I for Isobel

by

Amy Witting

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Mrs. May Callaghan Character Analysis

Isobel and Margaret’s mother and Robert’s wife, May, is a violent and cruel woman who abused Isobel (and to a lesser extent, Margaret) throughout her childhood. May Callaghan is a woman possessed by a deep, dark, and unknowable rage—she seems to enjoy provoking her youngest daughter, and occasionally her eldest Margaret, into screaming matches, and systematically sets Isobel up for failure, harm, and misery. By denying Isobel birthday presents every year of her life and eventually going so far as to forbid Isobel from even telling anyone it is her birthday, May denies her child a simple happiness. When a kind stranger gives Isobel a pretty brooch for her birthday, May flies into an insane rage, beating Isobel severely and calling her unfathomable names. These patterns of denial, provocation, and abuse persist throughout Isobel’s childhood, and Isobel comes to realize that she “does something” for her mother when she reacts to her rage, humiliation, and bullying. Isobel’s longing for a viable maternal figure and to escape from the traumas of her past stems from the way her mother treated her. May dies when Isobel is sixteen, but even as Isobel moves through the world on her own, she is reminded again and again of the pervasiveness of her mother’s influence. Isobel herself repeatedly remarks that she bears a strong resemblance to her mother, and will, in more ways than one, carry her mother with her throughout her life as she struggles to come into her own.

Mrs. May Callaghan Quotes in I for Isobel

The I for Isobel quotes below are all either spoken by Mrs. May Callaghan or refer to Mrs. May Callaghan. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Mothers, Daughters, and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Text Publishing edition of I for Isobel published in 1989.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Mrs. Callaghan, too, kept [Isobel’s] birthday in mind and spoke of it now and then.

“January,” she said, “is too close to Christmas for birthday presents,” and later, serenely, “it is vulgar to celebrate birthdays away from home.”

Whenever she found a new argument against birthday presents for Isobel, a strange look of relief would appear on her face, and Isobel would be forced to accept, for the moment, that there would be no present.”

Related Characters: Mrs. May Callaghan (speaker), Isobel Callaghan
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Isobel was living in two worlds. Miss Halwood’s, where she belonged and things were solid and predictable, and the other one, where she was exulting at making her mother uncomfortable. That was a great pleasure but it was like gobbling sweets—she expected some sickness from it. Meanwhile there was the world of Sherlock Holmes, which was better than both of them. She said, “May I be excused, please?” and hurried back to her chair. She fished out the book from under the seat and went back to Baker Street.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker), Mrs. May Callaghan, Miss Halwood
Page Number: 12-13
Explanation and Analysis:

The sound of her mother's quick, foreboding tread made her push the box in a panic under her pillow. Now, she remembered: she had been told not to tell, and she had told. She had told Caroline, who had told Mr. Mansell, and retribution was coming, as her mother advanced with set face and luminous glare and began to slap her, muttering, “Don't you dare to cry. Ungrateful little bitch. Don't you dare to cry. You little swine, thankless little swine, you couldn't say thank you, couldn't even say thank you.” Slap, slap. “Don't open your mouth, don't you dare to cry.” There was not much to cry about, for her mother's intentions were far more violent than her blows. Her hands flapped weakly as if she was fighting against a cage of air.

Related Symbols: The Brooch
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Isobel took the box from under the pillow, took out the brooch and looked at it while she rubbed her stinging legs. Why hadn’t her mother taken the brooch? It would have been so easy. Isobel could even supply the words she had dreaded to hear: “Give me that, you don’t deserve to have it. Come on, give it to me.” Why hadn’t she said them? Could it be that there were things her mother couldn’t do?

That idea was too large to be coped with. She put it away from her, but she took the brooch and pinned it care- fully to the neck of her dress. It was hers now, all right. She went and looked at it in the glass and stood admiring it. In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan, Mrs. May Callaghan
Related Symbols: The Brooch
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

There was a pause, so long that she thought it might be safe to pick up her knife and fork again, but as she stirred her mother said, “I want you to tell me what you are sulking about, Isobel.”

She was really frightened now, wondering how long she would hold out, foreseeing the moment when she would begin to scream and scream. She wasn't going to, not ever. She would think of grace and be still.

“Tell me.” Her mother's voice, which had been rising to a scream, turned calm and gracious again. Like somebody getting dressed. Isobel looked up and saw that her eyes were frantic bright. She doesn't want me to tell her, she wants me to scream. I do something for her when I scream.

