I for Isobel

by

Amy Witting

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I for Isobel: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One hot summer Sunday during Mass, “the grace of God” descends upon Isobel. She feels it has come to her by mistake. Isobel has hardly been paying attention to the service at all, but when a visiting priest begins delivering a sermon, Isobel finds herself engrossed. The priest describes the “sinful human soul” as unbeautiful, dark, and, outfitted with only one little grime-coated window. The priest says that if the light of the Holy Spirit could penetrate that window, a “glorious change” would take place. Isobel hears these words and feels her soul “bathed in a calm, delightful sunlight.” After service, she feels she has acquired a new treasure, and as she walks home with Margaret and her mother, she wonders how she will preserve it.
Religion is yet another means of escape for Isobel, in addition to storytelling, by which she can flee the strange rules and unpredictable violence of her home life and exist in a realm where the rules are more clearly defined. Isobel’s desire to enter a state of grace and have something all to herself stems from the abuse she faces at home, and as she devotes herself to grace, she is really devoting herself to finding a way to exist, even for a little while, outside of her mother’s influence.
Themes
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Isobel decides to try to stop fighting with Margaret, talking back, and being lazy. She knows it will be hard, but she wants to be virtuous. Isobel remembers a previous Mass, when a priest came up to Mrs. Callaghan to compliment her on Isobel and Margaret’s good behavior. On the way home, Mrs. Callaghan called Isobel a “street angel, home devil.” Isobel thinks, though, that one must be allowed to be good if one wants to be.
Isobel’s mother’s hatred and condescension toward Isobel is so deep that not even a priest’s word can convince Mrs. Callaghan that there is something good in her daughter. Mrs. Callaghan can’t even let Isobel be good—any goodness is seen as masquerading or lying, furthering Isobel’s inability to foster self-confidence.
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That afternoon, Isobel dutifully sets the table for lunch. Margaret comes in and reminds Isobel that it’s her turn to clean up afterward, and that she can’t get out of it by trying to take the easy job instead. Isobel insists she’ll clean up afterwards, too. During the meal, Isobel’s mother tells her that she’ll have to go over to their Auntie Ann’s house—Isobel knows her mother is waiting for her to start screaming that she won’t go, but instead Isobel says nothing. She realizes that she in fact likes going to Aunt Ann’s. She looks forward to the shelf of children’s books there and a glass of lemonade. Mrs. Callaghan asks what’s come over Isobel; Margaret giggles that perhaps she’s been “converted.” Isobel tells her mother she doesn’t mind going to Auntie Ann’s and decides her mother will have to “make do” with her newfound peace.
As Isobel enters her state of grace, her goodness becomes almost a shield or a weapon against all the things she hates, especially her mother. Routines that were once odious to Isobel become tolerable, and despite her mother’s questioning of why Isobel is suddenly so agreeable and peaceful, Isobel refuses to explain herself or rise to her mother’s probing provocations.
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At Auntie Ann’s, Isobel drinks lemonade and reads. She is ready for a lovely afternoon, but soon realizes that “she [is] never again going to be happier in one place than another.” Grace, after all, is eternal sunshine and makes everything it touches “nice but dull.”
Isobel finds her state of grace quite boring once she is in it, but she is resigned to the fact that this is how her life is going to be now—always a little bit detached but safer than the violence she must endure when she rises to her mother’s conflicts.
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After dinner back at home, Isobel prepares to clear the plates, but her mother snaps at her, insisting she let Margaret do her share. Margaret is so shocked that Isobel grins in triumph, but she soon realizes that part of achieving grace is practicing humility. She knows it will be hard, but she resolves to try.
Isobel is encountering all the ways in which she can slip up within her state of grace—the constant second-guessing mirrors the anxious self-loathing her mother has instilled in her.
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The days pass quietly as Isobel feels the “inward light” of grace within her. In the middle of the week, over dinner, Isobel’s mother confronts her, asking Isobel what she’s sulking about. Isobel insists she’s not sulking. Isobel’s mother accuses her of lying, and of acting superior, and demands Isobel answer her. Isobel, feeling grace wash over her, feels it doesn’t matter if her mother doesn’t believe her—she alone knows she is being truthful.
In this passage, the struggles from the previous chapter come to light again—Isobel’s mother believes Isobel is a liar, but now rather than believing her mother, Isobel stands resolute in the light of her own truth, confident that knowing in her heart that she is good and honest is enough.
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As Isobel’s mother continues to urge her to tell the truth, Isobel fears she will lose her temper and begin to scream. She looks into her mother’s eyes and realizes that they are “frantic bright”—her mother wants her to scream. “I do something for her when I scream,” thinks Isobel, realizing that her mother’s anger is a “live animal” that torments her and demands Isobel’s temper as a method of attaining relief. Isobel is “torturing” her mother by withholding her own anger. 
This passage cracks open a lot of the pain and violence between Isobel and her mother—there is something Mrs. Callaghan needs from her children that she can only get by angering them. The ineffability of this dark desire is unsettling to the reader as it is to Isobel, but it also reveals that Isobel does indeed have a kind of power over her mother.
