Caroline Fraley on fate and visibility in Edwidge Danticat’s “Night Women”

The narrator in Edwidge Danticat’s “Night Women,” says that girls come in two types: day women and night women, and she is “stuck between… in a golden amber bronze” (196). The whole of the story takes place in a one-room house in Haiti, divided by the “innocent fabric” of a curtain to separate the narrator’s space from her son’s (196). On one side of the curtain, the young boy sleeps with his transistor radio; on the other, “Mommy works” atop her mat on the floor (197). Danticat uses both visibility and multiplicity in a tactful use of imagery, crafting a provocative use of the stars to communicate to her readers on several levels.

Perhaps the most pressing visual image of “Night Women” is the hole in the narrator’s roof. Through the hole, the mother and her customers are able to see the stars from her mat on the floor. Danticat uses this description as a powerful way to create what Italo Calvino, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, calls visibility. In the chapter under that title, Calvino lauds the “power of… bringing forth forms and colors from the lines of black letters on a white page” (92). Indeed, upon reading Danticat’s story, one is hard-pressed to avoid seeing with the mind’s eye the view from that mat on the floor, up through the roof, and to the stars. Without explanation, this image creates the impression of hope in a desperate situation—the ability to see the stars from the dirty floor.

Stars become a recurring motif in “Night Women,” as a way to depict the narrator’s situation in a multiplicity of ways. The first time stars are mentioned, the narrator tells readers of the hole in her roof “that none of [her] suitors will fix for [her], because they like to watch a scrap of the sky while lying on their naked backs” (196). This allows the speaker the opportunity to illustrate, in the space of one sentence, both her poverty and the selfishness of her “suitors.” The next mention of stars comes a few paragraphs later when the narrator says that some nights she believes she is accompanied by “ghost women” from the Haitian city of Ville Rose—ghost women who woo strollers by “brushing the stars out of their hair” and leaving them like breadcrumbs to follow (197). Here is another effective example of visibility that serves as a powerful illustration of the narrator’s imagination in the face of tragedy. It also works as a transition into another belief of hers: belief in women who find excuses so “they will not have to lie next to the lifeless soul of a man whose scent still lingers in another woman’s bed” (197). (This veiled admission of guilt is echoed later when she asks one of her customers, “How is your wife” (198)? He answers, “Not as beautiful as you.”) Toward the end of the story, the “stars slowly slip away from the hole in the roof,” and the narrator thanks them that “at least [she] has the days to [herself]” (198). This use of stars suggests that the narrator is simply walking her fated path. In one phrase, she nebulously depicts her life as predetermined by greater forces, intensifying the reader’s sympathy for the narrator.

Another way Danticat uses stars in “Night Women” as predictors of fate is much more disguised in its use of multiplicity. At one point in the story, the narrator tells readers, “Emmanuel will come tonight” (198). The term multiplicity as I am using it here, refers to Calvino assertion that “the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge… into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world” (112). Danticat’s line, “Emmanuel will come tonight,” reflects a multifaceted vision of the world by conveying both the literal meaning and a Biblical allusion: Emmanuel, her customer, the doctor, is scheduled to visit tonight, and she must please him to pay the bills; but the sentence also suggests the arrival of the Christ. Emmanuel, a name used for the Messiah in the Bible, means “God with us”—and, not coincidentally, the arrival of the Christ was announced by a star above the roof. The allusion in Danticat’s story serves to heighten both the hope felt by the narrator, and the vast difference between her Emmanuel, and Emmanuel, the Christ. The meaning behind the name—God with us—is powerfully ironic considering the tragic life she’s fated to live.

The final sentence, a line spoken to her son, also illustrates multiplicity as it leaves readers with both the taste of hope and the indefiniteness of her suffering: “Darling, the angels have themselves a lifetime to come to us” (198). This multiplicity is intensified by the fact that throughout the story, the narrator has lied to her son, telling him that the reason she dresses and makes up her face at night is because there are angels coming to visit. Knowing this, the final sentence can be read in a third way—to say that the customers, the “angels,” have a lifetime to come to see her.

Through her use of both visibility and multiplicity, Edwidge Danticat creates a moving story of a Haitian prostitute struggling to care for her young son. By describing compellingly visible images of stars, she communicates a variety of messages. By complicating the way in which these images can be interpreted, she compounds the layers of each one, creating a multifaceted view of the world. Through her careful utilization of effective tools, Danticat impresses on her readers both the hope and the despair of the narrator’s life.

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