The Dew Breaker: No Person is Powerful Enough to Escape Their Past

[(Essay date 12 June 2009) In this essay, K.F. examines how Edwidge Danticat successfully uses structure in her novel, The Dew Breaker, to display how a single Haitian “macoute” can have such a negatively profound impact on so many lives. K.F. claims that Danticat did an excellent job of proving that one person really can make a difference, even if it is for the worse.]

The unique style Edwidge Danticat uses in this complex novel allows her to add layer upon layer to the life of the main character and the lives he has affected. Danticat begins the novel by introducing the protagonist, “the dew breaker”, who is now living in New York, trying to cover up his past that incessantly follows him. Although he is introduced as a good father and husband, Danticat shows that he will never be able to escape the horrific man he was in his past. Danticat never gives this main character a name besides being referred to by his victims as “the dew breaker.” The story of “The Bridal Seamstress” further explains why the macoutes were given such a name: “ ‘They’d break into your house. Mostly it was at night. But often they’d also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they’d take you away’ ” (Danticat 131). The phrase “dew breaker” was translated from the Creole words “shouket laroze.” Deception leads itself to be an underlying theme in the novel. “Shouket laroze” was translated into the most serene-sounding English translation possible, when it should have been given the harshest translation because of the actual meaning. Torturing and killing should never be given a peaceful and tranquil image.

Danticat offers nine loosely connected stories of victims with some relationship to the state-sponsored torture in Haiti during the rule of “Papa Doc” in the 1960s, in The Dew Breaker. Different accounts come from the wife and daughter of the main character, tenants, and neighbors. Although all of these people are very different, they have one thing in common; their lives have been forever altered by “the dew breaker” of this novel.

Danticat presents the stories of those who have survived the torture is a disorderly manner. The nine stories, or chapters, travel back and forth between America and Haiti, from the unfulfilled hope of the American dream and the political and economic struggles of the island nation. Perhaps she uses this as a metaphor for describing the disorder and abnormal lives that all Haitian-Americans experience when they immigrate to the United States. Haitian-Americans can never leave behind their true culture and at the same time find it hard to belong in a world that has never experienced what it is like to live under a dictatorship. In addition, these interlocking stories represent the intricate network of Haitian-American communities that exist in today’s world. Danticat’s non-chronological technique of introducing the victims demonstrates the edginess and complexity associated with Haiti and its people.

Ironically, Danticat continues to add layers and elaborate on the life of this “macoute” as the novel progresses. One is led to believe that anyone who devotes their life to torturing and killing others must be hollow, shallow inside. It would be impossible for a macoute to have feelings, for if they did they would not be able to commit such unspeakable acts without doubting themselves and later feeling so much remorse. If these men were to have any sense of compassion, they would no longer be able to live with themselves knowing the terror and violence they have caused. However, the structure of the novel that Danticat has chosen ironically adds layers, or feelings, to this main character’s life.

Perhaps Danticat feels it is suitable to give this main character feelings now that he has committed the rest of his life to forgetting his past and transforming himself to have morals. In “The Book of Miracles”, “the dew breaker” not only attends Christmas Eve mass with his wife and daughter, but drives forty miles to pick his daughter up at college just so they can spend the evening together. Even his wife comments that he would have never agreed to such a kind action if he continued to possess the mind of being a torturer.

Although Danticat makes it clear that “the dew breaker” has made quite an effort to abandon his past, she refuses to accept him as a permanently changed and trustworthy individual. Even though the novel ends with the last chapter being an account told from the perspective of the protagonist, it is extremely brief. Danticat does not wish for this “dew breaker” to have too much of a chance to defend himself and his motives for his actions, or give him enough time to get sympathy from the readers. Danticat shows he is not yet worthy because she never gives him a name, even when he is telling his own story, and also proposes the question: even if a person claims to have abandoned their past and vows to never go back, is it possible that it will never come back?

Danticat is uneasy to completely forgive this protagonist, even after he has made significant efforts to distance himself as far as he can from his past. “…he’d lost eighty pounds, changed his name, and given as his place of birth a village deep in the mountains of Leogane, no one asked about him anymore, thinking he was just a peasant who’d made good in New York. He hadn’t been a famous ‘dew breaker,’ or torturer, anyway, just one of hundreds who had done their jobs so well that their victims were never able to speak of them again” (77). The act of forgiving plays a major role in this novel; Ka, “the dew breaker’s” daughter, is faced with a crisis when she must decide if she is willing to forgive her father for his past, after he tells her in the first chapter, “Your father was the hunter, he was not the prey” (21). After being lied to that her father was merely one of the inmates in the prison for her whole life, why should she forgive him not only for what he did to his people, but for lying to her for this long? And should she accept her mother for embracing such a dangerous man and making her have such a father?

