Chains

by

Laurie Halse Anderson

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Chains: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Since Becky lives at a boardinghouse, it’s Isabel’s job to get the fire going first thing in the morning. Becky cooks, but Isabel does all the washing and tasks like beating eggs for cakes. When she’s not in the kitchen, Isabel sweeps or polishes furniture. She saves the cobwebs she removes, since cobwebs are good to stop bleeding from cuts. Madam complains whenever she sees Isabel, so Isabel makes sure she always knows where Madam is. Madam doesn’t do much but write letters and play a spinet. One night, Madam and Master Lockton argue loudly—and Lockton calls Madam rude names and storms out. Isabel feels lost. She doesn’t know how to fix her life.
Becky living at a boardinghouse shows that she’s a paid maid; that means she can leave the Locktons’ employ when or if she feels like it without consequences. For Isabel, working in the Locktons’ home is wearing her down. Keeping an eye out for Madam is exhausting, and Isabel has to witness the Locktons’ marital issues as well. For now it’s a mystery why Isabel is saving the cobwebs; it seems she expects cuts, but it’s unclear why.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
The morning after the big fight, Madam sends for Ruth. Isabel, distraught, wants to know why, but Becky gripes that Madam’s desires never make much sense. Maybe she’ll task Ruth with ripping out stitching on some old dresses. Hours later, Ruth hasn’t returned. Becky eventually takes up tea and cookies to Madam. When she returns, she says that Madam wants to use Ruth as a “personal maid”; it’ll make Madam look richer to have an enslaved girl dressed in fine clothes. Anger courses through Isabel, and Becky reminds Isabel to keep control—Isabel is clenching her fists. But Isabel doesn’t think it’s right for Madam to treat Ruth like a toy.
Isabel wants to keep her sister safe, and Madam has already shown Isabel that she’s not a safe or trustworthy person. So this is yet another anxiety-inducing experience for Isabel. When Isabel finally figures out what’s going on, it feels like a slap in the face. Madam is treating Ruth like a living doll—which is ironic, given that Ruth is a child who has recently been deprived of her own doll. This dehumanizes Ruth, and being powerless to change anything is extremely difficult for Isabel.
Themes
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
Becky says she’s sure Isabel doesn’t like this, but she has to be careful—Madam isn’t afraid to beat enslaved people. The Locktons keep about six in their Charleston home. Then, Becky says that several years ago, there was another enslaved girl here who talked back. Madam beat her regularly, and once with a fireplace poker. The girl’s arm broke and didn’t heal right, so Madam sold her. Isabel can’t control herself—she says that Madam had better not hurt her or Ruth. Becky warns Isabel to never say something like that again; Isabel won’t jeopardize her job. And Ruth won’t be hurt by wearing pretty dresses. From this moment on, Ruth spends most of her time with Madam. Isabel thinks often of Curzon’s offer.
It's somewhat unclear how Becky feels about what Madam is doing to Ruth—she seems to realize it’s not right, but she also suggests it’d be dangerous if she or Isabel decided to protest. For Becky, the consequence would be losing her job—but for Isabel, the worry is serious bodily injury or being sold to someone who might be even worse than Madam. Because Isabel feels so powerless to help her sister, Curzon’s offer starts to seem better. Realizing politics might help her pushes Isabel to consider getting involved and spying on her owners.
Themes
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
The Personal and the Political Theme Icon