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Isobel insists, once and for all, that she isn’t sulking. Her mother leaves the table and goes to her bedroom. Margaret and Isobel finish eating and clear the plates, trying to ignore the “strange yawning noises” coming from their mother’s room.
Something dark has a hold of Mrs. Callaghan, and this passage is symbolic of the ways in which her daughters try to ignore it even as it grows to be, quite literally, the loudest thing in their house.
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Margaret comes home from school one day “dizzy with delight” and announces that her school is putting on the Shakespearean play Twelfth Night. She asks Mrs. Callaghan if it is all right if she stays for practice after school twice a week. Mrs. Callaghan reluctantly agrees, but tells Margaret she must come home at a decent hour. Isobel knows that there are boys in the play—the girls go to all-girls’ school, but for Twelfth Night, boys from the boys’ high school are working on the material alongside Margaret and her friends. As Isobel watches Margaret come home from play practice week after week “full of private joy,” she feels her own grace wearing thin.
Something as innocent and benign as taking part in a school play is something the girls both immediately recognize as yet another danger zone. Isobel is aware of what her mother would think if she found out there were boys in the production, and yet does not want to spoil her sister’s fun despite her straining against her own state of grace.
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One night, Margaret goes to bed early. When Isobel comes up to the room she finds her sister in bed propped against pillows, practicing her lines. Isobel feels that Shakespeare belongs to her—she is angry to see her beautiful sister “taking his words [for] herself.” Isobel reminds herself of her promise to remain in a state of grace and climbs into bed. Margaret timidly asks Isobel to not tell their mother about the boys. Isobel promises that she won’t.
The play is a story that Margaret is using as an escape—this precious survival tactic is something she holds dear, and begs Isobel to help her in keeping. Margaret is on her own journey, though in the novel it is secondary to Isobel’s, and her coping mechanisms involve storytelling and the search for belonging, too.
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As the weeks pass by, Isobel feels bad for Margaret, as her sister does not sense the impending danger as she becomes more and more involved in the play. One evening, Margaret comes home later than usual. Mrs. Callaghan confronts her, but Margaret insists that their drama teacher kept them late to practice a tricky scene, and that Margaret didn’t think it would be a problem to stay late. Mrs. Callaghan berates Margaret for never thinking, but Margaret counters that Mrs. Callaghan had told her that doing the play would be allowed, and that if it wasn’t, she should have said so in the first place. Isobel thinks her mother looks “as if she [has] walked into a wall.”
Isobel knows that her sister is tempting fate, but she keeps her vow to protect Margaret’s secret and by proxy Margaret herself. Nevertheless, Mrs. Callaghan invents reasons to torment her daughters—Margaret takes a stand against her mother for perhaps the very first time, judging by how shocked Mrs. Callaghan is, and Mrs. Callaghan seems to realize that she is losing the control over her daughters that nourishes her.
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The next rehearsal day, Margaret comes home late again. Mrs. Callaghan confronts her at the door with a small brown paper bag. Margaret pales at the sight of it. It is full of makeup, which she insists is just for the play, but Mrs. Callaghan accuses her of chasing boys. Margaret demands her mother stop going through her belongings, and Mrs. Callaghan explodes into a tirade, asking why she ever had children. Isobel thinks her mother’s voice sounds funny, and a laugh escapes her. She is afraid she has broken out of her state of grace, and waits for a moment of retribution from on high, but it does not come. 
Mrs. Callaghan, unwilling to be defeated, makes yet another grab at ensnaring Margaret and coming up with reasons to excoriate and punish her. Isobel, safe in her state of grace, finds the drama ridiculous, and can’t stifle a laugh. In her “divine state,” Isobel is able to see for the first time how ridiculous her mother’s constant crusades against them are. 
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Isobel begins studying the saints on Saturday afternoons in order to learn more about the “rules” of grace. She notes that the consistent message in achieving grace is sacrifice: giving up one’s possessions. Isobel has very few belongings, though, and she doesn’t think that anyone would want the small things she does have. She can’t feed the poor, either—she and her family are the poor.
Isobel is obsessed with achieving grace, but she is also a young girl—she is by nature a little selfish. The idea that she must sacrifice, when she already has so little, is almost more than she can bear, but she resolves to do everything she can to maintain her brief escape.
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Play rehearsals aren’t going so well, and Margaret’s school decides to have the classes present them at their separate schools rather than in a public performance. After the play is over, Margaret spends more and more time at the house of a new friend named Louise—the alliance between Margaret and Mrs. Callaghan, Isobel notes, is “gone for ever.” Isobel is left alone with her mother often and is the only witness to her private suffering and “ludicrous” ravings about how thankless it is to be a mother. Isobel tries to maintain her state of grace and stay out of her mother’s way, never rising to her anger or her taunts.
As things continue to deteriorate at the Callaghan house, Isobel tries her best to resist her mother’s more subtle provocations. She knows that though her mother mutters about the thankless job of motherhood, she wants to form an alliance with Isobel in Margaret’s absence, but Isobel is not about to let her mother rope her into such a situation.
