Study Guide

Chains Suffering

By Laurie Halse Anderson


"Smallpox is tricky," Miss Mary Finch said to me when Momma died. "There's no telling who it'll take." The pox had left Ruth and me with scars like tiny stars scattered on our skin. It took Momma home to Our Maker. (1.17)

If you don't know what smallpox is, that's a good thing. It means that we've advanced so far in medical science that it's not really something we deal with today. Back then, though, getting sickness of any kind was a matter of life and death. Here Isabel seems to compare the relatively minor effects of the disease on her and her sister to the suffering that led her mother to death, weighing the fact that it chose to take Momma and not them.

My cheek burned, but I fought back the hot tears and tried to swallow the lump in my throat. No one had ever slapped my face like that, not once in my whole life. Better me than Ruth, better me than Ruth. (5.74)

Not all of Isabel's suffering is inflicted on her without consent—some of it she deliberately chooses in order to protect her sister. When she takes the blame for Ruth's laughter at the docks, she knows what she's doing and is willing to take the punishment that comes, but she still feels pain and shock at Madam's brutality. Nonetheless, she's comforted by the fact that Ruth is safe from her suffering.

I saved the cobwebs, twisting them around a rage and storing them by our pallet in the cellar. Cobwebs were handy when a person had a bloody cut. (8.1)

Who here likes spiders? Yeah, that's what we thought. Now imagine living in a basement in a world without Band-Aids and having to scrunch up their webs to put on bloody wounds. It's a small detail, but reveals Isabel's unflinching resourcefulness in dealing with pain.

"What news?" Madam demanded. Her red eyes perched above dark rings from a sleepless night. A livid purple welt had raised on the left side of her face where Lockton had struck her. Most of the bruises on her arms and shoulders were hid under her gown, but she walked stiff and sore as an old crone. (17.40)

Madam Lockton isn't exactly the most likeable character in this book, but you have to admit to feeling sorry for her—not just because she's prejudiced, hypocritical, and self-centered (read: terrible), but because she's trapped in an abusive relationship. Is it possible that she inflicts suffering on others as a way to regain the control she doesn't have in her marriage?

Becky watched me go to and fro. "The sweet milk Madam made up? I figure it contained a sleep potion, knocked you out cold so they could spirit her away. I am dreadful, powerful sorry, but they sold her away from you." (21.35)

It's bad enough that Madam Lockton decides to sell Ruth out from under Isabel, but it's even worse that she drugs Isabel in order to do it. Watching Isabel wake up to learn that her sister is gone and her subsequent grief is one of the story's most painful moments.

The man stepped back and pulled the iron away. The fire in my face burned on and on, deep through my flesh, scarring my soul. Stars exploded out the top of my head and all of my words and all of my rememberies followed them up to the sun, burning to ash that floated back and settled in the mud. (23.18)

Anderson's description of Isabel's branding is probably the most graphic moment in her story, and she expertly uses imagery to allow us to feel Isabel's pain along with her. Being deliberately burned in the face as a punishment is hard enough for us to imagine, but the details of what Isabel endures give us a clear idea of her suffering and shame.

Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul. Dark honey filled up inside me, drowning out my thoughts and making it hard to move my eyes and hands. I worked as a puppet trained to scrub and carry, curtsy and nod. (25.1)

One thing Anderson is really awesome at is creating metaphors to symbolize Isabel's pain. The idea of bees making a hive inside her, for example, says everything—we can imagine the constant buzzing and stinging as the grief over losing Ruth takes up residence in her body.

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

Grandfather's speech to Isabel about finding her "river Jordan" and embracing her scar as a symbol of her survival is a turning point in how Isabel perceives her suffering. After the branding and loss of Ruth, Isabel has about given up on life; Grandfather, though, begins to quicken the idea in her mind that things don't have to be this way.

We passed countless people standing in the streets like statues, their toes bare on the stones, nightclothes blowing in the unnatural breeze, mouths agape. Carts rolled by carrying half-naked people, bleeding and dazed. A collection of charred bodies had been stacked on a corner, not fully covered by a blanket. A child's boot and stocking lay in the gutter, next to an overturned rain barrel. (31.41)

As the New York fire rages, we at first only see what's going on in Lady Seymour's house—mainly, Isabel's determination to rescue her from the blaze. It's only when they escape to the outside and begin walking to the Locktons' that Isabel sees the full devastation of the fire. We only see brief images here, but the descriptions of the suffering, half dead victims, the bodies, and most poignantly, a single child's shoe paint a vivid picture of the widespread suffering of New York.

A thought surfaced through my ashes.

She cannot chain my soul

Yes, she could hurt me. She'd already done so. But what was one more beating? A flogging, even? I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could no longer harm Ruth and she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her. (38.32-34)

Up to this point, Isabel has been giving Madam Lockton permission to hurt her insofar as her body is enslaved by the Locktons, but her soul is not. This realization goes a long way in empowering her to seek her freedom.