Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Lark/Butterfly/Star

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What do larks, butterflies, and stars have in common?

Sure, they're all pretty. They'd all make great tattoos. They're all in the sky. But there's more to these three airborn beauties—these three images feature prominently in the folklore recalled by Sophie and Atie.

And this folklore is depressing—there's no Disney "happily ever after" tacked on to the end of these stories. They're all about magic of transformation, but that transformation is pretty upsetting.

Here's the rundown:

From Better to Worse

When we think of stars, we're likely to think of celestial beauty, freedom, even power (in a positive, cosmic sense). And young Sophie has exact understanding of star power, and she shows it in the Erzulie-image she has of her mother who, "...never had to work for anything because the rainbow and the stars did her work for her" (8.59).

Sophie also thinks of the lovely transformative powers held by the stars, especially when, in her bedtime stories,

[...] mermaids would leave stars for the fishermen to pick out of the sand. For the most beloved fishermen, the mermaids would leave their combs, which would turn to gold when the fishermen kissed them. (15.110)

But Atie and Martine have a much more nuanced understanding of what the stars represent. When they were children, their father used to speak of the stars as handsome men who could bewitch earthbound girls:

"My favorite," said Tante Atie, "was the one about the girl who wished she could marry a star and then went up there and, as real as her eyes were black, the man she wished for was a monster." (26.164)

Transformation in this mythology can go very, very wrong—especially when a parent has a point to prove about staying away from bad boys.

A Harmless Little Butterfly

Sophie also recalls the brutal story of a woman who couldn't stop bleeding from every bit of her skin. (Yes; you read that right. This woman is bleeding profusely from pretty much every pore. It's like Wes Craven came up with a fairy tale.) When she can't take the agony anymore, she calls on the goddess Erzulie to advise her. But Erzulie has some bad news for the woman: to be a human is to bleed. If she wants to change things, she has to stop being human. Them's the breaks.

Danticat tells us throughout this work that to live is to suffer—it's just part of the human condition. The trick is to find the beautiful in such a life, even if we have to go to extremes to do it. When the woman in the story chooses to be a butterfly, her suffering ends.

Lark After Dark

However, one of these things is not like the other; one of them signifies something different. Ifé tells the story of the handsome lark who tries to coax the beautiful little girl away from her village… and to the kingdom of some creepy king who needs her heart to survive.

Ifé's story is one of a near miss, in which a girl has to use her wits to keep from being taken away from everything she's ever known.

While the lark is anthropomorphized , he's not a creature of transformation like the butterfly and the star. Instead, he's transformed—from a triumphant captor to an abandoned lover pining for what he can never have.

Anywhere But Here

These folk stories of transformation help Sophie to rewrite her mother's tragic narrative at the end of this work. Her violent death is too much for the Caco family to comprehend—Ifé can't even look in her daughter's dead face—and there's too much pain involved in the process of grieving.

The Caco women need the buffer of mythic intervention to reconcile them to the tragedy of Martine's life. So Sophie chooses all the options she's ever heard in order to understand her mother's death:

She is going to Guinea... or she is going to be a star. She's going to be a butterfly or a lark in a tree. She's going to be free. (35.228)

Sophie sees her mother not just as a harmless and beautiful butterfly but also as a powerful and frightening being, the star that shines but is also terrible in reality—or the lark who tries to steal away the little girl but who pines eternally with sadness over his failure to do so.

After all, Martine is a complex and problematic character—she doesn't fit neatly into the symbolic box of just one folktale. Sophie's connection of her mother with these powerful motifs shows a need to contain the immensity of Martine's tragic life in storylines of power and freedom.

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