Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Transformation

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The woman thought of all the animals that she had seen, the ones that people feared and others that they loved. She thought of the ones that were small. Ones that were held captive and ones that were free. "Make me a butterfly," she told Erzulie. "Make me a butterfly."

"A butterfly you shall be," said Erzulie. The woman was transformed and never bled again. (12.88)

Sophie remembers this folktale told while she was a child in Haiti. In it, there is a woman who bleeds constantly. When she can take it no longer, she begs the goddess Erzulie to help her. In essence, Erzulie tells that she can't stop the bleeding while the woman is human: to be human is to suffer. She offers the poor woman the chance to be transformed into an animal to give her some relief. The woman, as we see here, opts for transformation. Sophie learns early that existence is just too painful for some.

"Crabs don't make papayas. Your mother, she was a quiet child too." (18.122)

Both Atie and Ifé are fond of this saying, which is our equivalent to "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." In this case, there is absolutely zero transformation taking place. We can't be the thing we genetically aren't—no matter what our upbringing. We're not sure if this is reassuring to Sophie here.

"He told her he would wait for her to come back with her heart. The girl ran and ran all the way to her family village and never did she come back to the bird. If you see a handsome lark in a tree, you had better know that he is waiting for a very, very pretty little girl who will never come back to him." (18.125)

Sophie remembers many fantastic stories from her childhood—even if some of them are a little disturbing. In this one, a clever and beautiful lark almost manages to fly off with a pretty little girl. She, however, outfoxes him and is able to return to her family. Haitian folklore sees the natural world as an opportunity for surprise and danger. Beneath the beauty of a body of water—or a bird—lies a complex and potential sinister story.

"I am empty, old woman," she said. "As empty as a dry calabash." (18.126)

Atie cannot comply with Ifé's request that she read something from her book. She's kind of soul-sick, disappointed with her life, lonely and isolated. While there are hints of this in Atie's character from the beginning of the work—she torments herself about the Augustins—this is really a big change from the loving mother figure that Sophie knew in her childhood. Atie doesn't cope well with the loss of Sophie, and finds that life with Ifé just isn't what she expected of herself.

Eliab reined in his thread. He pulled it with all his might, tying it around the stick as it came to him. The thread suddenly seemed endless. He got tired of coiling, dropped the stick, broke down and cried. (19.130)

This tiny little scene shows "the boy with the kite" being cruelly stripped of his one possession—and hence, his identity. It's a masterful moment, as we see him go from an energetic and hopeful boy to a crumpled pile of misery. This loss is emblematic of the loss of innocence and optimism that runs throughout this book, from Martine's rape to Atie's disappointments and Sophie's virginity testing.

"When you listen, it's kòm si you had deafness before and you can hear now. Sometimes you can't fall asleep because the sound of someone crying keeps you awake. A whisper sounds like a roar to your ears. Your ears are witness to matters that do not concern you. And what is worse, you cannot forget." (23.153)

Ifé kind of zings her granddaughter here. She tells Sophie that: 1) She's making mountains out of molehills; and 2) She's taking on sorrow that just isn't hers to deal with. She wants Sophie not to amplify the pain and significance of the virginity tests and tells her that she just needs to let all that go. Ifé also observes that Sophie's taken on her mother's pain. None of this will help Sophie to move forward, but it's clear that she is unable to forget and leave the trauma in the past.

Along the way, people stared at me with puzzled expressions on their faces. Is this what happens to our girls when they leave this place? They become such frightened creatures that they run like the wind, from nothing at all. (23.157)

As Sophie goes for a jog through Dame Marie to clear her head, she imagines what her grandmother's neighbors think of her behavior. She imagines that they can see her fear and anxiety (since why else would you run?) and for a moment, she sees herself with clarity: running in fear from nothing at all. Sophie thinks that the residents of Dame Marie will see this as a transformation brought on because she left Haiti.

"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)

Hey, more wonderful folktales to scare the pants off little kids. Atie and Martine discuss the versions of star stories that their father used to tell them. Atie's story efficiently issues this warning: be careful what you wish for. The transformation here (i.e. beautiful star into monster man) underscores the thematic concern for male violence in this work.

"She is going to Guinea," I said, "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)

In her grief, Sophie imagines her beleaguered mother transformed into a character in one of the folktales she heard as a child. Though those tales sound a little like a nightmare from the outside, Martine was actually living a nightmare in her life. Following in the path of the bleeding woman or the sorrowful lark doesn't sound like such a bad deal from that point of view.

I come from a place where breath, eyes, and memory are one, a place from which you carry your past like the hair on your head. Where women return to their children as butterflies or as tears in the eyes of the statues that their daughters pray to. My mother was as brave as the stars at dawn. She too was from this place. My mother was like that woman who could never bleed and then could never stop bleeding, the one who gave in to her pain, to live as a butterfly. Yes, my mother was like me. (35.234)

Sophie understands that her motherland offers her a unique experience of life. While things may not be totally rosy in Haiti (to say the least), the land has created a world of possibility through story, so that characters like Sophie can take their pain and re-shape it into something beautiful.

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