Then she saw that her mother's anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker), Mrs. May Callaghan (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Isobel was left to witness her mother's sufferings, which were real and ludicrous. She walked about white-faced, repeating, “Who'd be a mother? Who'd be a mother? You do everything for them, you give up everything for them and what do you get for it? Forgotten as soon as it suits them, they're gone without a thought. Heartless ungrateful children.”

She spoke not to Isobel, but in her hearing, wanting her perhaps to repeat the lament to Margaret, or inviting her to a new alliance. Isobel kept her mind averted, but thought it was strange, as she speeded up her polishing of the kitchen floor, that she should be hurrying through the chores in order to desert this misery and go and read about saintliness and brotherly love. She could not help it; grace told her to withdraw and she did what grace demanded, though it was more of a holding position now than an inner joy.

Related Characters: Mrs. May Callaghan (speaker), Isobel Callaghan
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

“Take that dress off, Margaret,” said their mother from the doorway. “It belongs to Isobel.”

“But Isobel said I could have it.”

Isobel said, “Aunt Noelene will never know.”

Her mother gave her a look of hate as she walked

towards Margaret, who did not know what was happening and stood like a good little girl having a dress fitted till she heard the dull snap of threads and the tearing noise. She cried out then as if she had been hit.

“Damn you,” screamed Isobel. “Damn you, damn you, it was mine. It wasn't yours to tear. It was mine and I gave it to Margaret. Damn you!”

She saw the look of peace and relief on her mother's face as she walked away and she knew what she had done. The old sick closeness was back and she was the same old Isobel.

Margaret was sitting on her bed dressed in her slip, stroking the torn yoke and sobbing.

“It's only a dress,” said Isobel. She had lost more.

“Oh, you shut up. You didn't want it, anyhow.”

It wasn't only a dress. It was much more, and it was gone, and so was the state of grace.

At that moment, Isobel thought such things were not for either of them.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker), Mrs. May Callaghan (speaker), Margaret Callaghan (speaker), Aunt Noelene
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Dead, thought Isobel, trying the word again. It still meant only silenced. There was no hope of calling up any decent feeling from her evil heart, which was rejoicing in the prospect of freedom and even of new shoes. She picked up Shakespeare, Byron, Keats and Shelley and carried them into the bedroom, where Margaret was sitting on her bed, dazed and weeping, silently and slowly tears dripping like blood from a cut finger.

“Do you mind if I take the Shakespeare? It isn't mine but I’d like to have it.”

Margaret shook her head, sending two tears running quickly down her cheeks. It wouldn't do to tell her to cheer up. Somebody should be giving Isobel the opposite advice. Yet there was in her, deeper than her relief, a paralyzing sorrow, not at her mother's death but at being unable to grieve at it. That one was going to stay with her; she looked for distraction from it in the cheerful business of packing and buying new shoes, but knew that any cheerfulness was, in the situation, shocking. She feared she had shocked Aunt Yvonne already. Perhaps the funeral would touch her feeling and make her a member of the human race.

Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

It was a commonplace little room but she was prepared to love everything in it: bed (slightly sagging), chair (straight), faded floral curtains at the window (her own window), combination wardrobe and dressing-table (lucky she didn't have many clothes), a grate in the corner, with a vase of paper flowers delivering the message that it was no longer used for fires, above it a shelf for her books. She unpacked them first: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, The Last Chronicle of Barset, from the library. She looked with regret at that. She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn't reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire. She resisted temptation and went on with her unpacking, having a modest ambition to meet life, to be adequate. She had an idea of a life of her own, like the room of her own, where she chose the furniture-no rages' no black passions, no buffeting from the world. […] Putting her clothes away in a drawer she saw her face in the glass, so happy and hopeful that the likeness to her mother, which seemed to her usually to be a curse from birth, seemed unimportant.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan, Mrs. May Callaghan
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

“It was an accident, on his bike. I don't know much about it; he was badly hurt and he died this morning in hospital. Helen asked me to come and tell you.”

Absent-mindedly Diana pulled open the drawer of the bedside table, got out a hairbrush and began to brush her hair.

Shock. People do very funny things when they're shocked. But the feeling that was coming over Diana did not seem like shock. It was profound; she was thinking hard and breathing deeply. She dropped the hairbrush and steadied herself with one hand on the pillow.

