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I for Isobel | Study Guide

Amy Witting

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I for Isobel | Symbols



The brooch that Isobel receives as a surprise gift on her ninth birthday is a symbol of hope and a chance at a new life in that it is the first birthday gift she has ever received. She regards the brooch with wonder and joy, and when she returns to her room, she cannot stop glancing at it. In a way, she feels like it is an object she should not have, and she is surprised when her mother does not take it away. When her angry mother leaves the room, Isobel pins the brooch on her dress and thinks she will wear it all of her life. In this way, the brooch also serves as a symbol of Isobel's loneliness, pain, and the deprivation she experiences throughout her childhood. The brooch is the pain caused by her abusive mother, a pain she will wear all of her life.

Baby in the Baking Dish

The image of the baby in the baking dish is almost too appalling to think about. Nevertheless, it is a very powerful symbol and one that has a tremendous influence on Isobel. In the boardinghouse kitchen, Mrs. Prendergast recounts the terrible story of a young mother, Dorrie, who had a six-week-old baby. One day Dorrie called to her husband, "I'm just popping the baby in the oven." He rushed in to find that Dorrie had indeed turned on the oven, trussed and greased the baby, and set it in a baking dish. The husband was just in time to rescue the infant.

It's a horrible story, but an old lady whom Isobel knows loves ghoulish gossip about death tells it. And the story does end with the baby being saved. Even if it were true, the story wouldn't be connected to Isobel in any way. The reader might expect her to gasp or shudder, but instead, Isobel feels a dreadful identification with the baby. She knows all too well what a mother's insanity can do to a child. The kitchen suddenly seems "subterranean" to her, as if she's under the ground herself. She is "seized with such anguish for the unsuspecting object in the baking dish" that she wants to run away. Unsuspecting is an important word here. A six-week-old baby is incapable of suspicion. But as an innocent child, Isobel herself was repeatedly the unsuspecting victim of her mother's sudden rages. And although Mrs. Callaghan's psychological and physical abuses aren't quite as bad as roasting a baby, she has caused a kind of spiritual death in her daughter. She has stunted Isobel's emotional growth and stifled her hopes of becoming a writer.

In Chapter 5 Isobel returns to the neighborhood where she grew up. She's determined to face the places where she suffered so much as a child. Twice during her journey she remembers the baby in the baking dish. The first time, a baby in a stroller triggers a traumatic vision. Isobel pictures the stroller rolling into traffic while the "enchanting, perishable baby" sucks its toes. Isobel is conscious that she's turning the stroller into a symbol of death and tries to make herself forget about it, but like many repressed thoughts, it pops up again. When Isobel next thinks of the baby in the baking dish, she realizes that the scene represents the way her parents killed the writer in her. "They wouldn't want a writer about the house. A witness, a recorder" of the ghastly events that routinely took place there. Nobody came in time to rescue Isobel when she was little, but maybe she can save herself.

Telephone Boxes

Readers are unsettled to learn, in Chapter 5, that Isobel has been making anonymous obscene phone calls to random strangers. She hates herself for doing it. "You're a pervert, a phone freak," she tells herself when she remembers "shuddering with satisfaction as she let out the stream of hatred." She imagines telephone boxes (phone booths) as evil "joss houses"—Chinese shrines to deities. Using the term shows that Isobel sees her calls as being almost religiously motivated. All this is a sordid and unwelcome revelation for the reader. At the same time, it is clear that Isobel is not a pervert. These phone calls are deeply important to her; they help her in some way. The emotional release the phone calls give her explicitly parallels Mrs. Callaghan's efforts to goad Isobel into angry, pained reaction.

All her life, Isobel has been prevented from saying and doing what she wants. As readers will shortly learn, a deception her parents practiced on her as a child has shut down what's most important to her: her love of writing. Isobel is a born storyteller whose parents have discouraged her writing—partly because Mrs. Callaghan bans anything Isobel likes and partly because the Callaghan parents are afraid that their daughter's writing might expose shameful secrets about their family. Abused children often become abusers, and rage drives Isobel to make the anonymous calls now. As a child, she couldn't speak back to her mother; now she'll never get the chance. Making the anonymous calls is a way to spew venom safely and achieve a measure of what feels to Isobel like revenge.

Isobel begins making the calls at an age when most people begin to think about sexual relationships. She does not seem to view sex positively. Trevor's attempt to embrace her fills her with horror, and she feels nothing during her one-night stand with Michael. The phone calls may be a pitiful stand-in for sex; they may also be Isobel's way of expressing horror about sex. In either case, they are deeply troubling, and it's a relief when Isobel stops making them.

Embroidery Panel

In Chapter 1, Isobel gets a charming brooch for her birthday. Amy Witting describes it in loving detail, even citing exactly which flowers are on it and what colors they are. It is one of the few times in the book that Amy Witting mentions specific colors. The hand-me-down clothes in Chapter 3 are another example. A third comes in Chapter 5 when Isobel surveys her filthy bedroom and decides to clean it up. Eyeing a flap of wallpaper that has always annoyed her, she realizes she could embroider a decorative panel to hide it. It is the first time readers learn that Isobel used to love embroidery and that she was very skilled in the craft.

"She was caught by a longing for richness, for padded satin stitch glowing in crimson and russet." After years of drab colorlessness, Isobel yearns for bright color. She realizes she could embroider the panel in any color she likes—"pink, purple, whatever." In fact, she abandons the idea of pink and purple in favor of a much more interesting palette—"bronze, gold, crimson, cream, pink, olive green, dead-leaf brown." It seems especially Isobel-like to identify a color as dead-leaf brown instead of just brown, but the point is that she is bringing beauty and color into her life for perhaps the first time. Readers know that Isobel finds joy in books, but now she's bringing a little joy and beauty into her life.

"Embroider" has a figurative meaning as well as a literal one. To embroider a story is to embellish it with details that may not be true. In Chapter 5, Isobel passes her old school and remembers being chased around the playground by classmates who were angry that her grades were so good. She remembers cowering against a brick wall, unable to scale it, as the fastest classmate approached her. Years later, looking at the spot she remembers so well, she's amazed to see that the brick wall was only "12-and-a-half bricks high"—about a yard. Even as a child, she wasn't that short. All these years she's been misremembering the story as being more dramatic than it actually was. "All the miserable self-images were invention, or at least embroidery." The true story is less interesting than she'd remembered. The playground is less menacing; the brick wall is too short to have trapped her. It's embarrassing to see that a key childhood memory was inaccurate, but it's also freeing. Even her terrible past is less terrible than she had thought.

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