That night, as she sewed, Sophie admitted to herself that her life was rather dull. Instead of talking to the hats, she tried each one on as she finished it and looked in the mirror. This was a mistake. The staid gray dress did not suit Sophie, particularly when her eyes were red-rimmed with sewing, and, since her hair was a reddish straw color, neither did caterpillar green nor pink. The one with mushroom pleats simply made her look dreary. "Like an old maid!" said Sophie.
One reason why Sophie is so isolated and miserable at the beginning of Howl's Moving Castle is because she never gives herself a break. She works super hard, which is partly because Fanny takes her for granted, but she also seems to be choosing to make things worse by not visiting her sisters when she easily could, or even (as here) by wearing unflattering clothes that make her feel "like an old maid."
Sophie does have some life circumstances that are keeping her trapped—she doesn't want to be an apprentice at the hat shop, though she feels like she has to—but she is also trapped by her own mindset.
"Does it matter if there are no hats to sell?" she asked it. She looked round the assembled hats, on stands or waiting in a heap to be trimmed. "What good are you all?" she asked them. "You certainly aren't doing me a scrap of good."
And she was within an ace of leaving the house and setting out to seek her fortune, until she remembered she was the eldest and there was no point. She took up the hat again, sighing. (2.16-7)
This is the only book we can think of where the main character's lack of confidence is caused by her birth order. As the oldest daughter in a fairytale kingdom, Sophie seems to really believe that she is doomed to failure.
Sophie looked warily at the demon's thin blue face. It had a distinctly cunning look as it made this proposal. Everything she had read showed the extreme danger of making a bargain with a demon. And there was no doubt that this one did look extraordinarily evil. Those long purple teeth. "Are you sure you're being quite honest?" she said.
"Not completely," admitted the demon. "But do you want to stay like that till you die? That spell has shortened your life by about sixty years, if I am any judge of such things." (3.41-2)
Sophie's back is up against a wall in this scene: she basically has no choice but to make her deal with Calcifer. Luckily Calcifer isn't a Miss Angorian-style fire demon, and he actually does seem to have Sophie's best interests at heart. But when you're being forced into a deal with death on the line, it's tough to feel like you're really choosing.
Calcifer moved his orange eyes to look into Sophie's. "I'm scared too," he said. "I shall suffer with Howl if the Witch catches him. If you don't break the contract before she does, I won't be able to help you at all." (12.5)
Calcifer and Howl have entered into a contract that traps them both, and which neither of them can break without outside help. Luckily, the one person who can help them both to break the contract and keep Calcifer alive through her own magic happens to seek out the castle and plunk herself down in front of Calcifer's fireplace. Do the plot twists in a fantasy novel need to be realistic? Do you ever feel dissatisfied with the way that the plot of Howl's Moving Castle relies on chance?
[Mrs. Pentstemmon] had said Sophie was a witch. Oddly enough, Sophie accepted this without any trouble at all. That explained the popularity of certain hats, she thought. It explained Jane Farrier's Count Whatsit. It possibly explained the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste. It was as if Sophie had always known this. But she had thought it was not proper to have a magic gift because she was the eldest of three. Lettie had been far more sensible about such things. (12.60)
Again we see evidence that Sophie's worst prison is actually her own mind—she has a strong magical gift, but she has never allowed herself to admit it. Now she can finally come to terms with the ways in which her own prejudices and low self-esteem issues have kept her trapped—and the ways that she can free herself by choosing to acknowledge her own magical gift.
"And Howl caught you?" said Sophie.
"Five years ago," said Calcifer, "out on Porthaven Marshes, just after he set up as Jenkin the Sorcerer. He chased me in seven-league boots. I was terrified of him. I was terrified anyway, because when you fall you know you're going to die. I'd have done anything rather than die. When Howl offered to keep me alive the way humans stay alive, I suggested a contract on the spot. Neither of us knew what we were getting into. I was grateful, and Howl only offered because he was sorry for me." (17.29-30)
Fear of death leads Calcifer into making a decision that he can't unmake, which is hurting both him and Howl. Part of the problem with the fact that we can't travel in time is that we are to some degree trapped by the poor decisions we have made in the past. No one can get through their lives without regret, of course (and unfortunately), but Calcifer's literal confinement according to his contract with Howl also has symbolic value: it shows the ways in which his past mistakes have restricted his current freedom.