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One afternoon, Isobel and Margaret come home from school to see their Aunt Noelene’s car parked in the drive. The girls are excited—every time she visits, she gives them ten shillings each and a big bags of hand-me-downs, which are always beautiful, as Noelene is the manager of a dress factory. Mrs. Callaghan is annoyed by her sister’s success and sees it as an injustice.
The girls see their Aunt Noelene as exotic and exciting—she is successful, generous, and glamorous, whereas their mother is poor, plain, and cruel. The girls are desperate for any reprieve they can get from their mother’s tyranny, and Noelene’s visits offer that to them.
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Isobel and Margaret enter the house—their mother and their aunt are at the kitchen table, and Mrs. Callaghan looks cheerful for the first time since Margaret’s “desertion.” Aunt Noelene is dressed beautifully, and asks the girls how they’re doing in school. They notice that next to her on the chair is a large parcel of clothing. Noelene remarks that Margaret is looking more and more like their third sister, Aunt Yvonne, whom Noelene notes she hasn’t seen since Mr. Callaghan’s funeral. Mrs. Callaghan says that Yvonne’s family is doing well and is focused on keeping their farm. Noelene laments aloud that Mr. Callaghan would have enjoyed the country “if he had had the chance.”
The girls are thrilled by their aunt’s visit for several reasons. It is a break from routine, a distraction that will take their mother’s hatred and anger off of them for a while, and it is a chance for them to receive money and clothing. Mrs. Callaghan probably hates her sister’s visits for all these same reasons, desperate as she is to deprive her daughters at every turn.
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Isobel and Margaret realize that “disaster [is] coming.” They exchange a worried glance. Mrs. Callaghan says aloud that when she wrote to Yvonne, asking if they could come stay as her husband’s doctor had said that a change of air might do him good, Yvonne sent back five pounds toward a holiday rather than invite them to come stay. Noelene begs Mrs. Callaghan to drop the matter, buts Mrs. Callaghan reminds Noelene that she didn’t visit Mr. Callaghan, either, when he was dying. Noelene tells Mrs. Callaghan that she hasn’t always been an angel. Mrs. Callaghan urges her sister to say what she means.
Margaret and Isobel, who never receive presents and rarely get to experience moments of real joy, are concerned that their mother is going to ruin their opportunity to receive a couple of gifts. Mrs. Callaghan berates her sister for her indifference to Mr. Callaghan’s suffering, but Noelene wins by threatening to expose a nefarious bit—or bits—of her sister’s past in front of the children.
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Noelene reaches into her handbag and takes out two ten-shilling notes. She places them on the table and tells Mrs. Callaghan that they are for the girls, then takes her leave. Mrs. Callaghan sits staring into space. After a few moments, Margaret asks if she and Isobel can look at the clothes; their mother tells them they can do what they like. The girls open it excitedly and rifle through the clothes inside. There is a beautiful yellow dress—Margaret holds it up lovingly before seeing that there is a note pinned to it which says “ISOBEL.”
Mrs. Callaghan has been defeated a third time, this time by her sister. Noelene has given Isobel and Margaret’s gifts in spite of her hatred of her sister, forcing Mrs. Callaghan to confront the fact that despite how hard she tries, she will never be able to fully control or isolate her children.
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Isobel knows that she must give up the dress and make a sacrifice in order to achieve true grace. She tells Margaret that she can have the dress if she wants—Margaret is very grateful. Their mother, though, remarks that the dress must be for Isobel and leaves the room.
Isobel’s mother seems hell-bent on interrupting Isobel’s journey towards a state of grace, and here attempts to curb her daughter’s efforts to be kind to her older sister. This betrays Mrs. Callaghan’s deep hatred of both her daughters—she does not want either of them to feel happy or safe.
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Once Mrs. Callaghan has gone, Margaret asks if she can really have the dress. Though it is hard for her to do, Isobel says that she can, and urges her to take it upstairs and try it on. Isobel follows Margaret up, helps her into the dress, and tells her sister that she looks lovely. Their mother is in the doorway, though, and she demands Margaret take off the dress. The girls protest. Mrs. Callaghan tears the dress off of Margaret, ripping the fabric.
Isobel is so committed to her state of grace, which she believes can only be achieved through self-sacrifice, that she gives the beautiful dress to Margaret. It is no matter—Mrs. Callaghan has spoken her rules and will not be defied.
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Isobel begins screaming at her mother, breaking her state of grace. She notices that a look of peace and relief washes over her mother’s face. Isobel realizes that she is her same old self—she never changed, and never achieved grace. Margaret sits sobbing on the floor, and Isobel tries to comfort her by telling her it was only a dress. Isobel knows, though, that it was much more—and that it is now gone forever, just like her state of grace. She thinks that perhaps “such things [are] not for either of them.”
Isobel finally gives in and rises to her mother’s provoking—she does so on behalf of her sister, in an attempt to defend the poor Margaret. Isobel’s mother has won at last, but it is relief, not triumph, which passes over her face as she leaves her despondent daughters in the wake of her destruction.
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