Study Guide

Chains Themes

  • Family

    Today, family is usually a major source of support, both emotionally and practically speaking. For slave families in Isabel's time, however, white people often have little regard for the bonds between children and their parents, and at any time, without warning, you could be separated from your parents and sold to different families. In Chains, Isabel experiences the sale of both her sister and father, so she knows firsthand the pain of losing loved ones to an economic system.

    She also knows, though, that her family's influence doesn't just disappear with their physical bodies. Instead her family continues to encourage her to survive even though they're no longer present. People may physically rip her family apart, but nobody gets to tear them from her heart.

    Questions About Family

    1. What qualities does Isabel inherit from her parents? How do they empower her to protect her sister and survive in New York?
    2. How do the families of the Finches and Locktons differ from Isabel's family? What does this say about the effect of slavery on parents and children?
    3. Momma is dead, Poppa was sold to a different family long ago, and for most of the book, Ruth is absent after Madam Lockton sends her away. How does each of these people continue to influence Isabel even after they're gone? 
    4. What risks does Isabel take to protect her sister?

    Chew on This

    Momma and Poppa's examples of strength enable Isabel to persevere in the face of trials.

    The Locktons' and Robert Finch's greed and self-interest serve as a contrast to Isabel's positive family environment that slavery destroyed.

  • Friendship

    A feisty slave with Patriot leanings and a mild-mannered elderly Loyalist aren't the most likely candidates for Isabel's best friends in her new life in New York—but they're exactly who she gets in Chains.

    In the absence of her parents, and later, Ruth, Curzon and Lady Seymour teach Isabel valuable lessons about loyalty, sacrifice, and kindness, and how to use these qualities once reserved for her family to help others in need. Where Isabel previously might have been intimidated or frightened, she becomes bold and brave on behalf of her friends and learns to return the kindness they show her.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. How does Curzon prove his loyalty to Isabel throughout the book?
    2. How does knowing Curzon teach Isabel the importance of standing up for your friends, even if it means taking a risk?
    3. How does Ruth's absence enable Isabel to develop compassion for others?
    4. How would you describe Isabel's friendship with Lady Seymour? Why are they able to relate to each other so well?

    Chew on This

    Without Madam Lockton's decision to sell Ruth, Isabel may not have developed the empathy she feels for Curzon and Lady Seymour.

    Curzon and Lady Seymour each represent a way that Isabel overcomes obstacles of colonial society.

  • Identity

    Thirteen-year-old girls have enough to worry about when it comes to identity issues, but when you're a slave in 18th-century New York fighting for your very existence, well, we'd say things get a bit more complicated. Throughout Chains, Isabel wrestles with some pretty serious questions. Who is she? Which side is she on? Who does she belong to and who has shaped her as a person? Isabel's story is largely about how she comes to an understanding of her own individuality and independence, even in the face of slavery's obstacles.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How does being taken from the Finch home disrupt Isabel's perception of herself?
    2. How does Madam Lockton attempt to break Isabel's spirit? Is she successful?
    3. What ultimately drives Isabel to seek her freedom?
    4. What does Isabel's scar mean when Madam Lockton orders her branded? What does it eventually come to mean, and how does Isabel reach this understanding?

    Chew on This

    Just as Poppa's mark from the African ritual symbolizes his manhood and maturity, Isabel's scar from the branding ultimately symbolizes her inner strength and survival.

    Although Madam seeks to dehumanize her through slavery, Isabel must go through this period of suffering in order to repair her damaged self-image.

  • Warfare

    The core of Chains might be Isabel's battle against the evils of slavery (and Madam Lockton), but we can't get the whole picture of her story without looking at the larger battle taking place in the background: the American Revolution.

