In Edwidge Danticat’s novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, the speaker, Sophie, grows up in Haiti under the wing of her aunt Atie. Atie and her mother, Ife, live traditional Haitian lives. Both women have minds filled with folk tales and traditional stories of the supernatural. These stories influence the way in which they relate to the world. Their Haitian world is full of beauty, tradition, and close ties, but also poverty, political violence, constant change, and “chagrin”.
Atie repeatedly tells Sophie that it is in her best interest to go to America to be with her mother, as Haitian (and American) reasoning is that mothers and daughters belong together. Atie’s relationship with her own mother is based on her feelings of duty as her daughter, it is her duty to take care of the “old woman”. Atie is the only mother Sophie has ever known, though, and it is understandably hard for her to leave her behind, despite Atie’s refusal to accept the Mother’s Day card from her and her insistence that Sophie be strong and face her fears of the foreign, unknown New York City, and her stranger mother.
Sophie soon discovers that her mother is tormented by nightmares. It becomes her routine to awaken her mother, which Martine sees as Sophie saving her from certain death, as her dreams are real to her. While Martine has been away from Haiti for many years, she is still very Haitian. Striving for purity continues to be an important part of her life. Her purity was stolen from her when she was raped. Sophie gradually falls in love with a man that is very good to her, and were it not for her mother’s fears, and Joseph’s age, perhaps Joseph would have been “approved” by Martine. Ironically, in order to ensure that Sophie remains pure when Martine discovers her relationship, she violates her with “tests”, as Ife had tested her, and Ife’s mother had tested Ife. The cycle of the testing continues, and it is the degradation from the testings that drive Sophie to physically damage herself with the pestle, to fake the loss of her virginity. As planned, Martine believes Sophie has been violated, and Sophie elopes with Joseph.
In Sophie’s adulthood, after she and Martine reconcile in Haiti, her mother finds herself pregnant. For this, she not only has feelings of guilt and shame for being sexual (after she had condemned and punished Sophie for so long for her perceived sexuality), but also because her pregnancy further reminds her of the mixed blessing of Sophie. Martine loves her daughter, but Sophie is to her a living reminder of the rape she suffered and relives through nightmares and now her pregnancy is too.
The characters of Atie and Martine are contrasted, as Atie has remained in Haiti while Martine moved to New York, from where she had often asked Atie to come. Atie, whose potential husband was taken by another woman, has remained “pure” in her unmarried state, while Martine’s purity was taken by rape, and later by consensual pre-marital sex with Marc. The guilt on her face reflects her acknowledgment of her hypocrisy in regards to how she treated Sophie, and her guilt for intending to abort her pregnancy in ways similar to her failed attempts at aborting Sophie, who she claims fought for life in the womb. Her new pregnancy haunts her as well, as she believes the fetus speaks to her and taunts her.
Atie and Martine were tested by their mother, and Martine carried on the legacy of the tests while Atie, who felt tortured and humiliated by them, recounts the horror of it to Sophie. Both Ife and Martine have no other reason for administering the tests than that their mothers did it to them, and their mothers’ mothers them.
In the end, Martine has healed her relationship slightly with Sophie and her granddaughter, however, it is not enough to save her from herself. The nightmares and the ghost the pregnancy becomes drives her to kill herself because she can not take her own history or the terrifying present, where she feels an evil is implanted within her. Atie has been abandoned by her friend and teacher Louise, but she has moved forward in life embracing new things. She holds her notebook close to her heart, and through the learning of reading and writing she discovers more in herself than just the desire to read the Bible she finds a poetic part of herself, the power of being able to read and write that Sophie had encouraged her to explore, and memories of her past, including Sophie’s Mother’s Day card for her that was given to Martine upon Sophie’s arrival in New York.
Martine’s attempt at freedom is suicide. Through ending her life she is free from her past, her present, and her pregnancy. Martine reach for freedom is the novel’s most tragic failure. The time in her life when the most love and support from the most people is available is the time she decides to give up. Atie is the novel’s most successfully self-liberated character. Her liberation comes from her ability to learn, even after she has been abandoned by those closest to her. She goes into the night against her mother’s wishes, acting “like a man”. She teaches Sophie the importance of the burial grounds, giving Sophie the history of all those who had died before them. Her liberation is from the new education she has embraced. Sophie’s liberation, on the other hand, is symbolized by the balloon that sails into the tree she has let go of the resentment of her mother, but has only let it go so far as it could. The memories will always be a pain that resides within herself, even when she runs mad through the sugar cane as release, like the physical pain that remains after committed “an act of freedom, breaking manacles” with the pestle.