The Theme Of Trauma In Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory

This paper examines the trauma of black Haitians in Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel by Edwidge Danticat. The novels follows the path of a Haitian American young woman Sophie Caco, who struggles with constructing her identity and tries to balance between her Haitian roots and American culture. Trauma is understood to be “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope causes feelings of helplessness diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.” (Onderko 2019). Not all traumas in the lives of women come from individual conflicts, some of the taumas have deep roots in the history of Haiti. The traumatic events of sexual violence and surrogate motherhood that the main characters Sophie and Martine that would be focused on are experienced in personal and individual terms, but their roots are embedded in larger social and historical conflicts such as post-colonial issues of patriarchal social norms and slavery. The novel tells a story of a young Haitian- American woman, Sophie Caco and Martine Caco. The main characters suffer from a diverse range of different traumas, which together construct the trauma of black Haitian womanhood. The traumatic events in the mother-daughter relationship are influenced by the individuality and directly experienced trauma of female sexuality, sexual violence, patriarchy and memories. The text is a fundamental context of the cultural trauma of slavery, which manifests itself in the novel as “lieu de memoire,” a site of memory, where the main traumatic effects of Haitian history and traumatizing experiences of the main characters converge. In the novel, the women are being held prisoners by their own memories of the traumatic conflicts they have endured and they seem to be unable to let go of these memories. In this thesis, the theme of trauma is expanded to discuss the impact of traumatic events in the narrative on the mother-daughter relationship.

Sophie Caco is characterized to be an intelligent young child that is very respectful and is quite observant. She lived with her aunt Tanti Atie, whom she considered her mother. She then migrates to American upon her mother’s summonings. The transplantation of Sophie in the U.S into a new culture and a new language lead to a sense of dislocation. She is expected to go to school and be educated. If it were up to her, she would not have attended. She was scared of being bullied for her ethnicity. She perceives New York to be a place where she has to be a new person and live up to the expectations required to her. She thought that Flatbush reminded her of home. Her relationship with her mother was not exactly a strong point. Sophie disliked when people tried comparing her to her mother because she knew they shared no physical appearances. She disliked attending the Maranatha Bilingual Institution where she was constantly criticized even though she wanted to blend in. As Sophie grew older, she learns more about her mother and comes to an understanding how violence has shaped her life. She realizes she is the product of a violent rape, and hears her mother’s stories of her invasive testing. Sophie remains traumatized by the mutilation she committed to herself with the pestle, which always leads to her emotional breakdowns. Sophie only reaches a sense of wholeness when she returns to Haiti as an adult. While Haiti becomes the site of liberation that allows for the psychological transformation of the protagonist, the novel is far from perceiving Haitians, the desired homeland. Sophie is faced with troubling experiences and situations that brings her back to American and closer to her mother in whom she has sympathy for. The complexity of Sophie’s experiences both as an outsider and an insider to Haitian and American cultures, allows for continues renegotiation of identity. Sophie is headstrong, capable and adaptable, as she projects strength and pose even in her toughest of moments. She is torn between wanting to be a perfect daughter and wanting to live her own life. She searches for a deeper understanding of herself, her family and the meaning of home.

Martine’s characterization is shown through the eyes of Sophie After giving birth to Sophie, Martine left for New York to pursue a better life for herself and her daughter, promising to send for Sophie. Sophie adjusts to living with Martine and cares for her through her chronic night terrors and joins her at her job as a nurse. Sophie sustains Martine emotionally as Martine continues to be troubled with the trauma of the rape that created Sophie. Sophie becomes the saviour to her despite Martine finding numerous ways of getting rid of her during pregnancy. Martine’s personality becomes controlling and over protective of Sophie’s sexuality to the point of testing her just as Martine’s mother did onto her. Martine kicks Sophie out after discovering she is no longer a virgin and ultimately expects Sophie to return to her in humiliation. They reunited and started a fresh chapter that brought them closer. However, Martine’s pregnancy causes the destabilizing of her mental health. She started having hallucinations, which led to her suicide along with her unborn baby. Neurotic, hardworking and obsessed with sexual and emotional purity, Martine is the novel’s primary antagonist.

There are a number of symbolism in Danticat’s novel. Colours are extremely important. When Sophie lived in Haiti, she loved yellow, as she does Martine. Yellow represents a colour of light, happiness and warmth. The colour red is associated with Martine and life in New York and in death , with the Caco women. Red can and does symbolize several things: blood, sacrifice, heat, pain, death, boldness, sexuality, violence and power. Red appears in the novel in the form of blood, Martine’s funeral clothes, and the hibiscus plants. Martine speaks about the birds that glows crimson when it dies, and more. There is also reference to black, the colour of mourning that is often worn by Grandme Ife. Daffodils are Martine’s favourite flower when she lived in Haiti. A bright yellow flower not native to the island but brought there by the French. It grows there even though it is not supposed to. This makes Martine happy because it suggests that one can prosper even in a place it is not home. The daffodil symbolises growth, happiness, tenacity and resilience. However, Martine loses her interest in the daffodil slower and beings becoming interested in red flowers because they can speak to her pain more and she no longer knows how to resist the things that plague her. The butterfly is another symbol. Sophie grew up hearing tales and myths, one of them being a woman who could not stop bleeding and asked to Erzulie to turn her into a butterfly. It symbolises the transformation as the creature builds a cocoon and turns from the caterpillar into the beautiful winged butterfly. Sophie sees her mother as a butterfly after she kills herself. Martine becomes free from her traumatic experiences. Erzulie is a figurine that had been shown in the text at very interesting and mysterious intervals of events in the novel. She is a vaodou goddess associated with beauty, love and womanhood she is evoked several times in the novel to suggest that the characters are trying to surmount their difficulties and to be secure in their identity. Erzulie is sexually impulsive, strong willed female figure, who is seen as the perfect ideal of a woman by the Haitian society. She is an almighty woman who has power over men and who encourages woman to have se, whereas Catholic religion has created a “virginity cult,” which idealizes female sexual purity on the island. Sophie brings her figure to the sex phobia group and it acts as a symbol of what a powerful is capable of.

