As a novel about slavery, Chains necessarily dives into the dehumanizing treatment that enslaved people suffered in Colonial America. Isabel, the 13-year-old protagonist, believes at the beginning of the novel that she’ll soon be free from slavery—but since her recently deceased owner’s will (which guarantees Isabel’s freedom) is missing, Isabel is powerless to advocate for herself. Instead, Isabel and her five-year-old sister, Ruth, are sold to the Locktons, a wealthy and cruel New York couple. Though some people—such as Master Lockton’s elderly aunt Lady Seymour and the paid maid, Becky—often treat Isabel with kindness and compassion, they still do and say things that they seem not to realize are cruel or threatening. For instance, Becky becomes one of Isabel’s closest allies and coaches her in how to stay safe at the Locktons’. But she also introduces herself with a veiled threat when she says that she’s fine with enslaved people—as long as they do as they’re told. In this way, Chains shows how slavery normalizes the dehumanization of Black people, even among those who don’t own slaves or who feel conflicted about slavery. As Isabel’s experiences show, this constant, socially accepted dehumanization is what makes resisting slavery—and holding onto one’s dignity and humanity—so hard, though she discovers that it’s essential for victims to resist in order to survive.
Because she’s enslaved, Isabel is almost constantly abused and traumatized in ways both overt and subtle—and this treatment is dehumanizing. Over the course of the novel, Isabel is accused of lying, beaten with paintings and riding crops, and branded with an I for “insolence” on her cheek. She’s yelled at, given a new name, and is otherwise verbally abused on a daily basis. Moreover, as an enslaved person, Isabel has no say in when, how, or to whom she’s sold—and when Madam decides to sell Ruth, she drugs Isabel so that Isabel can’t resist. All of this, it’s important to note, is legal for Madam and other white slaveowners to do under the system of slavery. And this legally-sanctioned abuse works together to make Isabel feel more like property than like a human being; she’s constantly afraid for her safety and emotional well-being. But overt abuse and violence, like what Isabel suffers at Madam’s hand, isn’t all that makes it difficult for her to hold onto her humanity. Slavery is so normal in Isabel’s world that even those who don’t own enslaved people still abuse those who are enslaved, albeit in more subtle ways. Becky Barry’s insistence that she’s fine with enslaved people, but only if they do what they’re told, is extremely threatening—Becky implies that if Isabel steps out of line at all, Becky might also become violent and put Isabel in her place. So, Isabel is powerless to defend or stand up for herself—and living in this constant state of fear makes it difficult for Isabel to hold onto her humanity, or indeed, her own identity.
However, the novel also shows that many white people are ambivalent or are opposed to slavery, and their small kindnesses help Isabel hold onto her humanity. Becky, for instance, doesn’t seem to realize how threatening her introduction to Isabel is—and so for Isabel, who is mostly willing to do as she’s told, Becky soon becomes a trusted ally. She coaches Isabel on how to survive in the Locktons’ home and how to avoid Madam, and when it comes out that Ruth suffers from epilepsy (which Madam believes means that Ruth is possessed and evil), Becky helps Isabel protect Ruth from Madam. Because of Becky’s kindness, Isabel is sad when Becky disappears after the British invade—Becky is the only person in the household who treats Isabel like a fellow human being. Isabel also comes to trust Lady Seymour because of the lady’s small kindnesses. Again, Lady Seymour isn’t perfect—though she doesn’t believe in buying and selling children, she implies that she’s generally fine with slavery. But whenever Lady Seymour sees Isabel, she makes sure Isabel gets a nourishing meal, calls Isabel by her given name instead of the name the Locktons give her, and later gives Isabel warm winter clothes and a pair of new shoes. People like Lady Seymour and Becky show Isabel that there is good in the world, even when there are also evil, cruel people like Madam—and that if Isabel seeks out those who are kind, it’s easier to stay hopeful and resist dehumanization.
Ultimately, Chains shows that resisting slavery and dehumanization is essential for Isabel’s survival. Whenever Madam discovers Isabel doing something she doesn’t like, Madam is extremely threatening. She makes sure to tell Isabel outright that she can have Isabel beaten or even hanged if she wants—and when she discovers Isabel passing notes for the Patriots, Madam vows to sell Isabel to someone who will be an even crueler owner than she’s been. This shows Isabel that if she wants to survive and rescue Ruth (whom she discovers is actually on the Lockton estate in Charleston, and hasn’t been sold), she must resist Madam by running away. Isabel starts to emotionally heal and come to terms with her trauma when she engages in her final act of resistance: forging a pass, which will allow her to travel out of New York and get away from Madam. In forging the pass, Isabel has to decide what her name is. And rather than write that she’s Sal Lockton, a name that signifies Isabel’s dehumanizing status as an enslaved person to cruel owners, Isabel gives herself a new name, Isabel Gardener. Choosing to identify herself in this way helps Isabel regain her humanity and remind herself that only by reclaiming control of her body, her mind, and her identity will she be able to survive—and hopefully, rescue Ruth and help Ruth do the same.
Slavery and Dehumanization ThemeTracker
Slavery and Dehumanization Quotes in Chains
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.
“We don’t hold with slaves being auctioned on our front steps. Won’t stand for it, in fact.”
“I thought this was a business establishment,” Mr. Robert said. “Are you opposed to earning your percentage?”
“You want to listen to my Bill, mister,” Jenny said. “Advertise in the paper, that’s what we do around here.”
“I don’t have time for that. These are fine girls, they’ll go quickly. Give me half an hour’s time on your front steps, and we both walk away with heavier pockets.”
Jenny’s husband pulled out a rag and wiped his hands on it. “Auctions of people ain’t seemly. Why don’t you just talk quiet-like to folks? Or leave a notice tacked up, that’s proper.”
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.
“You feel beholden to Lockton?”
“He’s going to feed you and your sister, give you a place to sleep. He can order you sold, beat, or hung, if the mood takes him. That could make a person feel a kind of loyalty.”
I stopped, considering this. “Someday I’ll find that lawyer and Miss Mary’s will and that’ll free us. Until then, we need to eat, work, and stay together. So yes, I guess I’m loyal to Lockton.”
The words tasted bitter. Being loyal to the one who owned me gave me prickly thoughts, like burrs trapped in my shift, pressing into my skin with every step.
“They won’t say anything in front of me.”
“You are a small black girl, Country,” he said bitterly. “You are a slave, not a person. They’ll say things in front of you they won’t say in front of the white servants. ’Cause you don’t count to them. It happens all the time to me.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
A second man, this one with neatly trimmed hair, leaned on his shovel. “Dunmore freed the Virginia slaves so the crops would go unharvested and ruin the planters. The British care not for us, they care only for victory. Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.”
It would have eased her mind if I thanked her for wanting to buy me away from Madam. I tried to be grateful but could not. A body does not like being bought and sold like a basket of eggs, even if the person who cracks the shells is kind.
She awaited some word from me. I did not know how to explain myself. It was like talking to her maid, Angelika, who was so much like me and at the same time so much different. We two had no string of words that could tie us together.
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.