Laurie Halse Anderson

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Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Freedom Theme Icon
Slavery and Dehumanization Theme Icon
The Personal and the Political Theme Icon
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Chains, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Identity, Memory, and Family Theme Icon

When readers first meet 13-year-old Isabel, she feels unmoored and alone without family members to guide her. Though she has her five-year-old sister, Ruth, to care for, the girls lost Momma a year ago to smallpox, and Poppa four years before that when he was murdered at a slave auction. And Isabel’s sense of her own identity is shaken again when, after her owner dies, Isabel isn’t freed as her owner stipulated in her will. Instead, Isabel is sold to a wealthy New York couple, who rename her Sal and eventually sell Ruth. In order to mentally and emotionally protect herself, Isabel tries to forget about Ruth and her other family members. But as Madam Lockton becomes progressively crueler to Isabel, Isabel discovers it’s actually comforting to remember Momma, Poppa, and Ruth—and to use their advice as she starts to think about her burgeoning adult identity. Through Isabel’s process of coming of age, Chains suggests that a person’s identity forms not just as they decide who they want to be, but as they remember their family members and those loved ones’ wisdom and advice. 

Chains shows how the institution of slavery fractured Black families, making it difficult—if not impossible—for enslaved Black people to retain connections to their ancestors. And being unable to connect with her ancestors hinders Isabel’s coming of age. Early in the novel, Isabel notes that according to Momma, ghosts can’t cross bodies of water—and this means that if a descendant travels far away from an ancestor’s burial site, the ancestors’ ghosts aren’t able to spiritually protect their living descendants. So when Poppa, for instance, was kidnapped in Africa and forcibly brought to the Colonies, his ancestors weren’t able to follow and protect him, thereby leaving him vulnerable to the horrors of slavery. Momma’s story shows how slavery then continued to fracture families in North America, as her ancestors were abducted in Africa and sold in the Caribbean islands—and Momma herself was then sold to someone in Rhode Island. This means that Momma has ancestors in Africa and in the Caribbean, none of whom can protect her. So, especially when Isabel and Ruth are sold to the Locktons, who live in New York, Isabel feels lost: she has to leave Momma and Poppa’s burial sites in Rhode Island, so she fears that she’ll entirely lose her parents’ protection. Moreover, without a parent to guide her, Isabel is forced to step into an adult, caregiver role for Ruth. And yet, Isabel is still a naïve, innocent child, and in many ways her emotional development is stunted due to the trauma of being enslaved. So, Isabel is unable to be a child—but she’s also unable to truly function as an adult, either.

To protect herself from the trauma of losing her parents (and, eventually, losing Ruth), Isabel tries to forget her family. Though Isabel is distraught to be leaving Momma and Poppa behind in Rhode Island, she also doesn’t see much of a point in dwelling on it—she has bigger things to think about, like keeping Ruth safe from Madam’s ire. So at first, Isabel’s attempts to try to forget her parents are merely practical: if she’s too busy grieving Momma, she reasons, she won’t have the mental and emotional energy to make sure that Ruth is safe and cared for. When Madam sells Ruth, though, Isabel’s commitment to forgetting starts to eat away at her and causes her to mentally shut down. Isabel blames herself for failing to protect Ruth, so in addition to her emotions about Ruth’s absence more broadly, Isabel also believes she wasn’t adult or competent enough to protect her little sister. So Isabel goes out of her way to forget Ruth and to forget what she perceives as her own failure—she feels like a swarm of angry bees have taken up residence in her brain and body, making it impossible for her to think of anything aside from her household tasks, let alone grieve. As Isabel turns inward, tries not to think of her family, and focuses on her chores, Isabel also stops hoping for a happier future, as that seems impossible with Ruth gone. So as a result of so much trauma (Isabel has also been beaten, branded, and imprisoned since Ruth was sold), Isabel’s spirit is broken, and she essentially stops developing. She reasons that it’s not worth it to hope for freedom, which is what Momma wanted her to do—so trying to forget her family also traps Isabel more fully in slavery as well. 

