouvelle Dame Marie, Haiti, until Sophie leaves for New York and Atie comes to Dame Marie to be with her out of duty. She is wise, candid, practical and astute, with an intuitive knowledge of human nature and a bottomless reserve of parables. Yet she is also necessarily a product of her world, content with her provincial village and accepting of its customs and order. In Martine's and Atie's youth, Grandmè Ifé tested her daughters' virginity in keeping with what she perceived as a mother's duty, despite the tremendous pain it caused them. Later, seeing the Macoutes begin to beat a coal-seller in the marketplace, Grandmè Ifé's first thought is to hurry Sophie home. But while she does not consider it her place to challenge the social order, Grandmè Ifé is intensely loyal to her children, loving them against all of the world's pain so that a granddaughter or great-granddaughter can see her way out from under the burden.
- Joseph - Sophie's first and only boyfriend and eventual husband. Joseph is a professional musician who lives next door to the house where Sophie and Martine move during Sophie's eighteenth year. He is an African-American from Louisiana and can speak a form of Creole, giving him an immediate kinship with Sophie. Though old enough to be Sophie's father, Joseph is honest, gentle, loving and sure, in stark contrast to the violence, sleaziness and treachery of many of the novel's men. He is deeply supportive of Sophie, committed to helping her as best he can, and enormously proud of their infant daughter.
- Marc - Martine's long-time lover in New York. Marc is a stocky, well-dressed Haitian lawyer, in love with his mother's cooking and by his own full name, Marc Jolibois Francis Legrand Moravien Chevalier (the last word meaning knight). He is slightly patronizing of Sophie and treats her as a child throughout the book. He is kind to Martine, though he does not deeply understand her, as symbolized by his ability to sleep like a log during most of her nightmares. Though his affection for Martine seems genuine, he retains the slightly sleazy air of one too well-connected, a lawyer intent on evading blame.
- Monsieur Augustin - A relatively affluent and handsome neighbor of Sophie's and Tante Atie's in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti. Though once in love with Atie, he married another woman, a betrayal from which Atie has never recovered. His post as teacher at the local school distinguishes him in the community as a man with a profession.
- Madame Augustin - Wife of Donald Augustin. Lotus is a pretty, gossipy and self-important woman whom Donald chose to marry, breaking his engagement with Atie.
- Brigitte - Sophie's daughter by Joseph. The infant Brigitte has a remarkable face in which Grandmè Ifé can see the traces of generations of ancestors. She is calm, quiet and sleeps peacefully, signs that perhaps she has not inherited the insomnia and nightmares of her mother and grandmother.
- Louise - A vendor in the marketplace of La Nouvelle Dame Marie. Louise becomes Tante Atie's best friend once Atie returns to Dame Marie from Croix-des-Rosets to take care of the aging Grandmè Ifé. Though Louise teaches the adult Atie to read and write, she remains a troubling influence, implicated in Atie's night wanderings and her increasing alcoholism. Louise's dream is to save enough money to take a boat to Miami, despite the great risks of the journey. She appears as a deeply desperate woman, continually seeking a buyer for her pig in order to raise the money for her trip. When Grandmè Ifé, fed up with Louise's effect on Atie, finally buys Louise's pig, Louise departs without so much as a goodbye to Atie, leaving Atie heartbroken for a second time.
- Rena - Sophie's therapist and the instigator of the sexual phobia group. Rena is a gorgeous black woman who wears bangles and bright prints and smokes as she theorizes. She has spent two years in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic and is an initiated Santeria priestess.
- Buki - One of three members of Sophie's sexual phobia group. Buki is an Ethiopian college student who was ritually genitally mutilated by her grandmother as a girl.
- Davina - The second member and hostess of Sophie's sexual phobia group. Davina is a middle-aged Chicana who was raped by her grandfather as a girl over a period of ten years.
- Chabin - The albino lottery agent in Croix-des-Rosets, Haiti, from whom Atie faithfully buys lottery tickets, though she rarely wins.
- The Tonton Macoutes - Creole for "Uncle Bogeyman." Refers to the private militia first conscripted under Francois Duvalier, Haitian president from 1957—1971, and formally known as the VSN (Volontaires de la Sécurite Nationale). They are widely feared as torturers, assassins and agents of arbitrary cruelty.
