Point of View and Narration
“Children of the Sea” is narrated in the first person by two distinct voices. The first belongs to a young man who is fleeing Haiti on a leaky boat. The second voice is that of the man’s lover, a young woman who remains in Haiti with her family. The story is written in the form of letters from each of the characters to the other, a style known as “epistolary,” which is derived from the ancient Greek word meaning “message” or “letter.” To underscore the danger of their respective situations, neither of the characters refers to each other by name. To do so would jeopardize their lives even more. Through their letters, which cannot be mailed, the reader learns of the characters’ deepest thoughts, the ones they are afraid to voice.
The characters’ personalities are revealed by how they write and what they choose to write about. The man on the boat is primarily concerned with his current predicament and writes about the people around him and the experience of being at sea. The woman, conversely, remains in Port-au-Prince and tends to reminisce about the past more, since her situation is not as dire. Through her memories, the reader learns many of the background details of the story. The difference in their personalities is shown by the way each of them discusses their relationship. The young man speaks naturally about their intimacy; the woman is more shy and hesitating. This difference may also represent the cultural attitudes of their country.
The two settings in the story, the middle of the sea and the island of Haiti, underscore the conflict in the story—that a couple in love has been separated by political upheaval. Across this distance there is no connection between the two main characters. Their separation has been absolute, though they try to bridge the gap with letters. But even these letters will never be read by the other person. Thus, the distance between the two lovers heightens the feeling of pathos (a sense of suffering) that permeates the story.
“Children of the Sea” relies on a number of symbols for its narrative power; most notably is the sea itself. The man dreams of the sea as heaven. When the people of the boat drown, they join the hundreds of other slaves who have died and become “children of the sea.” They are martyrs of a sort, and in the Christian tradition martyrs—those who die for their beliefs—go to heaven.
Another symbol is Celianne’s stillborn baby. Conceived by violence it is born dead, symbolizing that fact that cruelty does not beget life. The baby could also represent the crushed Aristide democracy, which was quelled by the military coup almost from the moment it began. In another symbolic interpretation, the dead child could also be said to represent the young couple’s doomed relationship. Their love has forged an alliance between them, but political strife has torn them apart, effectively aborting their chance for happiness together. In an instance of foreshadowing, Celianne drowns herself when forced to abandon her dead child. This hints at the impending tragedy in which the rest of the passengers will drown. Again, this action symbolizes that the violence inflicted upon Celianne by the Tonton Macoutes has not only resulted in the death of her child, but also her own death. Not only does cruelty not beget life, Danticat demonstrates, it frequently begets more cruelty.
At the end of the story the woman sits under a banyan tree, itself a symbol of holiness, and is surrounded by butterflies. Though they are black, a color that frequently represents death, the butterflies may also represent a bittersweet hope of eventual freedom. Love is endless, the young woman realizes, like the sea. But the sea, like love, is hidden from view by the mountains. She and others, symbolically then, will need to move mountains to see heaven—the sea—with their own eyes. The woman at this point, after publicly declaring her love for the man to her parents, represents the country’s best hope for the restoration of justice.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Edwidge Danticat, Published by Gale, 1997.