Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Analyzing the Problematic Mother-Daughter Relationship in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

Analyzing the Problematic Mother-Daughter Relationship in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory

Article excerpt


In this study, Danticat's novel Breath, Eyes, Memory is examined through the lens of abjection theory of psychoanalysis. Applying the aforementioned theory through the perspective of Julia Kristeva in the text, the researcher seeks to investigate the roots of the problematic relationship between the protagonist and her mother. Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory deals with a scenario involving Sophie and her mother Martine. At the age of twelve, Sophie Caco is sent from her impoverished village of Croix-des-Rosets to New York, to be reunited with a mother she barely remembers. After joining her in the U.S., Sophie always has a problematic relationship with her mother.

Noelle McAfee in his book Julia Kristeva states that "Literature, in Kristeva's view, helps the author and the reader work through some of the maladies that afflict their souls" (50). McAfee uses the term "soul" here in a non-religious way, something more akin to psyche or mind than to spirit. These afflictions include abjection, depression (also known as melancholia), and various neuroses and psychoses. McAfee claims that in Kristeva's point of view, "Literature offers a way to help work through what afflicts us. In addition to displaying the symptoms of some kind of malady of the soul, literature can be cathartic" (McAfee 50). This is certainly true for abjection. In her book Powers of Horror, Kristeva says of abjection and literature:

By suggesting that literature is [abjection's] privileged signifier, I wish to point out that, far from being a minor, marginal activity in our culture, as a general consensus seems to have it, this kind of literature, or even literature as such, represents the ultimate coding of our crises, of our most intimate and most serious apocalypses. Hence its nocturnal power (Kristeva 208).

In nearly all of her writings, even the most psychoanalytic ones, she continually turns to literary texts, both as a literary critic seeking to understand the "nocturnal power" of writing and as an analyst trying to understand the author as a subject who is working through his or her crises. Literature, she says, "may also involve not an ultimate resistance to but an unveiling of the abject: an elaboration, a discharge, and a hollowing out of abjection through the Crisis of the Word" (Kristeva 208). In Powers of Horror, after graphically describing the process of abjection, Kristeva turns to two literary examples to show how abjection works in literature, abjection's "privileged signifier": the Bible, and the work of the twentieth-century writer known as Celine. The researcher also applies Kristeva's theory of abjection to approach Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory.

It is first necessary to explicate fully Kristeva's notion of the abject as it will apply to my objective to place it in a literary context. My reading is centered on Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection; it is a central topic in her theoretical work, Powers of Horror. Kristeva begins her essay "Approaching Abjection" by defining abjection as "an inescapable boomerang, a vortex of summons and repulsion [that] places the one haunted by it [the abject] literally beside himself" (1). She goes on to define the abject as one who occupies the space between subject and object (1-2). Those who are considered the abject often occupy the margins of society--the poor, minorities, prostitutes. The state of abjection centers on those abjects that are expelled from society. But there exists a gray area that surrounds the abject; the abject remains, paradoxically, both heavily desired and deeply reviled. Kristeva continues to describe the tangential feelings that accompany abjection:

   [Abjection is] one of those violent, dark revolts of being,
   directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant
   outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the
   tolerable, the thinkable. It [abjection] lies there, quite close
   but it cannot be assimilated. … 
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