Breath, Eyes, Memory

Breath, Eyes, Memory Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After dinner, Granmè Ifé takes Martine’s tape into the other room to finish it while Tante Atie reads Sophie and Louise some poetry from her notebook. After Brigitte falls asleep and Louise leaves, Tante Atie and Sophie stay up talking. Tante Atie admits that she feels like “nothing” in her mother’s village, and Sophie says she wishes she had never left Tante Atie. Tante Atie says there’s no purpose in trying to rearrange one’s own life. She says she herself is frustrated with how her life has turned out—as the eldest daughter, it’s her responsibility to care for her mother, but she resents her mother for obsessing over her virginity, testing her, and training her to find a husband, then leaving her with “nothing.”
Tante Atie’s frustrations are evident in this passage as she vents her anger about the paradox that has defined her life. Both she and Martine were subjected to virginity testing in order to make sure that they were “pure” enough for marriage—her and her sister’s whole lives were geared towards preparing them to be wives, and yet both of them have been left with nothing but trauma and loneliness as a result.
Themes
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Related Quotes
The next morning, Louise comes to the house in tears, crying that the Macoutes killed Dessalines the coal vendor—and that anyone could be next. Sophie thinks about the dangerous Tonton Macoutes, named after a Haitian bogeyman of legend who carried a straw knapsack filled with scraps of children. The Macoutes don’t hide in the night like bogeymen, though—they roam the streets, enter people’s homes, rape women, and commit murder with impunity. Sophie believes her own father may have been a Macoute, judging by her mother’s story of how her rapist attacked her in a field and threatened to shoot her if she looked right at his face.
This passage shows how the traumas that haunt the women of Haiti are not just personal, but political as well. The constant threat of rape and violence creates an atmosphere of fear, panic, and suspicion, which trickles down into the way women treat one another. They attempt to safeguard each other, yet so often fail to do so and bring about more suffering in the process.
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Sophie continues thinking about her mother’s rape—and about how, in its wake, Martine went mad, succumbing to violent nightmares which made her tear her sheets and her own flesh. Even after Sophie’s birth, Martine tried to kill herself several times—as a result, Tante Atie started taking care of her, and Martine soon got a visa and left Haiti.
Sophie has come to learn about her mother’s dark past and her own painful origins—she was conceived as a product of Martine’s rape. This passage seems to suggest that with the violent way she came into the world, Sophie has been predestined to experience yet more trauma and violence in her life—yet another consequence of generational trauma.
Themes
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That night, in her bedroom, Sophie overhears Louise and Tante Atie talking on the porch. Tante Atie is sad, and says looking at Sophie’s face makes her feel pain. When Tante Atie comes back inside, Granmè Ifé reprimands her for staying outside with Louise, and Tante Atie says she wishes “a good death would save [her] from all this.” Granmè Ifé slaps Tante Atie, and Tante Atie goes back outside.
Though details of Tante Atie’s relationship with Louise are never fully revealed (it’s unclear whether they are just friends or something more), it’s obvious that the two single, childless women are trying to seek comfort with one another in order to stave off the pain, sadness, and suicidal ideation that is so often the result of the kinds of trauma they’ve both known.
Themes
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Sophie goes out to check on Tante Atie, and Tante Atie warns her that Granmè Ifé is going to send word to Martine that Sophie has come to Haiti. Sophie replies that her mother doesn’t really care about her—she hasn’t replied to any of her letters over the years. Tante Atie warns Sophie that Martine will come—and she and Sophie will have to settle their quarrel before Granmè Ifé dies.
Tante Atie knows how painful the rift between Sophie and her mother is—but seems here to suggest that there’s nothing for them to do but repair it and move on. Sophie has been able to break free from Martine physically, but Tante Atie suggests that true freedom will only come from reconciliation.
Themes
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The next morning, while Sophie plays with Brigitte, Granmè Ifé records her response to Martine. Granmè Ifé calls to Sophie and asks if she wants to say anything on the tape, but Sophie says she and her mother have said all they need to say to each other. As distant bells toll out for Dessalines’s funeral, Tante Atie drunkenly stumbles into the house and naps for a hours before heading out again. She doesn’t return until the early morning hours, when Louise helps her straggle home.
Sophie and Granmè Ifé, separately and in their own ways, try to keep their family together. But in spite of their efforts, external corruption, destruction, and violence threaten to tear the foundations of their clan apart forever.
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