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The Dew Breaker, a novel by Edwidge Danticat that tells of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s inherited dictatorship in Haiti, appears to be a novel about two things. On the one hand, it documents the life and trials of a Tonton Macoute, a government sanctioned torturer; on the other hand, it also tells of the cowardice of weak men with great power. The ‘dew breaker’ that is the eponym for the book is constantly characterized by his cowardice, his desire for forgiveness but his inability to ask for it. This conflict that the ‘dew breaker’ has within himself also tends to inspire conflict within the reader. Should one hate him or pity him? Is he unforgivable because of what he has done or is his own fear, coupled with circumstance, truly to blame? After examining the characterization of the ‘dew breaker’ and the situations in which he was placed, it can be inferred that while he may not deserve forgiveness, this man’s obvious pusillanimity makes him pitiable.
The novel begins with the story of Ka, an aspiring young artist and the daughter of the ‘dew breaker’. The ‘dew breaker’ is presented as a simple Haitian barber, an escaped military prisoner with a devotedly Catholic wife and loving daughter. The reader easily falls into step with Ka and her father as they travel to Florida to sell one of Ka’s sculptures. This sculpture is inspired by the bent and broken prisoner Ka believed her father to be. Besides relating parts of her father’s “past” in Haiti, Ka also tells of a jagged, horrifying scar that has nearly ruined her father’s face. She easily recounts the story he told her as a child: that a guard working for the regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier sliced open her father’s face in a random act of cruelty. It later becomes apparent that this tale is indeed a lie told to Ka for over thirty years. Towards the middle of the chapter, Ka’s father finally opens up with the truth after destroying his daughter’s sculpture, saying, “… Ka, your father was the hunter, he was not the prey… I was never in prison” (21). In one instant, everything that Danticat has told the reader about Ka’s father seems to be untrue. This man, who was known in Haiti as a Tonton Macoute, an infamous ‘dew breaker’, finally speaks the truth to his daughter and in the process destroys the innate trust Ka has in him. The idea that he kept such a secret from her for so long is surely an example of his infinite cowardice. However, it also proves he wants nothing more than love for the man he is, not hate for the man he had been.
Another point of interest in The Dew Breaker is the main character’s demand that he be allowed to wear civilian clothes. In the last chapter, “The Dew Breaker”, the protagonist simply states that “he didn’t like the uniform” (196). The idea that he feels he is above other Macoutes and has the right to make demands is perfectly absurd and also cowardly. A Macoute walking home alone in standard denim runs the risk of being attacked and possibly killed; the ‘dew breaker’s’ refusal to wear the uniform proves he is a coward, a man who cannot stand the idea of imminent physical harm. This basic denial of Macoute custom sets the main character apart from all others: he is not in imminent danger because he is allowed to dress normally, he can avoid unwanted attention, and his lack of uniform saves him later when he runs into Anne outside Casernes. Had he been wearing the denim of his station, I doubt Anne would have reacted so charitably.
Incidentally, “The Dew Breaker” also presents the same conflict as seen in the beginning of the book. It offers no real resolution as the last chapter but it does leave the reader with a feeling of modern day catharsis. This chapter flashes back to the ‘dew breaker’, an active and senior member of Duvalier’s Macoutes while in Haiti. Danticat opens by describing the main character in a soft but insistent way. He is an important and self-indulgent man in the Tonton Macoutes who has been sent to kill an outspoken preacher. The ‘dew breaker’ voices a disdain of this job in the beginning of the chapter, saying that, “He wanted a perfect view of the church entrance in case the opportunity came to do the job from inside his car…” (183). This obvious lack of courage produces a key moment in the novel: the Macoute is afraid to take a chance with the preacher’s unrestrained congregation. It is doubtless that, if the ‘dew breaker’ was alone during the public assassination of the preacher, the entire situation would have resulted in his own death. To protect himself, the ‘dew breaker’ chooses to bring along a group of other Macoutes. The preacher is roughly but quietly taken away, giving the illusion that he has “disappeared” like all the rest. The quiet, subtle way in which the preacher was taken to Casernes helps to exemplify the main character’s inflated concern for himself. He is not willing risk his life in any way, even to execute a duty given to him by the faction he so loves.
The concern mentioned above is also present pages later, after the preacher has been taken to Casernes for questioning. Though it is surprising that the preacher was not restrained during interrogation, this small oversight by both the main character and Danticat serves a great purpose. In a marvelous last act of heroism, the preacher reaches for a splintered piece of wood from his broken chair and stabs ‘dew breaker’ “in [his] right cheek and [sinks] it in an inch or so” (226). Danticat goes on to further wound the ‘dew breaker’, saying that, “The fat man’s shock worked in [the preacher’s] favor, for it allowed him a few seconds to slide the piece of wood down the fat man’s face, tearing the skin down his jawline” (226). The action itself earns the preacher the quick death he so desires: he is immediately shot in the chest by the ‘dew breaker’, a man who cannot stand the idea of bruised pride. This magnificent show of valor on the preacher’s part forever damages the ‘dew breaker’; it also contributes greatly to a weakness in character that will be present for the rest of his life. With the blood of the preacher on his hands, the ‘dew breaker’ becomes completely terrified. A huge gash in his face and dripping with blood, he stumbles out of Casernes, pushing aside his superior’s assurance of asylum. The fact that he did not stay to face the consequences of his actions shows his cowardice yet again. He cannot bear the thought of punishment or reprimand even from an institution he has devoted his life to. Whenever there is a chance he might endure harm, the ‘dew breaker’ is quick to withdraw from the situation, either by blaming it on others or by running away.
The constant theme of cowardice and fear in The Dew Breaker is important to the story’s plot and also to the characterizations within. The ‘dew breaker’ as presented by Danticat is a man who evoked terror in the people; there mere mention of his name could send a Haitian into a fit of shivers or a bout of unwanted memories. It is ironic, then, that he should ultimately be the one who is most afraid and the one who would have to flee for his life. The ‘dew breaker’ was such a contradictory mess of both fear and courage, weakness and power, that one could not help but feel sorry for him. It is heart wrenching to think that a human being could do such terrible things and then struggle so completely with those facts afterwards. It’s the story every person wants to hear: the story of a man battling his inner demons and his past to become more than he ever was before. While the ‘dew breaker’ does fall short of forgiveness and absolution, he also doe manage to achieve a kind of pitiable half-life, his attempt to be a good man despite his history of bad deeds.
Ultimately, it is the ‘dew breaker’s’ cowardice and lack of strength that makes him so close to the reader’s own heart. After all, we are all vulnerable in our own way.
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