Study Guide

Chains Identity

By Laurie Halse Anderson


I curtsied, bewildered at the speed of it all. Yesterday I had been aboard a ship. The day before that, sold in a tavern. The day before that, I woke up in my own bed and watched an old woman die. My belly ached again, as if I were still at sea and the waves were throwing me off balance. (5.95)

Dude. Even on our busiest days, we typically at least stay in the same location. Having your whole world turned upside down in the space of forty-eight hours would do a ton of damage to your identity. It's no wonder Isabel spends a lot of the book's opening traumatized and disoriented.

Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step. (6.35)

Becky's instruction that slaves are to follow their masters' political beliefs regardless of their own opinions leaves Isabel feeling a little ill. She may be new to the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots, but she clearly understands that there's something disturbing about letting another person dictate your beliefs rather than being allowed to develop your own.

I was lost. I knew that we were in the cellar of a house on Wall Street, owned by the Locktons, in the city of New York, but it was like looking at a knot, knowing it was a knot, but not knowing how to untie it. I had no map for this life. (8.7)

According to the rules of slavery, being sold to the Locktons pretty much erases every sense of identity Isabel's ever had. She doesn't know where she fits in this new world and is overwhelmed not just by the prospect of a new owner, but being in a huge city inflamed by war. Sounds like a pretty impossible knot to us.

The older woman sipped her tea. "What is your name, girl?" she asked me.

"Isabel, ma'am," I said. "Isabel Finch."

"Ridiculous name," Madam said […] "You are called Sal Lockton now." (9.21)

Wait… Did Madam just change Isabel's name? She sure did, and Isabel basically just has to stand there and take it, or else face the consequences. Our names are so tied up with who we are that to be told she no longer is Isabel has to be disorienting, especially when combined with everything she's experienced so far.

Madam looked down without seeing me; she looked at my face, my kerchief, my shift neatly tucked into my shirt, looked at my shoes pinching my feet, looked at my hands that were stronger than hers. She did not look into my eyes, did not see the lion inside. She did not see the me of me, the Isabel. (21.49)

The sale of Ruth is the first time that Isabel begins to see herself as a human independent of the slavery system. By acknowledging that Isabel is the core of who she is, not Sal Lockton, she begins to reject the authority that the system has over her. It's a huge turning point on her journey toward freeing herself from the control of other people.

Madam shot a sideways glance at me. "I prefer the girl branded with the letter I for 'Insolence.' It will alert people to her tendencies and serve as a reminder of her weakness." (22.36)

When Madam gets up in court and orders the branding as Isabel's punishment, she's basically telling everyone in attendance—right in front of Isabel—that Isabel is a bad girl. The branding, in a sense, makes this true, permanently inscribing her "tendencies" on her face. It not only mars Isabel's skin, but her sense of self as well.

"A scar is a sign of strength," [Grandfather] said. "The sign of a survivor." (26.51)

After weeks of being beaten down by the likes of Madam Lockton, what Isabel really needs is someone to tell her she's okay, and that's exactly what Grandfather does. While she has a long way to go before she really puts the pieces together, his statement is the beginning of her lesson that the scar doesn't have to be a mark of shame.

I took the slim book off the shelf and opened the cover. I had never read a poem. What if I lacked the skill? What if I were caught? (36.38)

Earlier in the book, Mr. Robert accused Isabel of lying about knowing how to read. Evidently, Isabel has been so broken by recent events that she fails to see the great power in her literary skills. At this point, though, the idea of using her ability to read—even to read a poem—actually frightens her.

My eyes would not close. My thoughts churned up like muddy water, with dangerous eels thrashing through it.

If an entire nation could see its freedom, why not a girl? (42.10-11)

Yay. Eventually, reading Common Sense inspires Isabel to see the whole picture: that she is an individual with rights, who does not deserve to be owned by another human being. This is the beginning of her plan to escape the Locktons' slavery and set out on her own journey.

I took a step back, seeing near my whole self in the mirror. I pushed back my shoulders and raised my chin, my back straight as an arrow.

This mark stands for Isabel.

Madam Lockton may have intended the I for insolence to be a mark of shame, but Isabel's newfound empowerment through Thomas Paine's writing inspires her to see things differently. Whether Madam is aware of it or not, what she intended as a painful punishment is actually a proclamation of Isabel's identity. She is not a slave named Sal, but a man's daughter named Isabel, who proudly can wear her mark just as her father did.