The reader is never told whether or not Ka has decided to forgive her parents, however we do find out that it is impossible for the victims of this main character to live normal lives until they can forgive “the dew breaker” and move on with their lives. Even forgiving him, however, will never erase the scar he has marked them with. The protagonist, too, is forever marked with a scar from his days as a torturer. The reader learns in the last chapter when he is in the midst of his final killing, about how he has obtained the scar on his face. The priest he was summoned to kill (who happened to be his future wife’s brother-in-law) was determined to make this man pay for his soon-to-be innocent death, that he whipped a harp piece of wood at his face. “The wound on the fat man’s face wasn’t what he had hoped for; he hadn’t blinded him or removed some of his teeth, but at least he’d left a mark on him, a brand that he would carry for the rest of his life. Every time he looked in the mirror, he would have to confront this mark and remember him. Whenever people asked what happened to his face, he would have to tell a lie, a lie that would further remind him of the truth” (227-228). The protagonist, no matter how hard he tries to forgive himself, will always live the shame and guilt of his past. In the first chapter, Ka states that her father always covers up his scar in every picture. “The Dew Breaker” has been haunted by his actions so severely as to the point where one night he had such a haunting nightmare that he woke up to knocking his teeth out from falling out of bed in such extreme terror. No matter how large his hands are, his scar will always be there; no matter how hard he tries to forget his past, his past will always remain with him.

Together, the nine separate, yet connected stories, combine to describe the path of psychological destruction that emanates from political terror. Not only has the “hunter” suffered psychological effects, but his “prey” as well. The first victim introduced is his daughter, Ka. She is left in total disbelief after her father confesses his atrocious sinful past while the two are on a trip to Florida together, on a mission to deliver one of her clients a sculpture of her father. Her father’s past gets the best of him and feels that he is not worthy to have a such a beautiful sculpture of him, and consequently destroys it without his daughter’s knowledge. She feels completely abandoned after looking up to her father since she was a child and “vowed to always tolerate, even indulge him.” Now, she is faced with a decision to forgive him, or if she does not, she will ultimately lose her father and make herself suffer even more. Ina single moment, Ka is forced her realign her entire concept of her father. Ka realizes that the loss of the sculpture was merely a symbol of reality: “I have lost my subject, the prisoner father I loved as well as pitied.”

In “Night Talkers”, a young man named Dany, one of “the dew breaker’s” tenants, returns to Haiti with the intent of telling his elderly aunt that he has found the man who murdered their family. “The dew breaker” had murdered his parents when he was very young and left him an orphan. However, once he gets to Haiti he realizes how strong of an impact that torturer has made in his life. Nearly twenty years later, he finds himself unable to confront “the dew breaker” in New York, in sweat-drenching fear. Through this story, Danticat shows that even though the protagonist no longer appears to be the least bit intimidating, Dany has been psychologically damaged forever.

In “The Bridal Seamstress”, Beatrice, a famous seamstress in New York, is yet another victim of this macoute. When she lived in Haiti, he asked her to go dancing with him one night: “I had a boyfriend, so I said no. That’s why he arrested me. He tied me to some type of rack in the prison and whipped the bottom of my feet until they bled. Then he made me walk home, barefoot. In the hot sun. At high noon. This man, wherever I rent or buy a house in this city, I find him, living on my street” (132). Beatrice can no longer live a life in safety as she is constantly paranoid “the dew breaker” is still after her.

“The Dew Breaker’s” wife, Anne, appears to be the most damaged of all of the victims. The threat of exposure haunts her day in and day out among her fellow immigrants in New York. She lives in constant fear of the uncertainty of when the next rally against “Baby Doc” or his torturers, leading to the possibility of the true identification of the man she loves. Anne has become so frightened of a reincarnation of her husband’s past that she becomes obsessed with attending church as an effort to have God on her side, praying that they will be able to live the rest of their lives in peace. Additionally, she has come to focus her life around miracle stories, in hopes to confirm the success of the transformation of her husband. Prior to Ka being revealed to the truth of her father’s past, it becomes evident that Anne continues to doubt forgiving her husband of his secret while they were at Christmas Eve mass together. All around the city, wanted flyers were posted up for a man named Emanuel Constant, who had committed a heinous crime. At the Mass, Ka believed to have seen Constant in the church. While Ka instantly wanted to kill Constant for his horrific crime, Anne had a million thoughts racing through her mind. She had forgiven her husband for being a killer, so doesn’t she deserve to give this man another chance as well? Here, Anne has a psychological breakdown as she struggles and debates her decision of falling in love with a macoute.

