Chains

by

Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains: Chapter 38 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On Christmas Eve, Isabel’s trip to the prison is fast—Captain Morse’s doctor has tended to the prisoners, and Curzon is doing better. Isabel then spends her morning cutting holly for Madam and helping to decorate the house. She’s never seen a house decorated for Christmas like this, but the tree branches and rosemary inside are beautiful. Isabel struggles to decide what to do with her day off on Christmas—Christmas used to mean Momma’s bread pudding and reading the Bible with Momma and Ruth. The memory makes Isabel cry. She decides she’ll walk the whole island.
This is going to be Isabel’s first Christmas without either Ruth or Momma, so Isabel is struggling with feeling alone and unmoored. For now, she doesn’t feel like she can, say, make Momma’s bread pudding and read the Bible without Momma and Ruth there—that would be too upsetting. So Isabel decides on the walk so she can keep moving and hopefully not dwell on the people she’s lost in the last year.  
Themes
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
On Christmas morning, Lady Seymour gives Isabel a new pair of shoes that fits her properly. Madam gives the soldiers’ wives money and gives nothing to Isabel. After the church service, Madam says that Isabel must serve the midday meal before she gets her day off. Once the meal is over, Madam tells Isabel to wash the dishes and bring in firewood before she can have the day off. Lady Seymour glares at Madam, but Madam ignores it. Then, once Lady Seymour and Lockton excuse themselves, Madam says she knows Isabel has been going to the Bridewell Prison.
Lady Seymour’s kindness in getting Isabel shoes contrasts sharply with Madam giving Isabel nothing—and then postponing the start of Isabel’s day off. But it also seems like Lady Seymour’s power over her niece is waning, since she isn’t comfortable or able to do anything more than just glare at Madam. And Lockton’s relative quiet in this passage highlights his ambivalence—he’s not outright cruel to Isabel, but he’s not going out of his way to do anything nice for her, either. 
Themes
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Isabel’s heart stops as Madam says that Lady Seymour insists she’s sending Isabel to the prison, and that it’s good work. But Madam then says that Lady Seymour is a “blithering idiot.” Isabel must not go to the prison again. Isabel shakes; Madam can do whatever she wants to punish Isabel. Madam continues that she can’t do anything until Lockton is gone and Lady Seymour is dead—but Isabel should live in fear of that day.
Isabel understands that Lady Seymour is covering for her and trying to protect her. But she also discovers that Lady Seymour’s protection is in no way absolute. Indeed, Madam seems intent on making Isabel’s life hell once the people who can stand up for Isabel are out of her way. This gives Isabel some urgency—she has to do something to secure her freedom, as things will only get worse otherwise.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
When Isabel is finally free for the afternoon, she’s still trembling. Will Curzon die now that Isabel can’t carry messages for Dibdin? Isabel thinks as she walks. She feels powerless as blisters form and pop on her feet. Isabel then walks barefoot until the blisters freeze and stop hurting. When she gets to the edge of the river, Isabel thinks of the ancestors waiting at the shore, waiting for their children to return. Suddenly, it occurs to Isabel that Madam can’t “chain [her] soul.” Madam can hurt Isabel’s body, but she can’t hurt Ruth or hurt Isabel’s soul without Isabel’s consent.
This is a transformative moment for Isabel. She begins her walk feeling powerless, believing she has to do what Madam says. But then she realizes that freedom can mean different things to different people. Isabel might not be able to figure out how to achieve legal and physical freedom at the moment. She can, though, decide to make sure her soul stays free by making her own choices and not letting Madam break her spirit.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
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Everyone is asleep when Isabel gets home. She stokes the fire and remembering Momma’s reminder to “keep Christmas,” slices a loaf of bread. Without thinking, Isabel bakes a maple syrup bread pudding. While it’s cooking, Isabel bathes and notes that she’s grown so much that her clothes barely fit anymore. And when it’s done, Isabel dresses warmly and heads to Canvastown, the new name for the burned-over district. There, she prays and introduces herself to a family living in a canvas tent. She convinces them to take the bread pudding and hums on her way home. Isabel finally feels at peace.
Isabel never defines what “keep Christmas” means, but given that she takes this advice and goes on to make a bread pudding for a houseless family, it seems to be advice to use Christmas to serve others. Doing something kind for someone else helps Isabel feel like she’s in control of her life—Madam can be upset with her, but Isabel isn’t going to let Madam make her bitter or cruel. She can still choose to be kind and generous, and she realizes choosing kindness will help her hold onto her humanity.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon