Building Bridges

Building Bridges

Monday, April 25, 2011

Michael's book review

Michael Barney
English 103
April 16, 2011


In her novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat tells a story about a voiceless little Haitian girl named Sophie. Danticat's novel tells a story of four generations of Haitian women: Grandme Ife, Tante Atie, Martine, and Sophie. Sophie is the niece of Tante Atie. Sophie’s mother, Martine, and Tante Atie are sisters.

Sophie lived in a small town in Haiti with Tante Atie until the age of twelve. I endorsed the way the narrator used Sophie's voice to shed light on the struggles of growing up in Haitian culture. In today’s society we see little girls like Sophie evolve into womanhood over a series of events: having their menstrual cycle, virginity testing, first sexual encounter, and marriage. When I read through each chapter, I was able to vicariously relate to each character’s inner struggle and see the affect it has on the dynamics of a family. It’s important to point out that Haitian women teach their daughters that virginity is a valued virtue, and virginity testing is done to ensure the family honor.

At the age of twelve, Sophie moves to New York to live with her mother. I found out that Danticat, too, was born in Haiti and moved to New York at the age of twelve. Upon learning that, I determined to read “Breath, Eyes, Memory” as if it may be autobiographical. When Sophie moves into her mother's apartment building, she is warned to stay away from the men. Can you predict what happens next? Sophie falls in love with a musician, Joseph, who lives in Providence. One night, after seeing Joseph, she returns home late and her mother makes her lie down on the bed. Sophie mouthed these words, “Hail Mary…so full of grace.” From there on out, Martine started to continuously test Sophie's virginity. Martine wants to make sure Sophie is befitting, untouched, and unsullied. Sophie becomes traumatized by these continuous dehumanizing tests. She was so traumatized that she uses a spice pestle to deflower herself – sever her hymen. The thought of Sophie’s red blood on the sheets made me quiver. Sophie’s emotional pain outweighed her physical pain, she says, “My flesh ripped apart as I pressed the pestle into it.” Why would she inflict such pain upon herself? When I thought about why, I immediately saw this self-injurious act as a distress call. Why did Sophie cut herself? Was it to be with Joseph?

I surmise that one of the many reasons is that her mother, Martine, was raped by a man who dragged her into a cornfield. The second theme is more obvious—Martine constantly checks to see if Sophie is still virginal. What was her intent behind cutting her hymen—it was a bid for independence – freedom comes with a high price; that price is blood.

After reading the entire novel, I was able to reflect on the reasons as to why Sophie cut her hymen. At times, I vividly sensed Sophie’s fear and pain; especially, when she cut herself. In Danticat’s novel, she infers the color red when telling a story about one of the characters. We all know that the color red symbolizes power, violence, and purity. In the novel, the color red represents the pain and suffering that Haitian woman endures. For example: Martine was violently raped in the sugarcane field; Sophie was the offspring of that tragedy, and more. As I continued to read, I tried to envisage when the color red would pop up again. Martine starts testing Sophie’s virginity. Sophie gives birth to a baby girl named Bridgett. Sophie takes Bridgett to Haiti when marital problems with Joseph arise. While in Haiti Sophie questions her mother, “Why did you put me through those tests?” Martine tells her that she did it because her mother did it to her. She tells Sophie that being raped stopped her mother from testing her. What she told Sophie about her rape and testing is quite interesting. She says that her two great pains (rape and testing) are related. She says, “I live both every day.” When Sophie decides to return to New York, Tante Atie tells her to “Treat your mother well, you don’t have her forever.” When Sophie’s van leaves for the airport, Tante Atie was standing under a red flamboyant tree.

As the story unfolds, Martine becomes pregnant with Marc’s baby. She tells Sophie that the pregnancy brings back images of the rape (she sees the rapist everywhere—even when she looks into Sophie’s eyes). Martine’s unborn baby opens some old scars and emotions; it reminds her of the rape. Martine did tell Sophie that when she was pregnant, her mother made her drink herbs and baby poison. She tells her “I tried beating my stomach with a wooden spoon. I tried to destroy you, but you wouldn’t go away.” She even tells Sophie, “I am going to get it out of me.” I thought these words were powerful. She appeared to really be talking to Sophie. Apparently, the images of the rape are so powerful that Martine was really telling Sophie that she wants to get her own child out of her stomach.

When Sophie return to New York, Tante Atie words ring true, “Treat your mother well, you don’t have her forever.” Sophie receives a phone call from Marc telling her Martine is dead. This is the apex of the color red. Marc tells Sophie that Martine, I went to the bathroom and “She stabbed herself in the stomach with an old rusty knife lying there “In blood. She was lying there in blood.” She stabbed herself in the stomach seventeen times. Marc tells Sophie, I counted them and they were counted again at the hospital.

I found Danticat’s novel to be intensely lyrical. After reading this novel, I thought she relayed a vivid sense of place and brought life to others through her images of fear and pain. In today’s society we see little girls like Sophie evolve into womanhood over a series of events, as noted well above. After reading Sophie's battle, especially the emotional and psychological distress she endured as a result of virginity testing, I now question that mode of intrusion. I question why a parent or an aunt would put their child through. But the real question is what types of methods are acceptable when testing a girl’s virginity? Actually, there is no easy answer for what is morally right or wrong--that premise is relative to one’s culture. I believe what is right for one group of people does not make it universal –a morally accepted principle. Before reading this novel, ask yourself: Do you favor the virginity testing? Let’s not forget the irreparable consequences it had on Sophie’s life.

>Born January 19, 1969, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; immigrated to United States, 1981; Danticat was born in Haiti and lived there the first 12 years of her life. She came to the United States in 1981, joining her parents who had already begun to build a life for themselves in New York City.

> Danticat's first novel, the loosely autobiographical Breath, Eyes, Memory, was a 1998 selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, thus assuring its bestseller status.

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