They opened the flower shop the next day. As Howl had pointed out, it could not have been simpler. Every early morning, all they had to do was to open the door with the knob purple-down and go out into the swimming green haze to gather flowers. It soon became a routine. Sophie took her stick and her scissors and stumped about, chatting to her stick, using it to test the squashy ground or hook down sprays of high-up choice roses. Michael took an invention of his own which he was very proud of. It was a large tin tub with water in it, which floated in the air and followed Michael wherever he went among the bushes. The dog-man went too. He had a wonderful time rushing about the wet green lanes, chasing butterflies or trying to catch the tiny, bright birds that fed on the flowers. (18.1)
This whole sequence with the flower shop is so nice. Howl is just waiting for the Witch's curse to take effect. Sophie is still living as a ninety-year-old woman. The dog-man can't stay human for longer than ten seconds before he goes back to being a dog. But in spite of the stress that the moving castle household is currently living under, Sophie, Michael, and the dog-man all seem to be happily puttering around with the flowers, taking joy in these day-to-day tasks, even if they are worried about their long-term futures.
"There's no Mr. Sullivan here," Sophie said. And she thought, That's Wizard Suliman's name! I don't believe a word of it!
"Oh, I know that," Miss Angorian said. "But this feels like the right place. Do you mind if I just look round a little to give myself some idea of the sort of life Ben's leading now?" She hooked her sheet of black hair behind one ear and tried to walk further into the room. Sophie stood in the way. (18.44-45)
The bluntness that comes with Sophie's old age to some degree frees her from a sense of social obligation, and she doesn't seem to feel all that bad about basically shoving Miss Angorian back out the door when she arrives with her sob story about her lost fiancé, Ben Sullivan. Unfortunately, Sophie's newfound social freedom does not go quite far enough, and Miss Angorian manages to leave a part of herself in Howl's guitar.
But still we admire how much freedom Sophie appears to feel to be as rude as she wants to now that she is old enough not to care so much about social convention.
Calcifer retreated until he was bent backward against the chimney. "You never asked," he said.
"Do I have to ask you?" Howl said. "All right, I should have noticed myself! But you disgust me, Calcifer! Compared with the way the Witch treats her demon, you live a revoltingly easy life, and all I ask in return is that you tell me things I need to know. This is twice you've let me down! Now help me get this creature to its own shape this minute."
Calcifer was an unusually sickly shade of blue. "All right," he said sulkily. (19.19-21)
When Calcifer first explains about being a falling star to Sophie, he mentions that Howl offered to make a contract with him because Calcifer didn't want to die and Howl "was sorry for [him]" (17.29). But of course, it's not like Howl isn't getting anything out of this contract—Calcifer is a magical being, and he has contributed his magic to Howl's daily wizardly activities.
We wonder how much magic Calcifer will be doing for the moving castle now that his contract is broken and he is free to pick and choose his own activities. Luckily, there are two other books that follow this one—Castle in the Air (1990) and The House of Many Ways (2008)—that may help us to answer that question.
Certainly the scarecrow was just standing there. It was not trying to barge inside as it had before. And Calcifer must have trusted it. He had stopped the castle moving. Sophie looked at the turnip face and the fluttering rags. It was not so frightening after all. She had once had fellow feeling for it. She rather suspected that she had just made it into a convenient excuse for not leaving the castle because she had really wanted to stay. Now there was no point. Sophie had to leave anyway: Howl preferred Miss Angorian. (20.84)
Again Sophie is letting her own assumptions carry her away—she thinks she has to leave the moving castle because Howl must prefer Miss Angorian. What's more, she never thought to ask the scarecrow what he wanted; she was just so terrified of him on sight that she insisted he go away. In fact, a lot of Sophie's mistakes come from this tendency she has to jump to conclusions without talking to anybody else.