Building Bridges

Building Bridges

Friday, April 22, 2011

Heidi's book review

English 103 – Writing a book review
Breath Eyes Memories by Edwidge Danticat
Kyoungok Yoon (Heidi)

Voiceless Women

In the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory, the author Edwidge Danticat shows how tradition and society affects women’s lives so deeply and for several generations. It is a novel with fiction and some dramatic events, but it seems like the author’s real story; Danticat reflects her life in the main character Sophie who grew up in Haiti and immigrated to the U.S.A. just as she experienced in her life. Danticat is famous for her story telling especially for voiceless people such as women, Haitian, and poor people. Through this journey, I have got to think about rooted traditions in the society, hardship of immigrants, oppressed women (their desire and limitation), and education as a hope.

Sophie is the narrator of this story who lives in Haiti. When Sophie is twelve years old, her mother Martine invites her to New York where Martine lives and works to support the whole family. For the first time Sophie gets to see her mother. The living environment is extremely different in New York. Sophie has to get accustomed to a whole new life, living as a minority, different race and language from the majority. To survive well in immigrant life, Martine always emphasizes the importance of education, mastering English quickly, and becoming a doctor.

It is important to understand that Martine tells her story about how she conceived after she got raped by anonymous man and she became mentally ill for all of her life. This fact gives me a big question about the relationship between this mother and daughter. How does Martine feel about her daughter? Can she really love the daughter? Why she tells about the rape to the innocent child? Sophie did not do anything wrong, but she has to live with guilty and obligation to some degree.

The most critical event of this book happens when Sophie starts to date Joseph, who later becomes a husband. In this depressed story, this romantic part was like a short break of sweetening. However, Martine starts testing Sophie to check the virginity. If you are a woman, imagine that your mother puts her finger into your body to see if the finger goes in smoothly or not. How awful! This could give a young girl a trauma for the whole life, making her think that having a relationship with a man is forbidden or criminal. It actually challenges Sophie marital life; she feels her body is shameful, and she is reluctant to attend a marital duty.

However, I don’t want to blame Sophie’s unhappy marriage solely on Martine because I think Martine is the biggest victim in this story and I feel really sorry for her damage. She has nightmares every night as she dreams of the evil rapist. During those times, somebody has to wake her up so that she does not torture herself physically. Her strictness and excessive expectations on Sophie is coming from the rape experience. A woman who once had a dream of becoming important now puts all her frustrated hope on her daughter. She said, “You have a chance to become the kind of woman Atie and I have always wanted to be. If you make something of yourself in life, we will all succeed. You can raise our heads” (44). Besides, Martine lives diligently, working days and nights to support living expenses for her sister and mother in Haiti although her life is filled with loss and damages.

When Sophie grows up and becomes a mother, she finally asks her mother why she did the test. The reason was “because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse” (170). She even says that being tested was one of the most terrible things happened in her life, but she tested Sophie simply because her mother did it to her. Here, I again don’t want to blame solely on Martine. In their culture, it must be a kind of compelling practice or a role as a caring mother. The power of rooted tradition is so strong that every woman naturally practiced it without questioning. The old generation was a society of sexism where women were expected to be virgin until they marry and if not, they were regarded as a shame on family. That is what society and people expected women to be, therefore, all women who practiced those testing voluntarily and who got tested were all victims of the unfair social system.

There are also some interesting short stories when Sophie visits to Haiti. Her grandmother Ife is a good story teller. She tells stories to the children of the village. Interestingly, most of her stories are about sexism. One story is about a husband who bleeds her wife to death in order to show off to the village people that his wife is a proud virgin. Other stories are about a warning of a man faking and trying to steal women’s virgin and about how husbands react differently when their wives give birth of a girl and boy. These stories are only one or two pages in the novel, but they are meant to contribute to the bigger theme of the story: oppressed women by men and society.

Another main character is Sophie’s aunt Atie. I actually did not like her life much. One time, she says to Sophie that as a woman her ten fingers are named for her, which are “Mothering. Boiling. Loving. Baking. Nursing. Frying. Healing. Washing. Ironing. Scrubbing” (151). She simply accepts her limitation as a woman and did not do anything to improve her life. She raised a young Sophie and after sending her away, she becomes a helpless person. It seems like she did not even try to adjust to a new situation. She could have learned how to read and write earlier, she could have married or had a baby, and she could have gone to New York to start a new life. She just sticks to one duty of taking care of though her mother does not want to have unhappy daughter near her.

I did not like the ending very much. It was much unexpected and even shocking to me. However, I was happy to see improvement over the four generation. It gives us a hope to be extinguishing all those unfairness and discrimination we have in the society someday in the near future. If the grandmother Ife was a source of mythical story and thoughts and the one who implemented unfair practices, the very next generation Martine and Atie were the biggest victims. They were not given a chance of education and they were poor to realize their dreams. The third generation Sophie shows a possibility to change the unfair custom by expressing and questioning to the old generations. It is because she is more educated and she even takes a chance to fix her problem caused by the custom by seeing a therapist. In this flow, the next generations are going to stand up for their freedom and rights and against unfair ritual customs to change the society.

The story is about a life of Sophie from young to motherhood, but it is not dealing with only a woman’s personal growth. While the story goes to Haiti and New York back and forth, it delivers the social and cultural issues in both countries. It was one depressing story, but we can vicariously feel self-fulfillment at the end through what Sophie bravely faces and achieved.

Work Cited
Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.

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