- Dessalines - The poor coal seller in the marketplace of La Nouvelle Dame Marie. Dessalines is capriciously beaten and finally killed by Macoute soldiers during Sophie's trip to Haiti with her infant daughter in Section Three. His name suggests the General Dessalines, born a slave, who fought with Toussaint L'Ouverture against the French to establish an independent Haiti. When L'Ouverture was arrested by the French in 1802, Dessalines became the revolution's leader, winning a decisive battle at Vertieres against Napoleon's armies, declaring Haiti an independent state in 1804 and ruling it until his assasination in 1806. Though he was by no means an unproblematic figure, Dessalines is widely remembered as the father of Haitian independence. The ironic coincidence of the coalseller's name indicates the extent to which the current government has oppressed the Haitian people.
The Marassa are mythical lovers who are so close as to share the same soul. They are first mentioned by Martine, trying to distract Sophie as she tests her for the first time. Martine is jealous and angry with Sophie's rebellion, and frightened that her daughter will leave her for a man instead of acknowledging that she is her mother's marassa. Throughout the novel, the idea of the Marassa helps symbolize narrative doubles, lovers, and parallel and opposite characters. For example, at the novel's beginning, Atie's presence is set against her sister Martine's absence, just as Martine's necessary flight to New York is balanced by Atie's exile to Dame Marie. Marc, Martine's constant, long-term lover, is set against the volatile memory of the rapist who haunts her dreams and is Sophie's true father. The rapist is also set against Joseph, himself a deeply loving father figure and husband to Sophie. But twinship appears most strikingly in the novel's mother-daughter relationships. Just as Martine thinks her daughter is the only person she can trust, Atie takes comfort in her vicarious daughter Sophie, and Sophie worries that Brigitte is the only person in the world who will not leave her. Put otherwise, the invocation of the marassa hints at the twinned nature of human beings, a counterpart to the vaudou practice of doubling. Through a continual, pairwise comparison and contrast of the novel's characters, the rhetoric of marassa exposes the deep interconnection of human beings even as it suggests the difficult baggage which history and memory bring to all human relationships.
The Haitian goddess of love and power, Erzulie is invoked as a symbol of female courage, desirability and strength. She is Sophie's ideal mother, the comforter of women and the desire of men. She is a complex goddess, a loa (vaudou spirit) affiliated both with the Virgin Mary and with an opulent, abundant sexuality. She is alternately described as a loving virgin and as a coquettish beauty with many husbands. She is a mulatress, whose skin attests to her spanning of worlds. She is associated both with transcendence and with deep earthiness, with humanity and with transformation. When Grandmè Ifé gives Sophie a statue of Erzulie, apologizing for the pain her family has caused her, the gift suggests a symbolic return of the mother Sophie wanted to have and thus the beginning of Sophie's own healing. By contrast, when Sophie prefaces the loss of her own virginity by recalling the story of Erzulie transforming a bleeding woman into a butterfly, she invokes the goddess's aspect of escape and sorrow, of helping women to leave the bodies which have caused them such pain. More broadly, Erzulie's twin nature is suggested by her vaudou context as a beautiful, flirtatious, playful woman, who may arrive in delight and wonder, but who in the end always begins to weep. Ultimately, it is Erzulie who bears the burden of the world's sorrows, and whose fabulous power and attraction are set against a deep knowledge of human pain.
The process of testing, in which a mother makes sure her daughter is still a virgin by checking to see whether her little finger can pass the girl's hymen, is one of the book's most troubling and difficult rituals. Begun in rural villages, where a woman's life was her honor, testing is nonetheless continued in their Brooklyn home by Martine, desperate to ensure that Sophie escapes her own unhappiness. The act's symbolic violation mimics the mechanics of rape, though its motives are nearly opposite. It most clearly embodies the book's obsession with female virginity, a cult of purity in which the woman's body becomes a symbol of her family's and husband's pride, worth, and honor - in short, in which her body is anything but her own. More specifically, Martine's testing of Sophie simply because her own mother had tested her attests to the crippling weight of traditional practice, and the protagonists' difficult struggle to avoid passing on their painful inheritance.