Study Guide

Breath, Eyes, Memory Women and Femininity

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Women and Femininity

"When you love someone, you want him to be closer to you than your Marassa. Closer than your shadow. You want him to be your soul. The more you are alike, the easier this becomes. When you look in a stream, if you saw that man's face, wouldn't you think it was a water spirit? Wouldn't you scream? Wouldn't you think he was hiding under a sheet of water to kill you?" (11.85)

Martine's conversation with her daughter degenerates quickly into a strange and frightening assessment of what it means to her to be a woman in a sexual relationship. For Martine, violence is ever present, even in the case of finding someone to be your shadow or Marassa. She is trying to convince Sophie that she'll only be safe if she commits herself to a lifetime relationship with her mother, since any relationship with men can only end one way. It isn't healthy, but it's certainly a reflection of Martine's early experiences.

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 recounts the story of the woman who could not stop bleeding and asked the goddess Erzulie to intervene and help her. In a telling moment, Erzulie explains that if she wants to stop bleeding, she can no longer be a woman. For Sophie and the women of her family, then, to be a woman is to suffer—and not just any kind of suffering. This is the real soul-wrenching, body-tearing kind of suffering that makes life nearly impossible. As such, the woman in the story chooses to opt out and live her days as a beautiful butterfly. Sophie falls back on this story of transformation when she has to face her mother's suicide.

My grandmother was naked in the bath shack, with the rickety door wide open. She raised a handful of leaves towards the four corners of the sky, then rapped the stems under her armpits. She swayed her body several times, shaking the leaves loose from her buttocks. My grandmother had a curved spine and a pineapple-sized hump, which did not show through her clothes. Some years earlier, my mother had grown egg-sized mounds in both her breasts, then had them taken out of her. (16.113)

In our culture, we joke about the "horror" of seeing our mothers or grandmothers naked. But for Sophie, the vision of her grandmother's body allows her a moment of reflection on the bodies of the women in her family. Sometimes, things go awry—as in Ifé's hump and Martine's breast cancer. But these are things that the women cover up and don't show to world. All the general public ever sees is their endurance.

"They train you to find a husband," she said. "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 still you have nothing." (21.137)

Atie sounds off on the injustice of being a woman in her culture. And more than that, she articulates her disappointment in the cultural norms: she believed that if she did all the right things, she would be rewarded with the usual things in life. But she's learned that sometimes, all the things a woman endures does not get her what she wants or deserves. There's no further lesson here: we're just meant to let that sink in.

"If it is a girl, the midwife will cut the child's cord and go home. Only the mother will be left in the darkness to hold her child. There will be no lamps, no candles, no more light." (22.146)

We really don't need to draw a point about the injustice of this unequal treatment; that's obvious. But we'll just point out that this kind of valuation builds on Sophie's quiet assessment that being a woman is problematic, even a negative. It's as though her culture simply doesn't know what do with women, so they hide them away in the darkness.

The men were singing about a woman who flew without her skin at night, and when she came back home, she found her skin peppered and could not put it back on. Her husband had done it to teach her a lesson. He ended up killing her. (23.150)

Again, Sophie observes that there is no space in her culture for a woman who steps outside her expected role. The folk tale symbolizes hurtful male behavior that ends up not only damaging women, but also crippling an entire society (we are assuming that the husband in the tale did not intend to kill his wife). It is worth noting that many of the marriage folk tales recalled by Sophie are rife with violence against women, which also makes an impression on her thinking about her place in society.

According to Tante Atie, each finger had a purpose. It was the way she had been taught to prepare herself to become a woman. Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing. It wasn't her fault, she said. Her ten fingers had been named for her even before she was born. Sometimes, she even wished she had six fingers on each hand so she could have two left for herself. (23.151)

Atie uses a traditional educational tool (the names of the fingers) to point out how the cards are stacked against Haitian women before they're even born. She emphasizes that a woman's life is often not her own, since she isn't given the option of choosing anything for herself or for her own pleasure. But Danticat does give Atie the power to articulate her displeasure over this situation, which is a hopeful opening for Sophie, who has the opportunity to lead a different life.

"From the time a girl begins to menstruate to the time you turn her over to her husband, the mother is responsible for her purity. If I give a soiled daughter to her husband, he can shame my family, speak evil of me, even bring her back to me." (23.156)

Ifé states her case for virginity testing, in response to Sophie's questions. Sophie, Atie and Martine have clearly been traumatized by this practice, but Ifé wants Sophie to understand the absolute importance of "cleanness" for a young Haitian woman. It's the obsession with a woman's virginity that ultimately becomes problematic for Sophie, who can't bring herself to have a relationship with her husband because she's learned that female sexuality is a dirty thing that must be denied.

Slowly, everything in Dame Marie became a blur. My grandmother and the vendors. Tante Atie at the flaming red tree. The Macoutes around Louise's stand. Even the hill in the distance, the place that Tante Atie called Guinea. A place where all the women in my family hoped to eventually meet one another, at the very end of each of our journeys. (27.174)

The Caco family really is a network of strong women: we very rarely hear anything about the patriarchs of the family, as if they never were there. This bleeds over into the conception of the afterlife, Guinea, the place where the women in the family will reunite. Spirituality in this work is very strongly feminine as well, with the goddess Erzulie ruling over Sophie's understanding of what it means to be a woman and a mother.

It was too loud a color for burial. I knew it. She would look like a Jezebel, hot-blooded Erzulie who feared no men, but rather made them her slaves, raped them, and killed them. She was the only woman with that power. It was too loud a color for burial, but I chose it. (35.227)

Sophie chooses an outfit for her mother to be buried in that she knows will turn heads. But at this point, she cares very little for public opinion. She wants people to see power when they see her mother's corpse, perhaps because her mother had so very little of it in her lifetime. Sophie wants her mother's body to show outwardly what she feels was hidden during her lifetime: strength, endurance, power over herself and the others around her.

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