“Children of the Sea” follows two Haitian narrators in the tumultuous days following the coup that deposed President Aristide.
Justice and Injustice
One of the most important themes in “Children of the Sea” is justice. From the reader’s perspective, the overwhelming injustice of the narrators’ situation is highlighted by the events the author chooses to recount in the story. A totalitarian dictator has made his country an unbearable place to live. People are killed for disagreeing, for speaking publicly, and for trying to protect their families. Even when the young man is forced to flee for his life on a boat, injustice prevails. His fellow passengers are so bent upon survival that for them, the only question of “justice” is whether they should throw the sick people off the boat to save themselves. The harsh conditions on the boat seem no better than the world they had left behind. The story’s emotional power stems from its unrelenting portrayal of injustice that the reader understands to be more or less real.
Injustice prevails back home for the female narrator as well. The soldiers of Haiti rampage through the country, taking revenge on all the people who had opposed their authority during the short-lived Aristide administration. What they perceive as justice, however, is violent revenge that is manifested in murder, rape, and incest. The young woman’s father, no matter how strong his convictions, realizes that he cannot do little to prevail over the soldiers’ sense of “justice,” thus adding to the plight of the people by failing to come to the aid of his neighbor. Injustice is so pervasive and overwhelming in the society, that most have stopped assessing it and can do no more than try to save themselves.
“Children of the Sea,” though in many ways a love story, is essentially an example of political writing. The characters’ situations are forced upon them by the political situation of their country. Even simple acts, like the woman’s parents having supported Aristide while he was in power, now put them in danger. In this way, Danticat uses storytelling to protest the injustice of a totalitarian regime. She wants readers to identify with her characters and be urged to feel outrage for the injustice they suffer. She also demonstrates how politics can become the most important factor in a person’s life: politics can separate you from the ones you love, they can determine where you live, how your parents act toward you, and whether you live or die.
Violence and Cruelty
The cruelty and vengeance of the military government of Haiti forms the backdrop of “Children of the Sea.” The Tonton Macoutes, the private army of the Duvalier regime that specialized in torture, public terror, and oppression, run wild in the streets after Aristide, the democratically elected president of Haiti, is forced out in a military coup. Aristide supporters are hunted down and killed, and members of a protest group known as the “Youth Federation” are particularly in danger, though they have committed no violent acts themselves. However, no one is safe, as the second narrator informs us when she discusses the soldiers’ violent practices and the bodies that lie in the streets. The soldiers rape Celianne, a cruel act that begets more violence when Celianne disfigures herself, then again when she commits suicide. On the boat, the cruelty that has forced the refugees to flee again manifests itself when they consider getting rid of the weaker people on the boat. Violence results in more violence, Danticat shows. By comparing the refugees, soon to drown, to the African slaves hundreds of years ago, themselves forced from their homeland through violence and cruelty, Danticat connects the horrific acts of the past to those of the present. Like the sea, which is “endless,” and like the young woman’s love for the drowned man, violence is shown also to be timeless.
Related to the themes of violence and politics is the issue of human rights. The Western concept of human rights includes the right to free speech, to organize, to believe in democracy and religion, and not to live in fear from the government, among other things. The list of rights violated by the Tonton Macoutes in “Children of the Sea” encompasses almost every conceivable outrage. Their repression results in a culture of fear and powerlessness among the Haitians, where even the young woman’s declaration of love for a political activist is in itself a political act. The Haitian people’s right to protest, to be safe in their own homes, and to speak freely has been eliminated in the face of the Tonton Macoutes’ cruelty. Less apparent in the story, but providing an ominous undertone, is the realization that had the boat actually reached Miami, the refugees most likely would not have been granted political asylum by the United States, an act that some would also consider a violation of human rights.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Edwidge Danticat, Published by Gale, 1997.