Chains

by

Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Isabel dreams that she’s on a beach staring at a huge map. The map turns into eels that frighten her, but they ultimately return to the sea. Isabel wakes with a start. There are no eels around her—and no Ruth. Figuring Ruth is in the privy, Isabel walks out to find her sister. Ruth isn’t in the privy or in the kitchen. Suddenly nervous, Isabel calls for Becky and asks where Ruth is. Becky looks down. She’s clearly been crying. Sniffing, Becky starts measuring flour for bread and says she should’ve stayed to do it last night, but Madam wanted a quiet house. She wouldn’t have left had she known.
Everything in this passage, from Isabel’s frightening dream, to Ruth’s mysterious absence, to Becky’s cagey replies and emotional state, suggests that something terrible happened last night. Ruth’s absence in particular suggests that Isabel was right to not want to trust Madam’s kindness—it seems likely that Madam has somehow gotten rid of Ruth. The fact that Becky seems to blame herself shows that she wants to protect Isabel and Ruth, but she can’t always do that.
Themes
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
Isabel shakes her head and runs down the hallway, yelling for Ruth and ignoring Becky’s warnings. Becky grabs Isabel and says that Madam sold Ruth—the milk last night probably contained a sleeping potion. When Becky arrived this morning, Madam was coming back in the carriage and said that Ruth won’t spoil the milk anymore, since Ruth is in Nevis. Nevis is in the islands, and Ruth will be a house maid for a physician’s family, so she’ll be cared for. Isabel says that Madam is a “spiteful, hateful liar.”
Becky’s roundabout responses in the last passage contrast sharply with her straightforward answers here. It seems like she was hoping Isabel would let the matter go—but now she sees she’ll have to be more direct. It’s also unclear how much of what Madam says is trustworthy—she played a horribly cruel trick on Isabel and Ruth, after all.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Just then, Madam comes down the stairs and asks what’s going on. The paintings of her dead ancestors on the wall watch her. Becky says she was giving Isabel her instructions for the day, but Isabel asks the “miserable cow” if she sold Ruth. Madam tells her to go away, and as Isabel slowly climbs the stairs, Madam threatens to hang her. Becky opens the front door, and Isabel turns—and Madam grabs a painting and hits Isabel with it, causing her to bleed. Madam screams, and Becky tells Isabel to run.
Isabel was willing to put up with Madam’s abuse when she still had Ruth—but now she sees just how heartless and cruel Madam is. And now that Isabel is asserting her humanity and her agency, Madam is wildly uncomfortable. Indeed, Madam seems to find Isabel threatening. Note that Madam is also the one to actually get violent in this passage—she’s hurting Isabel emotionally and now physically.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Isabel runs as fast as she can. She decides not to trust a blacksmith who offers to help her—she can’t trust anyone. She runs to the fort and shouts, “ad astra!” A sentry brings her to Colonel Regan’s quarters, where an enslaved barber is shaving Regan’s face. Isabel begs him for help just as Madam and a tall gentleman squeeze into the room. Madam says that Isabel committed a crime and must be punished and demands her property back. She says she’d be happy to sell Isabel to the army, but Regan says he doesn’t need any women. Isabel quietly asks Regan if she may stay, but he says he must follow the rules. Ignoring the barber’s subtle head shake, Isabel bolts for the open window.
To Isabel, it seems like her only option is to go back to Colonel Regan—the one person who seems likely to and able to help her. But he reveals here that he’s not interested enough in helping Isabel to be willing to break the laws governing how runaway enslaved people are dealt with in the Colonies. He’s unwilling to put himself in legal danger to acknowledge and support Isabel’s humanity, in other words. So Isabel sees no choice but to try to run, even if doing so is a dangerous proposition. 
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
The Personal and the Political Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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