    Whether it's the brutal honesty of All Quiet on the Western Front or Kurt Vonnegut's time-shifting Slaughterhouse Five, literature has a long tradition of novels about the horrors and sacrifices of battle. What makes Chains' rendering of war different, though, is that it reveals these details through the eyes of children. Isabel and Curzon's interpretations of the battle for independence give readers a unique, haunting perspective on this period of history.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What does Isabel know about the war before she comes to New York? How does her knowledge of the conflict change throughout the book?
    2. How do Isabel and Curzon's experiences of the Revolution teach readers about its events?
    3. What events in the story advance Isabel's understanding of the war for independence? Make a timeline of the experiences that teach her what the Patriots are fighting for.

    Chew on This

    Despite her low social status as a slave, Isabel is one of the most knowledgeable characters in the story in regard to her understanding of the war.

    In spite of their ages, Isabel and Curzon's experiences present an all-inclusive picture of the rationale, sacrifice, and suffering of the Revolution.

  • Slavery

    Let's face it: Isabel's position as a slave presents a lot of tough questions about a pretty bleak chapter of American history. Chains reminds us that there was once a time when it was considered totally okay for one human being to own another, and as a result, a key part of this book's work is its unflinching portrait of slavery's abuses to individuals and families.

    But the book isn't just about racial slavery. We don't usually think of the colonies as enslaved to Britain, but in many ways, they were. In spite of growing apart from their mother country, they were still subject to the unjust abuses of power from Great Britain. As a result, Chains presents two parallels stories of slavery—a nation fighting for freedom, as well as a young girl's journey toward the same thing.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Why does Pastor Weeks consider it dangerous for slaves to be able to read? How does Isabel's experience prove this statement?
    2. How do Isabel's views of slavery change from the beginning of her story to the end? What happens to change them?
    3. How does Isabel's struggle as a slave parallels the colonies' struggle for independence from the British?
    4. What ultimately pushes Isabel to seek her freedom?

    Chew on This

    Isabel's ability to read is directly tied to her ability to escape from slavery.

    Madam Lockton's inhumane treatment enables Isabel to pursue freedom.

  • Courage

    There's nothing like facing danger, impossible odds, and life-threatening opposition to bring out the bravery you didn't know you had. Isabel may be small, young, and powerless in the eyes of her oppressors, but as Katy Perry might put it, she's got the eye of the tiger and you're gonna hear her roar.

    Watching Isabel grow from a little girl unable to change her circumstances to a force to be reckoned with in Chains is one of the greatest character development goodies of her story. In spite of her fears of the consequences, Isabel's desire to do the right thing for herself and others gives her the guts to face them. You go, girl.

    Questions About Courage

    1. How does Isabel respond to dangerous situations as she prepares to enter them?
    2. What experiences cause Isabel to develop greater courage? Where does her inner strength come from?
    3. What is the significance of the note Isabel burns in the fire? 
    4. Imagine Isabel has an iPod as she's rowing across the river to New Jersey. What's on her escape playlist to get her fired up?

    Chew on This

    Isabel uses her compassion for others to overcome her fears of being punished for her activities.

    While Madam Lockton intends for her fear and intimidation to make Isabel submit, she actually fuels Isabel's growing defiance and courage.

  • Hypocrisy

    Wafflers. Posers. Flip-floppers. They go by many names, but at their core, they're all good old-fashioned hypocrites, people who claim to hold certain beliefs or ideals, but don't practice what they preach. As Chains (and most Presidential elections) shows, there's nothing like a serious political conflict to bring out the hypocrisy in pretty much everyone, and this was as much true in 1776 as it is today.

    The main issue of hypocrisy here is this: How can the United States claim to seek independence and liberty for all when most of the all they're referring to are people who own slaves? Throughout her journey, Isabel confronts multiple versions of this question, and witnesses numerous responses from those who play a role in it.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. Who were the good guys and bad guys in the Revolutionary War? How might their views on slavery relate to their status as good or bad? How does our vantage point of two centuries affect our answers to this question?
    2. Is Lady Seymour a hypocrite? Why or why not?
    3. It seems really weird that a country seeking its freedom could still adamantly support slavery. What was the colonies' rationale for owning slaves? Do some research on this topic and try to understand the reasons why the early Americans held these views.
    4. Imagine that you are Colonel Regan and Isabel comes to you for help after Ruth is sold. How would you handle the situation?