This unconventional style of loosely connected stories, in fact, is very tightly knit together. These interlocking stories show how one man has the power to impact others’ lives for the remainder of their existence. Danticat displays how difficult it is for humans to forget their past and pretend like it was never a part of them. His victims will never be able to recover from the torture and psychological damage he has caused them. Neither will he be able to escape his haunting past.


(K.F. 2009)



Breath, Eyes, Memory: Like Mother, Like Daughter

[(Essay date 12 June 2009) In the following essay, K.F. analyzes how Edwidge Danticat portrays the dominance of the male role in Haitian culture during the rule of François Duvalier, in her novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory. K.F. also notes Danticat’s excellent ability of showing the burden of inheritance in the Caco family.]

Set in the post-Duvalier years of Haiti, Breath, Eyes, Memory follows the life Sophie Caco, a walking, talking, breathing memory of her mother’s violent rape. After spending twelve years living with her Tante Atie (Aunt) in a village near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sophie is unexpectedly summoned by her mother to come live with her in New York. While In New York, Sophie discovers the psychological distress that her mother, Martine, faces as a result of her traumatic experiences when she was living in Haiti.

Danticat makes it clear that she wants her readers to walk away from reading this novel with the knowledge that a Haitian woman’s body is not her own. It is important for Sophie to break this tradition in order to ensure that her daughter, Brigitte, will not have to suffer like she and the rest of the women in her family have. Testing becomes a ritual in the Caco family, and all of Haiti as well, in which a mother confirms that her daughter is still a virgin by checking to see whether her little finger can pass the girl's hymen. The people of Haiti are obsessed with the purity of their women, yet ironically are willing to violate their bodies to check if they are indeed still virgins. This act’s symbolic violation mimics the action of rape. Weren’t the women of the Haitian culture so pleased now that the Tonton macoutes were no longer sent by the government to rape them? Why would they want to ultimately violate their own children if they knew how damaging and humiliating it used to be for them? Danticat brings the problem to the table that so many people do things just because they are “tradition” or because their mothers had done it to them. These people don’t stop to analyze the crimes they are actually committing.

Unfortunately for Sophie, this “testing” caused her to hate her body, become bulimic, and develop a terror of sex. Soon after Sophie began college in New York, still living with her mother, she fell in love with their neighbor, Joseph. Once Martine discovered their relationship, she immediately began testing Sophie. The only way Sophie could survive the testing were if she “doubled” (temporarily freeing her mind from her body’s pain). “There were many cases in our history where our ancestors had doubled. Following in the vaudou tradition, most of our presidents were actually one body split in two: part flesh and part shadow. That was the only way they could murder and rape so many people and still go home to play with their children and make love to their wives” (Danticat 155).

Consequently, Sophie blamed her mother for being unable to sleep with Joseph without doubling in order to distract herself. Because Martine inherited the act of acting from her own mother, Sophie blamed her phobia of sex on her mother, and in turn, her grandmother. Sophie’s grandmother further explains their culture’s obsession with female purity: “ ‘From the time a girl menstruates 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’ ” (156).

Martine’s testing ended quite early, at the age of sixteen, after she was raped by the macoute who had given her Sophie. Not only did this macoute prove his dominance by talking sexual advantage of her, but also psychological advantage. Every since the rape, Martine experienced nightmares almost every night, regarding the traumatic experience. It is necessary for Sophie to wake her mother up from the violent, lifelike nightmares and “save” her. “Later that night, I heard that same voice screaming as though someone was trying to kill her. I rushed over, but my mother was alone thrashing against the sheets. I shoot her and finally woke her up. When she saw me, she quickly covered her face with her hands and turned away” (48). Martine’s mind had been taken over by the macoute and the horrific experienced he had caused her. By covering her face when she realizes her daughter has seen her this afraid, Martine shows how she is trying to avoid her daughter seeing her in such a state. However, Danticat proves inheritance is so powerful that nothing can get in the way of Sophie inheriting her mother’s burdens.