Ultimately, though, Isabel realizes the way forward—the way to heal, and the way to come of age—is to remember her family and to take their advice to heart. Isabel starts to heal and feel more at peace with her life when, on Christmas, she recalls Momma’s advice to “keep Christmas,” or to not forget that Christmas is, to Momma and Isabel, about performing acts of service for others. Isabel bakes a bread pudding, just like Momma used to, and gives it to a houseless family in the city. Also, though Isabel burns with the desire to somehow take revenge on Madam for selling Ruth and abusing her so cruelly, Isabel decides to listen to Momma’s wisdom and take the high road, choosing kindness whenever she can. Remembering Momma, and remembering her advice to be kind, generous, and protect her family, culminates in Isabel deciding to run away from the Locktons to rescue Ruth (Madam reveals that she never actually sold Ruth; she’s on the Lockton estate in Charleston). And as Isabel enters the upstairs drawing room to gather a map and a pass so she can escape, she sees herself in the mirror for the first time in a long time—and realizes that in her reflection, she can pick out features from both Momma and Poppa. But she also realizes that her face is entirely her own. Isabel then decides to take inspiration from Poppa’s facial scars, which he earned in a traditional ceremony and signified that he’s transformed from boy to man. She decides that the I branded on her cheek stands for Isabel, not “insolent”—and that just as Poppa’s scars signified his adulthood, her I is something beautiful that marks her as an adult. In this way, Isabel is finally able to make some of her parents’ traditions her own and use them to develop her own totally unique identity, which culminates in Isabel giving herself a new last name: Gardener. With this, Isabel symbolically comes of age as she figures out how to connect to her ancestors—and with their help, she finds the strength to look forward to the rest of her own life.

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Identity, Memory, and Family Quotes in Chains

Below you will find the important quotes in Chains related to the theme of Identity, Memory, and Family.
Chapter 3 Quotes

On the hearth stood the jar of flower seeds that Momma had collected, seeds she never had a chance to put into the ground. I didn’t know what they’d grow into. I didn’t know if they’d grow at all. It was fanciful notion, but I uncorked the jar, snatched a handful, and buried it deep in my pocket just as the privy door creaked open.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Momma/Dinah, Mr. Robert Finch, Ruth
Related Symbols: Seeds, Plants, and Gardens
Page Number: 13-14
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Momma said that ghosts couldn’t move over water. That’s why kidnapped Africans got trapped in the Americas. When Poppa was stolen from Guinea, he said the ancestors howled and raged and sent a thunderstorm to turn the ship back around, but it was too late. The ghosts couldn’t cross the water to help him so he had to make his own way in a strange place, sometimes with an iron collar around his neck. All of Momma’s people had been stolen too and taken to Jamaica where she was born. Then she got sold to Rhode Island, and the ghosts of her parents couldn’t follow and protect her neither.

They kept moving us over the water, stealing us away from our ghosts and our ancestors, who cried salty rivers into the sand. That’s where Momma was now, wailing at the water’s edge, while her girls were pulled out of sight under white sails that cracked in the wind.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Momma/Dinah, Poppa, Ruth
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

“What is your name, girl?” she asked me.

“Isabel, ma’am,” I said. “Isabel Finch.”

“Ridiculous name,” Madam said. She opened her fan and waved it in front of her face. “You are called Sal Lockton now. It’s more suitable.”

I forced myself to breathe in slow and regular instead of telling her that my name was not her affair. “Yes, ma’am.”

Related Characters: Lady Seymour (speaker), Isabel (speaker), Madam Lockton (speaker), Miss Mary Finch
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

“The child’s curse will poison us all. I want her sold, Elihu, sold today.”


“They are sisters, Anne. One must remember that.”

“Please, Madam,” I said. “She’s too little. She’ll be hurt.”