    Chew on This

    Characters like Bellingham and Colonel Regan, who accept Isabel's help and then cast her aside, aren't trying to be cruel to her. They're genuinely doing what they believe is right in light of the role slavery plays in their society.

    The hypocrisy of both the Patriots and Loyalists ultimately moves Isabel to seek her own freedom.

  • Memory and the Past

    Memory means two critical things to Isabel in Chains. It's a natural skill she's carefully honed since childhood, one that she cannot make her way to freedom without, and it's also a source of comfort and guidance, as she often draws on memories of her parents and Ruth to guide her through challenging and painful situations. The importance of memories to Isabel is a powerful portrayal of how the past can literally be our salvation. For more on this theme, read up on family elsewhere in this section.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. How does Isabel's skill of remembering result in positive and negative outcomes in her experiences?
    2. Why is Isabel's memory so important to her quest to spy for the Patriots?
    3. How do memories of her family affect Isabel?

    Chew on This

    Without her perfect memory, Isabel never would have escaped from slavery.

    Memories of the past save Isabel, but also hurt her as well.

  • Rules and Order

    If there was one thing the American colonies had issues with, it was following orders. Think about it: Parliament places taxes on paper products and a violent mob in Boston loots the Lieutenant Governor's house; they tax tea and Boston Harbor becomes one gigantic, very strong teapot; rebels start a snowball fight with the British and people get shot. Our nation really does come from a heritage of bad boys.

    But it wasn't just this way for the colonists. Through Isabel's eyes in Chains, we get to see how the endless rules placed on slaves affected their lives, as well as how the same rebelliousness kindled in the early Americans takes root in her. While Isabel fights against these rules and seems to lose a lot of battles, in the end, she's able to use them to secure her freedom.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Why are so many rules placed on slaves? What are the lawmakers so afraid of?
    2. How are Isabel's struggle for freedom and America's struggle to become a free nation similar? How are they different?
    3. Isabel faces strong punishments for breaking the rules, including imprisonment and death. What motivates her to take these risks?
    4. What is the significance of the pass Isabel steals at the end of the book? How do the very rules she rebels against save her in the end?

    Chew on This

    While Isabel doesn't get much help from their leaders in securing her freedom, she and the Patriots still share the same ultimate goal and rationale for it.

    Just as the British sought to use the American colonies to their advantage, early Americans used economic and social reasoning to excuse their control over slaves.

  • Suffering

    If there's one thing Chains has plenty of, it's pain. Our heroine, Isabel, experiences more suffering in her thirteen years than anyone should in a lifetime—she's enslaved, branded, beaten, separated from her father, and watches disease claim her mother. Even though it's a pretty gripping, suspenseful read, Isabel's experiences with suffering are heart wrenching and often make the story difficult to look at.

    But it's not all bad. Isabel ultimately learns a pretty powerful lesson about suffering: that neither it nor her abusers can define who she is. In the end, she's able to draw strength from her survival rather than submit to hopelessness.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Chains contains many graphic descriptions of human suffering. Which of these passages affects you the most and why?
    2. What other characters besides Isabel deal with suffering? What do their experiences add to the story's portrayal of this theme?
    3. How do Isabel's coping skills with pain change over the course of the novel? What events play a role in changing her attitude?
    4. Imagine that you live in New York in 1776. What aspect of life in this time and place do you think would be most challenging for you? (Note: If the first thing that comes to mind is having to use an outhouse, we totally get that. But try to think deeper.)

    Chew on This

    Much of Isabel's suffering happens because she allows Madam Lockton to hurt her.

    Madam Lockton's own experiences with suffering allow us to have some sympathy for her as a character.