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There's no question that Martine is the most tormented character in the book. In fact, we'd put her up there with the most tormented characters in all of literature. William Boldwood from Far From The Madding Crowd has nothing on Martine Caco. Holden Caulfield? Close, but no cigar. Martine has Hamlet -levels of torment.
Sophie learns this about her mother almost immediately after arriving in New York, when she witnesses the violence of her mother's nightly terrors:
I had seen her curled up in a ball in the middle of the night, sweating and shaking as she hollered for the images of the past to leave her alone. Sometimes the fright woke her up, but most of the time, I had to shake her awake before she bit her finger off, ripped her nightgown, or threw herself out of a window. (29.193)
The violence of her mother's behavior during these nightmares is terrifying, but her mother's reaction to being "saved" by Sophie is disheartening. Sophie observes that:
Her reaction was always the same. When she saw my face, she looked even more frightened. (10.81)
Although Martine has a fierce affection and need for her daughter, she harbors fear and hatred for that unknown part of Sophie, which brings her back to the most violent day of her life—when she was raped by Sophie's father. This is maybe why Martine moves between protective parent and aggressive, threatening jailer.
Although Martine has a terrifying start to her life as a mother, she does have a deep love for Sophie. But this love is something beyond motherly. There's a desperation to it that we might associate with a jealous lover.
And that, couple with the fact that she's regularly testing Sophie's virginity (and doing what we classify today as molestation) is super creepy.
When Martine begins virginity testing Sophie, she tells the story of the Marassas, the divine twins/lovers who are part of the Vodou pantheon of spirits. She wants Sophie to understand that the love of a man can't possibly equal the love that a mother has for her daughter:
"The love between a mother and daughter is deeper than the sea. You would leave me for an old man who you didn't know the year before. You and I we could be like Marassas. You are giving up a lifetime with me. Do you understand?" (11.85)
No shocker here: this comes off as more threatening and unhinged than loving. She begins by reminding Sophie of the terror and violence she should expect from a man. Why would Sophie want to trade Martine's love and devotion for such a thing? Martine fails to understand that it's part of the natural course of things for Sophie to leave her and start a life of her own.
Sophie feels extreme guilt for leaving her mother's side to begin her life with Joseph, which is intensified after she sees her mother again and realizes that Martine's suffering has gotten more intense. She wants to join her own suffering to her mother's and participate in that "twinning" that she rejected so long ago—all so she can insulate herself and her mother from facing up to the past.
It's a deeply unhealthy situation for both women. While it seems natural for both women to retreat into each other to avoid emotional pain, it does nothing to allow them to thrive on their own terms.
Martine's mental status is shaky throughout the book, but she holds steady enough to make some weak jokes of her situation (she talks lightly about "staying one step ahead of a mental institution"). But her unexpected pregnancy sends Martine spiraling back into the past, despite the differences between her current situation and the rape from decades before.
Martine's inability to face her fears and seek the help that she needs pushes her further into mental illness. When her unborn child begins to speak to her, we know that Martine is in serious trouble:
"Everywhere I go, I hear it. I hear him saying things to me. You tintin, malpròp. He calls me a filthy whore. I never want to see this child's face. Your child looks like Manman. This child, I will never look into its face." (33.217)
But even her decision to terminate her pregnancy isn't enough to make things all right for Martine. The damage from the past is too much, even for a strong Caco woman. It isn't until after Martine's death that we get a full sense of that true strength.
Sophie's re-imagining her mother as "hot-blooded Erzulie" in the choice of burial clothes gives Martine power against fear and torment that she never had in life.
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