Towards the end of the novel, Danticat shows that Martine’s psychological burden was so profound that she had no hope of ever leaving it in her past. When she gets pregnant again, the nightmares come back, worse then when Sophie was still living with her. She hears the baby inside of her speaking in the rapist’s voice. Martine demands that she has an abortion, in an attempt to rid the nightmares if she rids the baby. Within no time, Martine finds that the macoute has ultimately dominated her life and can no longer live under the control. One night, Marc (the soon-to-be father of this new child) finds Martine lying in her own blood. She had stabbed her stomach seventeen times and claimed right before she died that she could not carry the baby. Ultimately, her suicide was not an act of weakness, but an effort to get revenge on her rapist. Because the child spoke inside of her, it suggested that her body itself has begun to carry the rapist's violence. Martine lives in fear that he has left a piece of him inside her that will infect the child, and cannot force herself to make yet another child of hers suffer. Because she feels he has imbedded himself in her body, she ultimately believes herself to be the driving force of her own pain. Therefore, Martine's suicide represents her revenge on her attacker, as she destroys the body that they “share”.

Although it is impossible for Sophie to obtain inherited traits from her mother once she is born, Danticat uses parallel structure of events to display how strong the relationship between mothers and daughters really are. Martine's stabs mirror Sophie's own decisive act against her body, impaling herself on a pestle, with the intention of making her mother think she was no longer a virgin so the testing could stop. Both Sophie and Martine have taken the role as their own violator, in an attempt to free their bodies from someone else’s control.

In addition, after Martine’s funeral, Sophie rushes to the cane field, the site of her mother’s rape, and pounds the cane into the ground. Perhaps she is echoing her mother’s action of stabbing herself and her baby to death, or maybe it is an attempt to inflict violence on her mother’s attacker. Either way, Sophie is now free. Danticat shows the power inheritance in a family can have. The psychological burdens Sophie’s mother had were directly inherited to Sophie, making her suffer just as much. It was not until the source of her suffering had gone away (her mother’s death) that she could be free. At the very end of the novel, Tante Atie asks Sophie while she is in the cane field if she is free. For the first time, Sophie shouts back “Ou libèrè!” (233). The relationship Sophie had with her mother was extremely ironic. Typically, a mother is someone who can help free their child from their burdens. However, Martine did just the opposite to Sophie. Martine had to die in order for her daughter to be able to live her life in peace.

When Sophie returns to Dame Marie to face her psychological burdens she had inherited from her mother, Danticat shows that inheritance does not strictly result from genetics. Martine explains the Caco inheritance of testing to Sophie: "I did it," she said, "because my mother had done it to me. I have no greater excuse. I realize standing here that the two greatest pains of my life are very much related. The one good thing about my being raped was that it made the testing stop. The testing and the rape. I live both every day" (170).

However, Sophie realizes she is a remnant of her mother’s past—something her mother has been trying so hard to forget. The inheritance that Sophie acquires from her mother is physical as well. Sophie discovers that her face does not resemble her mother’s, her aunt’s, or even her grandmother’s. Her face echoes the unseen face of her mother’s rapist, a face her mother never wants to see again. How painful must it be for a child to know that their own mother has a difficult time looking at them—that whenever they see their face, horrible images come to mind? “I looked for traces in the child, a feature that was my mother’s but still mine too. It was the first time in my life that I noticed that I looked like no one in my family. Not my mother. Not my Tante Atie. I did not look like them when I was a baby and I did not look like them now” (45). Of all the things that Sophie inherited from her mother, one would think that physical appearance would be a safe bet. However, inheriting the traits of her mother’s rapist was the worst of everything she had inherited. Now, Sophie became a walking relic a past she would kill to leave behind.

In Breath, Eyes, Memory, Danticat does an outstanding job of displaying the burden of inheritance and how closely families are related, more specifically, mothers and daughters. Danticat impeccably informs her audience of the dominance of the male species in the Haitian culture, as she showed how acceptable it was for the men under the rule of François Duvalier to rape women without reason. Danticat also clearly presents the culture’s ironic obsession with female purity, while they deem it acceptable for men to do whatever they please with their bodies. However, this further explains the domination of the men over women in Haiti.

(K.F. 2009)