Study Guide

Chains Slavery

By Laurie Halse Anderson


"Slaves don't read," Mr. Robert said. "I should beat you for lying, girl."

Pastor Weeks held up his hand. "It's true. Your aunt had some odd notions. She taught the child herself. I disapproved, of course. Only leads to trouble." (2.16-17)

Slaves knowing how to read does lead to trouble… for their owners. Isabel's eventual victory proves it. If she hadn't been able to read and write, she wouldn't have received the message of Common Sense, or even filled out the pass that gives her freedom. Clearly, slave owners recognized the power of language, and that keeping it out of the hands of enslaved people helps keep them obedient and inferior. Fortunately, Isabel is an anomaly and is able to beat the system.

I could not see where we came from or where we were going. Maybe the ship would blow off course and land in a country without New York or people who bought and sold children. (4.5)

Isabel views a world without slavery with a kind of childish fancy that is heartbreaking for us to witness. The truth is, being a slave is the only existence she knows. She was born into it, and a life without its restrictions is impossible to imagine.

"You are a small black girl, Country," [Curzon] said bitterly. "You are a slave, not a person. They'll say things in front of you they won't say in front of the white servants. 'Cause you don't count to them." (6.62)

Curzon's observation that Loyalist commanders don't see their slaves as a threat if they witness sensitive conversations proves that slavery is meant to strip them of all power. Not Curzon, though—he's smart enough to know that in order to be truly owned, he has to consent to it by surrendering his thoughts and actions. Just because their owners don't give them credit to act on the information they hear doesn't mean that slaves can't do something with it.

I went cold with anger, then hot, then cold again. It wasn't right. It wasn't right for one body to own another or pull strings to make them jump. Why was Madam allowed to hit me or to treat Ruth like a toy? (8.22)

Even though Isabel has spent her entire life as a slave, it's interesting that she seems to be asking these questions for the first time. We can assume from Mary Finch's desire to free her family and teach Isabel to read that working for her was better than, say, working for the Locktons. It's only now, subjected to owners who truly see them as possessions, not people, that Isabel begins to question the system she's bought into forever.

"The beast has grown too large," the mayor said. "If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head." (14.47)

When the mayor of New York says this, he's really speaking of the growing movement for independence and the need to snuff it out before it gains more power. On a metaphorical level, though, he could also be speaking of Isabel and her desire for freedom. While she doesn't recognize it at this point, Isabel has the power to overthrow her masters and seek her own liberty. She's growing larger in her ability to do so, though, and more capable of "breaking free."

The gentleman who accompanied Madam stepped forward. "The law is quite clear on this matter, sir. None of us want to live in a world where servants rule their masters." (21.103)

The Loyalist representing Madam when Isabel seeks Colonel Regan's help speaks on a couple of different levels here. Of course, he's first talking about the perceived dangers of slaves overruling the people who own them. He's also talking, though, about a world where the colonies of Great Britain rise up above their mother country's authority.

Madam ran me like a donkey all the next day, then demanded that I stay awake all night to make rolls for breakfast because the bakers in town were rebels, and they had fled. I did as she ordered and ruined two perfectly fine batches of dough. I threw them down the privy and baked cornbread deep into the night for that was one thing my hands knew how to bake. (30.9)

There are a ton of moments in the book where Madam Lockton is inhumane to the point of evil, but this is one where she actually seems to be ignorant of the logic of asserting her power. If Isabel stays awake all night, of course she's going to ruin the dough. The truth is that she sees Isabel as little more than a kitchen appliance that she can plug it before she goes to bed and let it run on its own, unlimited power.

"You bloody beast," I swore. "How dare you let him starve?" The words flew out of my mouth without pause.

"Who are you to reprimand me, girl?" [Dibdin] snarled […] "He's a slave. He will not be treated the same as free men." (37.49-50)

The hierarchy of slave and free touches every aspect of society, including the jail that holds Fort Washington's prisoners of war. To Dibdin, it doesn't matter that Curzon fought and bled alongside him for the same cause; at the end of the day, he's just a slave and doesn't deserve humane treatment.

A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind. (40.48)

Isabel may have blindly accepted slavery as a way of life when she was younger, but witnessing the worst of its evils convinces her by the end of the book that there's nothing to commend the system at all, not even treating slaves with kindness and respect. The truth is, owning another person in itself speaks louder than any comfortable treatment the owner may give the slave.

I laid down one long road of a sentence in my remember […] Way I saw it, Mr. Paine was saying all people were the same, that no one deserved a crown or was born to be higher than another. That's why America could make its freedom.

'Twas a wonder the book did not explode into flames in my hands. (42.6-7)

At the beginning of the story, the pastor at Miss Mary's funeral states that teaching slaves to read "leads to trouble." The way Common Sense transforms Isabel's understanding of both slavery and the colonies' quest for independence proves the truth in this statement—its argument enables Isabel to break free of the system and realize her individual rights as a human being.