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I for Isobel | Study Guide

Amy Witting

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I for Isobel | Themes


Reading as Salvation

The only reliable relationship in Isobel's life is her relationship with books. Reading has the power to lift Isobel out of any situation. It teaches her lessons the adults in her life haven't bothered teaching her. Reading costs nothing but gives so much. On Isobel's ninth birthday, her mother denies her a birthday present, but she also discovers the Sherlock Holmes stories. "What a lucky thing that she had found this new place in time to spend the birthday there," she thinks in Chapter 1. That's exactly how she sees books: as new places.

Except for Sherlock Holmes stories, the first three chapters of I for Isobel do not name many specific literary titles. But the list of books Isobel takes when she moves away from home shows that her taste in books is not that of a typical 18-year-old. Isobel is continuing her education—at least the education she would have had as a college student majoring in English. She brings the classics. She even arrives at the boardinghouse with a library book, which most people would return rather than bring along with them when they move. It's not a modern novel, as one might expect of an 18-year-old, but one by the 19th-century British author Anthony Trollope.

It can be argued that all her reading keeps Isobel from engaging with the real world, but the real world is unpleasant until her mother is no longer in it. It's reading that brings Isobel into contact with the "special crowd" she's always longed to meet—six college students, all voracious readers, who are arguing loudly about poetry in a café. "Daring to sneer at Byron!" Isobel thinks angrily. At the same time, she's astonished at the impact the conversation has on her. She's dazed by "hearing verse spoken aloud as if it was part of the conversation." And the notion that these students get to talk about poetry with a college tutor, Joseph, makes her so jealous that from that moment on, she creates an imaginary Joseph for herself. Though she never quite fits into the group, the weeks she spends with them are the closest she comes to happiness until the end of the book.

Power of Female Anger

In I for Isobel, female anger is both destructive and restorative. With Isobel's mother, it is always destructive. Physically, Mrs. Callaghan is not intimidating. In Chapter 1, she flies at Isobel and begins slapping her, but "her hands [flap] weakly as if she was fighting against a cage of air." Anger is what makes her terrifying. Mrs. Callaghan simmers with rage nonstop, and she's liable to burst into a tantrum without warning. From an early age, Isobel is forced to stay on guard. She watches her mother carefully, doing her best not to provoke her—a hopeless challenge, since Mrs. Callaghan often detonates for no reason. Her husband seems as intimidated as Isobel by his wife's outbursts.

Having witnessed how frightening anger can be, some children might hide their own anger even from themselves. Isobel is not that kind of child. Though she does not always show it, she's very aware of the times when her mother makes her furious, and she uses her anger carefully. She's also aware that withholding her anger is a good way to fight back. In Chapter 2, Isobel speaks mildly when her mother expects her to start screaming. Her mother is utterly perplexed. "With a harsh expulsion of breath in the tempo of laughter," she stops talking. Later, Mrs. Callaghan plagues Isobel with the ceaseless question "What are you sulking about?" Isobel, who is not sulking, realizes that her mother doesn't actually care about the answer. "She doesn't want me to tell her, she wants me to scream," Isobel reflects. "She, Isobel, was an outlet that gave some relief." Remaining calm, refusing to be that outlet, is a good way to get revenge.

In Chapter 4 readers are shown a different kind of rage in the character of Diana, Nick's former girlfriend. Diana is angry at Nick, of course, but she's even angrier at herself, and that anger is corroding her from within. Diana calls herself "a curse and a bore" and admits to Isobel that she has "no pride, no self-respect left." "I've got nothing," she laments. Without thinking about how she sounds, Isobel offhandedly comments, "When you can't change, I suppose you are as good as dead." This could be perceived as an aggressive remark, and when Isobel sees how furious she's made Diana, she backs down. She spends the next few days terrified that Diana will kill herself. Actually, though, Isobel's remark gets through to Diana in a way more conventional expressions of sympathy wouldn't have. It hardly cheers Diana up, but it does seem to convince her that her pursuit of Nick will never bring him back.

The anger Isobel feels toward her parents has always been stifled by fear and guilt, and she's always tried to tamp it down. In Chapter 5, when she realizes how her parents betrayed her, she finally gives way to utter rage. She bursts into "artesian tears, rising from the center of the earth"—tears of fury as well as grief—and roars aloud, "Selfish, tormenting bastards." She has never cried so hard before. But when she finally stops, she realizes what she's never recognized before: she's a writer. By letting herself experience the full force of the anger that had trapped her, she can finally move forward.

Mother Figures

Isobel realizes from an early age that Mrs. Callaghan is an unfit parent. The lessons her mother teaches her are painful, but throughout the book, she meets women who help her in one way or another. Aunt Noelene is the most important of these figures. In addition to being generous with money and clothes, she is a practical and successful businesswoman. She knows how Isobel can advance in her job and is willing to pay for her to take classes at a business college. She helps Isobel find a boardinghouse. In fact, she does all anyone can do for a young woman who is timid and unwilling to push herself forward.

Mrs. Bowers, Isobel's landlady, is bewilderingly kind. Of all the residents in the boardinghouse, Isobel is the only one she routinely invites into the kitchen for tea and a snack. She's not a particularly likable person, and Isobel feels conflicted about her. She's grateful but also uneasy. It develops that Isobel is right to feel uncomfortable. When Madge Bowers gets engaged and it becomes clear she's moving out, Isobel realizes that Mrs. Bowers sees her as a surrogate daughter. Isobel doesn't reciprocate the feeling. As a child, she wished Margaret wasn't the favorite child. She's stunned to realize that Mrs. Bowers is now assigning her the role of favorite when she no longer wants it.

It's not easy for Isobel to feel affection. As a rule, she doesn't care much about the people around her. She may wish she had some of Betty's coolness, Rita's gypsy beauty, or Janet's education, but she's not looking for intimate friendships with any of them. In Chapter 5, readers learn why this might be so. Mrs. Adams was delighted by Isobel's poem about her cat, but Isobel never knew: her parents terrified her by saying it was criminal to put Mrs. Adams's name into print. After that, Isobel was too frightened to speak to Mrs. Adams, who, in fact, had nothing but kind feelings about her. If Isobel had known Mrs. Adams's real feelings, her entire life might have been different. She would have been proud of getting a poem into the newspaper; she wouldn't have thought that writing was a criminal offense. Mrs. Adams is the only real motherly figure in the book, and she comes into the story when Isobel no longer needs a mother in the same way. But the chance kindness Mrs. Adams shows for a few minutes retrofits Isobel's entire past and allows her to believe she might have a new future.

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