Breath, Eyes, Memory deals with the mother-daughter relationship. It discusses the problems of Haitian womanhood through the Caco family, which consists entirely of women. Trauma can be seen that follows woman, inflicting pain. Sophie realises that only she can help herself recover from her past and only she can break the cycle in order to not pass the traumas onto her daughter Brigitte.

Danticat shows the conflicting issues of sexual violence, and how they relate to the mother-daughter relationship. Women has been on the contradiction that it is women who keep these oppressive traditions alive and maintaining the practices that causes them sufferings. Sexuality and sexual violence are significant as Sophie and Martine portray them through different forms. Other factors contribute to these conflicts. They are discussed as traumas of slavery, immigration, and parenthood. Former slaves and the first country where slave revolts were successful in freeing slaves were in Haiti. Race and skin-color are important as they contribute to the event of history that affected the attitudes of Haitians and in the novel. Concerning post-colonialism, Sophie grew up during the time of the Dubalier Tyranny, ruled by violence. It is central to look at the Divalier Dynasty and its affects on the mentality of Haitians women, who were raped and killed in the hands of the Tonton Macoutes.

Memory is a conflicting factor in the novel. Memories ties the Caco women and their histories together. It is their memory that keeps them intertwined with past conflicts such as the rape done to Martine, which ultimately causes her to have endless nightmares. There is emotional and psychological trauma of female sexuality; It shows the ways in which post-colonial ideas of Haitian female sexuality are challenging for women. Sophie endures the invasion of her privacy when she is tested. She wanted it to end so badly that she drove herself to mutilate her hymen with a pestle. Sophie freed herself from the humilatiing act. However, she suffers from it. Sophie speaks of the neglect of privacy and what a girl endures to please a man as patriarchy is heavily seen in the novel through the woman. Sophie faces psychological conflict and does not feel comfortable in her own skin. She does not feel comfortable to show her husband herself due to her past. The trauma is created because the women themselves cannot influence their own sexuality. Patriarchy is a prominent element in the novel. Tanti Atie had said “the man in this area, they insist their women are virgin and have ten fingers.” It suggests that women have no power over their lives. Female children are not seen as equally valuable to their family as a male. Grandme Ife tells the story of when a baby is born and how the midwives leave and there are no lights when a girl is born. When it came to privacy of female sexuality and the expectations of women to please men, Sophie says that “ They train you to find a husband. They poke at your panties in the middle of the night, to see if you are still whole. They listen when you pee, to find out if you’re peeing too loud. If you pee loud, it means you’ve got big spaces between your legs. They make you burn your fingers learning to cook. Then you have nothing.”

Sophie deals with emotional, physical and psychological conflict when she does not enjoy sex, but see it as a duty as a wife. When she just had the stiches and was in pain, she still gave her husband satisfaction by having sex. Sophie thinks as a woman, she has no control over her sexuality. She has to take care of her husband’s desires. The Haitian patriarchy has influenced her way of thinking. The obsession with virginity traumatizes Sophie in a way that she cannot experience any sexual pleasure; she finds pain in sex. She is affected mentally because the way of seeing Haitian female sexuality is negative. This is a major part of the trauma of sexuality. The rape traumatizes Matine emotionally and psychologically, but for her, it is also traumatizing to lose her virginity in a culture that values purity. Martine loses the support and appreciation of her family and society. Martine starts regarding herself as worthless. The trauma of sexuality is a cultural trauma that is rooted in the post-colonial conflict between Catholicism and vaudou and the loss of power caused by patriarchy.

Sexual abuse is central to conflict between Sophie and Martine as they experience this physically, emotionally and psychologically. The testing of virginity and rape both result in severe personal traumas. Testing may be regarded as a form of sexual violence. The women are powerless against the abuse they are subjected to. When tested, their power over their bodies is taken from them. It causes pain, shame and humiliation. Sophie feels betrayed by her mother who is supposed to take care of her. Martine also went through the trauma of the testing, “the testing and the rape, I lived them both every day.” The nightmare functions in the same way as memories by bringing the trauma forward. Martine suffers from recurring sense of dislocation in her dreams. The pregnancy is a conflicting factor that sends Martine to her last resort of suicide, except this time, she is successful. Ultimately, Sophie and her family is left broken hearted, however, she also feels a sense of freedom.

To conclude, the trauma on the mother-daughter relationship follows the cultural trauma of black Haitians. The trauma are formed by female sexuality, sexual violence, patriarchy and memories. The symbolism and characterization were substantial as they helped in the understanding of the events that occurred in Breath, Eyes, Memories. The tile Eyes, Memories represents the past that is forever embedded into one’s memory.

Works Cited

  • Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory 3rd ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.
  • Danticat, Edwige. Breath Eyes, Memories. New York: Vintage Books. 1998.
  • Onerko, Karen. What is Trauma?. Integrated Listening Systems. 2019.
16 December 2021
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