Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Love

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Tante Atie kept looking at the window even after all signs of the Augustins had faded into the night. A tear rolled down her cheek as she unbolted the door to go inside. (1.15)

Atie knows heartbreak, that's for sure. She and Monsieur Augustin were meant to marry, but, as she puts it, someone more worthy came along. Her life in Croix-des-Rosets forces her to see her rival and her former lover—who live right across the road—in the most intimate of circumstances. We're not sure if this makes Atie a saint or a sucker for punishment.

"My angel," she said, "I would like to know that by word or by example I have taught you love. I must tell you that I do love your mother. Everything I love about you, I loved in her first. That is why I could never fight her about keeping you here." (2.21)

When Atie has to say goodbye to Sophie, she wants to make sure that there is no mistaking how she feels about the child. It is the purest expression of motherly love in the work. It also clarifies for us how she feels about Martine, even though we see later that the relationship between them, in real time, is strained.

"Old woman, I brought your child," Tante Atie said. The rope slipped out of my grandmother's hands, the bucket crashing with an echoing splash. I leaped into her arms, nearly knocking her down. "It does my heart a lot of good to see you," she said. (3.23)

There is such joy in this ritualistic greeting. Atie has brought young Sophie to see her grandmother one more time before she flies off to New York. The uncomplicated emotion among these ladies contrasts greatly with what Sophie will meet when she arrives in the U.S.

She poured hot milk from a silver kettle that she had always kept on the shelf for display. Stuck to the bottom of the kettle was a small note, Je t'aime de tout mon coeur. The note read, "I love you very much." It was signed by Monsieur Augustin. (4.27)

Atie keeps this souvenir from her former lover, but the irony is that she cannot read the love note he sent her with it. Only the prying eyes of young Sophie can see what is there. It is Sophie's introduction to the complicated world of sexual love, which so often leads to disappointment in this work.

"Sophie," she whispered. Her eyes were still closed. "Sophie, I will never let you go again." (6.49)

Immediately after Sophie arrives in the U.S. and settles in with her mom, she realizes that Martine is assailed every night by nightmares. After Sophie comforts her, Martine makes this motherly declaration. But it isn't clear that her tenacity will be a good thing. Upon reflection, we see that Sophie has to do some serious breaking away from her mother in order to heal and move forward.

I was eighteen and I fell in love. His name was Joseph and he was old. He was old like God is old to me, ever present and full of wisdom. He looked somewhat like Monsieur Augustin. He was the color of ground coffee, with a cropped beard and a voice like molasses that turned to music when he held a saxophone to his lips. (9.67)

Sophie's first love—her only love—is literally the guy next door. Her unusual description of him makes him seem more mythic than real, like something out of one of the Haitian folktales that she so fondly remembers. It also seems that Sophie is taking on her auntie's taste in men, almost as she is able to take on her mother's traumatic past. However, we can tell from her tone in this passage that there is definitely some positive chemistry going on between herself and Joseph, so there is hope that this love will endure.

"The Marassas were two inseparable lovers. They were the same person, duplicated in two. They looked the same, talked the same. When they laughed, they even laughed the same and when they cried, their tears were identical. When one went to the stream, the other rushed under the water to get a better look. When one looked in the mirror, the other walked behind the glass to mimic her. What vain lovers they were, those Marassas." (11.84-85)

Martine tells Sophie this story when she tests her virginity. She does this to distract both of them from the humiliation of the task, but also to introduce Sophie to the idea of the "soul mate." But in the end, Martine doesn't imagine that Sophie's soul mate will be her husband. She expects that it will be herself. Martine's love for Sophie has really become dependency, and the virginity test—which she believes is for Sophie's own good—becomes a way to control and contain her daughter.

"Because you don't marry someone to escape something that's inside your head. One night, I woke up and found myself choking Marc. This is before I knew I was pregnant. One day he'll get tired of it and leave me." (29.192)

Martine offers this bit of relationship wisdom to Sophie as they discuss what she (Martine) will do with her unwanted/unexpected pregnancy. Sophie believes that her mother should just marry Marc and everything will be okay, but Martine understands that she has big issues that cannot be resolved with wedding vows. However, Martine's comprehension of marital love is narrow. While it's true that most people won't endure being choked night after night, it's also true that Marc has not left her in all this time. She cannot conceive of a love that would be big enough to accept her with all her difficulties.

I was telling her that I would never let anyone put her away in a mental hospital, that I would take care of her. I would visit her every night in my doubling and, from my place as a shadow on the wall, I would look after her and wake her up as soon as the nightmares started, just like I did when I was home. (30.200)

Sophie knows that her mother is sinking deeper into mental illness and she wants desperately to be her lifeline. She also desperately wants to avoid an intimate relationship with her husband, since it is too physically and emotionally difficult for her. It is in an intimate moment with him that Sophie wanders away in her mind and makes these promises to care for her mother. The "doubling" she speaks of here refers to the twinning of the mythical Marassas, the soul mates who shadow each other and become one. The doubling is handy technique that allows Sophie to detach herself from her husband when things heat up.

I kept thinking of my mother, who now wanted to be my friend. Finally I had her approval. I was okay. I was safe. We were both safe. The past was gone. Even though she had forced it on me, of her sudden will, we were now even more than friends. We were twins, in spirit. Marassas. (30.200)

Sophie deludes herself into thinking that all her relationships are fine: between herself and her husband (she's actually running from him, sexually speaking) and between herself and her mother (who is falling apart from the stress of an unexpected pregnancy). Instead of confronting the pain of the past, she hopes she can just let it go and resume her life. But the fairytale of the Marassas--those divine twins who shadow each other and provide ultimate fulfillment for each other—is not reality. No amount of wishing for things to be all right for herself and her mother will make it so.

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