Related Characters: Madam Lockton (speaker), Master Elihu Lockton (speaker), Isabel (speaker), Ruth, Becky Barry
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 19 Quotes

“She is not suffering her particular ailment, is she?” Madam asked, her voice cutting like a blade.

“No, ma’am,” I lied again. “She helped carry out the ashes this morning, and it tired her.”

Madam glared a moment longer.

Lady Seymour stepped in front of Madam. “The heat affects small children more than most. Make sure your sister drinks some water before any more chores.”

Related Characters: Madam Lockton (speaker), Isabel (speaker), Lady Seymour (speaker), Ruth
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

The fire in my face burned on and on, deep through my flesh, searing my soul. Stars exploded out the top of my head and all of my words and all of my rememberies followed them up to the sun, burning to ash that floated back and settled in the mud.

A few people at the edge of the crowd had fallen silent. They walked away with their heads down.

My momma and poppa appeared from the shadows. They flew to me and wrapped their arms around me and cooled my face with their ghost tears.

Night crept into my soul.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Madam Lockton, Momma/Dinah, Poppa
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul. Dark honey filled up inside me, drowning my thoughts and making it hard to move my eyes and hands. I worked as a puppet trained to scrub and carry, curtsy and nod.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Madam Lockton, Ruth
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

“Listen,” he started. “Our freedom—”

I did not let him continue. “You are blind. They don’t want us free. They just want liberty for themselves.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Oh, no. I understand right good,” I countered. “I shouldn’t have believed your rebel lies. I should have taken Ruth and run the night we landed. Even if we drowned, we would have been together.”

Related Characters: Curzon (speaker), Isabel (speaker), Ruth, Colonel Regan
Page Number: 160-161
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 32 Quotes

All I had lost in the confusion was Ruth’s doll. All I had lost was everything.

My bees a’swarmed back into my brainpan. They hummed loud so I need not ponder on the baby doll. The burned-over district looked like the inside of me. It was hard to tell where one stopped and the other started.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Ruth, Lady Seymour
Related Symbols: Ruth’s Dolls
Page Number: 197-98
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 43 Quotes

Everybody carried a little evil in them, Momma once told me. Madam Lockton had more than her share. The poison had eaten holes through her soul and made room for vermin to nest inside her.


The evil inside of me woke and crackled like lightning. I could wrap my hands around her throat. I could brain her with a poker, thrust her face into the flames. I could beat her senseless with my fists.

I shook from the effort of holding myself still, clutching the crumpled paper. Momma said we had to fight the evil inside us by overcoming it with goodness. She said it was a hard thing to do, but it made us worthy.

I breathed deep to steady myself.

I threw the Captain’s note into the fire.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Madam Lockton, Momma/Dinah
Page Number: 280-81
Explanation and Analysis:

I touched it, smooth and warm, flesh made silk.

The scars on Poppa’s cheek had been three lines across his cheek, carved with a sharp blade. He was proud of his marks. In the land of his ancestors, they made him into a man.

I traced the I with my fingertip.

This is my country mark. I did not ask for it, but I would carry it as Poppa carried his. It made me his daughter. It made me strong.

I took a step back, seeing near my whole self in the mirror. I pushed back my shoulders and raised my chin, my back straight as an arrow.

This mark stands for Isabel.

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Poppa, Grandfather, Madam Lockton
Page Number: 286
Explanation and Analysis:

I was not a Lockton. Nor a Finch. Isabel Rhode Island? That would not do. Isabel Cuffe, after Poppa, or Isabel Dinah, after Momma?

I closed my eyes and thought of home; the smell of fresh-cut hay and the taste of raspberries. Robins chasing bugs in the bean patch. Setting worms to work at the base of the corn plants. Showing Ruth what was weed and what was flower…

I opened my eyes, dipped the quill, and wrote out my true name: Isabel Gardener, being a Free Negro […]

Related Characters: Isabel (speaker), Ruth, Madam Lockton, Momma/Dinah, Poppa
Related Symbols: Seeds, Plants, and Gardens
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis: