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A major theme in the novel analyzes how the customs and traditions of a country can affect the way a person develops and grows up to be in adulthood. Being raised in Haiti, Sophie and Martine had to accept the rules imposed by Grandma Ife and by her husband. The way Martine tested Sophie and the limitations Martine imposes upon herself are all the result of Martine’s upbringing and of the traditions Martine was subjected to. Martine was traumatized because she was raised in a society where women had no value and in the end the traumas she suffered in her childhood pushed her to suicide in her adulthood. Sophie was also influenced by the customs and traditions of the country she left behind and because she was tested by her mother, she never became capable of experiencing pleasure during the intercourse she had with her husband.
The novel also analyzes the relationship between Martine and Sophie and Martine and Grandma Ife in the novel and the relationship between the two mother-daughter pairs is one of the main themes in the novel. The author first presents how Grandma Ife treated her daughters and how the education she gave her children affected the way Martine disciplined and educated her own daughter. Martine was tested by her mother and even if that affected the way she interacted with men and scared her mentally, Martine did the same thing to Sophie even though she knew how traumatic it will be for her. This proved that the way a person is taught influences the way that person will end up teaching their children in the same way they were taught.
Of the major themes in the novel and in fact a theme commonly found in Edwidge’s stories is national identity. Sophie identified herself with the Haitian culture until the age of twelve and she was raised being surrounded by people obeying the Haitian customs and traditions. When Sophie moves to New York, she must adapt to a new life, in a new world she knows nothing about. It is stressed the idea that those who come from a different country never get the chance to integrate themselves completely into their new culture because they are unable to let their old culture go and be replaced by something else. The characters are thus trapped between two worlds and they reach the point where they can’t fully reconnect with their old culture but they can’t accept the new one completely either because it goes against what they were taught until that point by their parents or guardians. In the novel, the characters who find themselves in this situation are Sophie, Martine and Marc.
Sophie prides herself on the strength of the women in her family. They endure the most difficult human trials: violence/violation, abandonment, poverty, mental illness. They don't always survive gracefully—very often, pain is often passed on from one generation to the next.
But Sophie and Martine find that although the mother-daughter relationship can be torn apart by these complications, it will always be—and will always need to be reclaimed before the family can move forward.
Danticat makes a similar observation about the bond between Haiti and her people. She believes that the land is their mother and every Haitian a daughter. Danticat uses the image of the goddess Erzulie—Sophie's ideal mother—to give us hope that the Caco women (like Haiti) will endure because of their strength, beauty, and passion.
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
Danticat creates the strong, matriarchal Caco family to counterbalance the destructive male forces around them, including the corrupt and violent Haitian government.
The feeling of duty towards family (and family honor) actually erodes the Caco family instead of helping them thrive.