The Farming of Bones is a fictitious narrative based on historic events – the 1937 massacre of Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic. The plot unfolds through the words of Amabelle Desir, a servant to a military official’s wife. We learn her story and her dreams; how she lost her parents, how she became a servant; the life of sugar cane workers i.e. the poverty, the physical and emotional toll, the work demands etc; and we learn how she fell in love with Sebastien Onius. In a nutshell through the novel Edwidge Danticat gives voice to real individuals, who could not raise a voice for themselves. Danticat has used many elements to give her novel an altogether unique touch. The use of irony in the work can be seen through and through and provokes the reader to not just take in the information but also ponder over it.
Irony hits the reader from the very beginning and stays till the very end. The name itself has an underlying ironic tone. The book is primarily set around sugarcane harvesters. The rigorous work at times left their skins and bodies chipped away. In a way while they were farming for the food, plucking the crop from the earth, they themselves were being plucked at in the duration of their actions. And in the end they got nothing for it, they had nothing to show for the work that they had done. Most of the wealth they helped accumulate did not result in any benefit for them; they remained stuck in their impoverished life and surroundings. The duality of the title refers to the grueling work and effort that the Haitians put into the sugar cane plantations, and the massacre that comes later. The massacre itself can be viewed a kind of cultivation of death and anguish where the machete, the cane cutter’s tools etc all become instruments; the modus operandi of the massacre.
In a way the book runs full circle. At the end of the novel one would recall the words “a person never dies as long as their name is remembered, called” (166). The idea behind the statement was that the people who died during the Haitian massacre will be forgotten. But the author has contradicted this very fact. Through her work she had deliberately given a life to the people that died. One can also argue that she tried to negate this fact by embedding Sebastien throughout the novel. The novel begins with his name “His name is Sebastiem Onius” (1). It is also ironic that the novel starts by stating the name of a character that eventually goes missing in the text. The protagonist continues to imagine and remember him after he had disappeared in the massacre.
Pain itself is something which in literal sense no one ever wants for themselves. However in the book we are given a more rational use for pain, an ironic use. In the book one of the most memorable parts is the sermon where Anabelle listens as the audience is reminded “of common ties: language, foods, history, carnival, songs, tales, and prayers. His creed was one of memory, how remembering–though sometimes painful–can make you strong” (73). The kind of pain that the Haitians went through is not something anyone would want repeated or experienced. Although an ironic use, it is still an effective one. Their memories keep their identity real; the pain is something they would want to eradicate from their lives, and however it is that pain that makes up their identities. Anabelle seems to embrace the adversity. It is ironic that something that almost killed her becomes who she is. “The slaughter is the only thing that is mine enough to pass one. All I want to do is find a play to lay it down now and again, a safe nest where it will neither be scattered by the winds, nor remain forever buried beneath the sod” (266)
Amabelle’s own life becomes a juxtaposition of life and death. After she returns to Haiti, escaping the Dominican Republic, she seemed to exist for over 24 years only as “living death” (283). It is after this that we see the irony attached to the idea of water. The river has symbolized loss and pain for Amabelle for the longest time. Throughout the book the memories of her parents haunt her and she connects those memories to the water. The finality of this is shown when Amabelle enters into the water, although it had signified death for her she is “paddling like a newborn in a washbasin” (310) this in a way shows us renewal and hope. After the genocide her character suffers from acute depression. Even though she wanted hurt physically, she still retreats into herself and is merely living to “avoid the dead season” (263) although it seems that there is a perpetual dead season. It is ironic that in trying to escape the memory of the death of her parents, Sebastien, Odette, she actually becomes one of the “living dead” for over twenty-four years. It is ironic that she calls this a season when in fact it consistently stays with her for more than two decades.
The author tries to use irony to show how two human lives can be given such different statuses in the world. A very good example of this is the relationship of the protagonist Amabelle Desir, with her mistress Valencia. As children they both grew up together and often slept in the same bed. They were connected by the loss of their mothers, but Amabelle could never cross the servant-master lines that had been drawn up for her. They are in fact friends if not sisters and yet, Amabelle can only call her ‘Senora.’ Amabelle is trusted by Valencia, and she feels a great gratitude towards her but she does not view her as human. In the absence of their mothers, these two girls “parent all their childhood dreams out of themselves” (27). The extent of this can be seen in the fact that both the girls, and not just Valencia, call Don Ignacio Papi, which means father. They are both spanked the same way when they stay up playing at night and yet only one has the status of the daughter, the other is merely a servant and this is further emphasized by the fact that if she really did belong in that home, she would have never left it or had to leave it.
When Valencia gives birth to the twins she gives the credit to Amabelle, but at the same time she talks about the color of her daughters skin “Amabelle do you think my daughter will always be the color she is now?” Senora Valencia asked. “My poor love, what if she’s mistaken for one of your people?” it was only after that that her son died and her daughter, the less favorable one, was the one to survive. The death of Valencia’s son can also be seen as ironic in relation to the man her husband killed. A field laborer dies in a hit and run accident because of Senor Pico. At that very moment Amabell and Sebastien both witness the hit and run but neither can do anything. They can only think about revenge and retribution but the reality is that no one would care about a black man dying. That life seemingly was not worth as much. It seems as though it was divine justice that Valencia’s son dies a crib death. In the real world no one was held accountable for that death, but ironically a life was lost in exchange for a life that was taken.
At the end of the novel Danticat writes, “Unclothed, I slipped into the current. The water was warm for October, warm and shallow, so shallow that I could lie on my back in it with my shoulders only half submerged, the current floating over me in a less than gentle caress, the pebbles in the riverbed scouring my back…I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow…me lying there, cradled by the current, paddling like a newborn in a washbasin.” Through these words we are again reminded of the irony in Amabelle’s actions. Here she is at a cross roads. When she stands at the bank of the massacre river, she is once again reminded of all her loss. She is not sure, as she stands at the very edge of death, whether to jump in or “go on living” (309). And we are forced to stop here and wonder whether the death will claim her as well, however, the river gives her life and does not snatch it away from her. When reading one wonders if the river will “surrender to [her her] sanity the same way it had once snatched it away” (309). We then go onto the description of Amabelle as being in the water “so shallow that [she] could lie on [her] back in it with [her] shoulders only half submerged . . .” (310). The river that represents death in eventuality gives Amabelle a sense of closure from all the tremendous loss she has gone through in life. The river works as an epitome of collective memory that makes a link of Amabelle with her past. When Amabelle goes to water, she imitates on having moved her body up and carried “into the river, into Sebastien’s cave, my father’s laughter, my mother’s eternity” (310). By coming into the water, Amabelle recognizes her past, collecting memories, such as Father Romain, who she is and where she has come from, excruciating as that past is. Amabelle remembers in a dream that Sebastien on one occasion said that “it takes patience… to raise a setting sun” (283). After a long time, 24 years of night, now she is in the river, uncomplainingly “looking for the dawn”.
The use of language also is shown as ironic at times. It was the Haitians own tongues that led to their deaths. Many Haitian migrant workers were caught on the narrow ridge between two nearly native tongues and they spoke a mixture of Alegrian Kreyol (69). Unfortunately, they could not pronounce their r’s like the Dominican Spanish speakers. When the slaughter began, they were asked to say the words perejil which they pronounced as pewejil and that was proof enough of their identity, “Their own words revealed who belonged to what side” (304). It was not rigorous searching or extreme effort that led to their identification and subsequent deaths, it was their own tongues, their own mouths and they could do nothing to stop it. Ironically, the same area has language as the most intangible marker of identity because people now speak a myriad of languages all jumbled together.
At the beginning of the novel Sebastian talks about how Amabelle needs to “fully awake” (2) and has her strip from her clothes. He is talking about her identity, how even her night gown takes away her identity from her. When she slips into the river, having stripped off her clothes she is once again naked and closet to her identity than ever before. This idea is itself a contradiction because towards the end of the novel, Amabelle seems to lose her identity. She belongs no where, not in Haiti and not in the home that she had made for herself in the Dominican Republic. Whatever comfort she feels comes from others like her who lost a lot of their lives. Ironically, her identity in the end is neither a Haitian survivor not anything else. She is merely a left over refugee, a piece that fits no puzzle. At one point she remembers, “I had never desired to run away. I knew what was happening but I did not want to flee. ‘Where to?’, ‘Who to?’, was always chiming in my head” (264) and ironically even though she never knew where she could or would go, it was her homeland in Haiti where she felt most at ease, albeit amongst others like her who had lost a lot. Where before she felt ambiguous ties to her homeland, ironically it was a massacre succeeded in bringing her back to her roots.
The use of irony in Danticat’s work is coupled with the use of duality. She has explored human nature in relation to the Haitian genocide that took place in the Dominican Republic in 1937. Danticat wrote The Farming of Bones while asking a central question: will the “nameless and faceless who vanished like smoke into the early morning air” stay forgotten? (262). We find that through the use of irony the author has tried to hold the reader to the plot. It adds quality to the context. Incidences such as one’s very own tongue becoming the certificate for their death, or the divine retribution for murder i.e. loss of one’s child. These incidences are written with an immaculate perfection.
Danticat, Edwidge. The Farming of Bones