This must be what they called being in travail. It was a private process; Isobel should go away and let her get on with it, but she did not know how to do that.

The feeling was appearing now: relief. Isobel was the prison governor who had brought her news of her reprieve. She said, “Can I get you something? Make you a cup of tea?'

What falsehood. I am thinking of what she ought to

be feeling.

Diana too thought Isobel had made a social error. “No, thank you. I'm quite all right.” She looked with surprise at the hairbrush and put it back in the drawer.

All right is no word for it. She's glad he's dead. She feels the way I felt when my mother died. He wasn't a human being to her, he was a thorn in her side, a stone in her shoe.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker), Diana (speaker), Mrs. May Callaghan, Nick
Page Number: 140
Explanation and Analysis:
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I for Isobel PDF

Mrs. May Callaghan Character Timeline in I for Isobel

The timeline below shows where the character Mrs. May Callaghan appears in I for Isobel. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1: The Birthday Present
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Poverty, Abuse, and Violence Theme Icon
A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother tells her that there will be no presents this year, seeing as their family has... (full context)
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...shabby and somewhat desolate. Each day of the vacation, Isobel watches to see if her mother or father will head across the lake into town to purchase a present for her... (full context)
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It is January—summer in Australia—and Mrs. Callaghan believes that it is too close to Christmas for birthday presents. Moreover, she tells Isobel,... (full context)
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This year, Isobel’s mother has warned her not to go around the lake house telling people it’s her birthday.... (full context)
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...house ask Isobel what she’s reading, she knows that discussing books in front of her mother is “dangerous ground.” Sure enough, once Isobel tells a young teacher named Miss Halwood that... (full context)
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...Miss Halwood turns to Mrs. Callaghan and asks how old Isobel is. Isobel sees her mother’s face grow red—Isobel has at last, she thinks, caught her parents in a trap. Isobel’s... (full context)
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...a pleasurable but somewhat sickening world in which she is constantly trying to make her mother uncomfortable. The world of Sherlock Holmes, however, is better than both of the other two... (full context)
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...to exchange the first Sherlock Holmes book for the second one, Isobel runs into her mother. Mrs. Callaghan instructs Isobel to go down to the shop and buy her a writing... (full context)
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...her present—she asks Mr. Mansell if the gift is really for her. She hears her mother draw in “a long breath of rage.” (full context)
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...have imagined.” Isobel stares at the brooch as she begins eating, stunned and speechless. Her mother tells the Mansells how kind of them it was to purchase something for Isobel but... (full context)
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...bed reading, unwrapping and rewrapping the brooch periodically. After a little while, Isobel hears her mother coming toward her room, and she pushes the box underneath her pillow. She realizes that... (full context)
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...the pillow and looks at the brooch, rubbing her stinging legs. She wonders why her mother hadn’t taken the brooch from her, and wonders briefly if there are things that even... (full context)
Chapter 2: False Idols and a Fireball
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...of the event, the fireball has, over the years, become another word for a lie. Mrs. Callaghan refuses to believe Isobel and endlessly questions her about the veracity of the fireball story. (full context)
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...a “wild beast of poverty.” That afternoon, when Isobel relates the nun’s statement to her mother, Mrs. Callaghan lets out a brief whimper before asking Isobel to elaborate on the nun’s... (full context)
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...so much deep, tumultuous thought, so instead she lies awake in the dark, hating her mother. She thinks of all the times her mother has asked, “Do you love me?” and... (full context)
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...obstacle-laced walk there and back each day. That Sunday after Mass, the parish priest takes Mrs. Callaghan aside for a talk—afterward, Mrs. Callaghan is “blushing with satisfied pride,” and the next day,... (full context)
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...than to break the silence. Isobel remembers how a while ago, when one of her mother’s friends asked Mrs. Callaghan whatever become of her diamond, her mother answered, “My solicitor,” and... (full context)
Chapter 3: The Grace of God and the Hand-Me-Down
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...she has acquired a new treasure, and as she walks home with Margaret and her mother, she wonders how she will preserve it. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...“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... (full context)
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As Isobel’s mother continues to urge her to tell the truth, Isobel fears she will lose her temper... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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...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.” (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 4: Glassware and Other Breakable Items
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...at Aunt Noelene’s—she is sad to be parting with them. As Isobel thinks about her mother’s death, she cannot call up “any decent feeling from her evil heart”—she is only full... (full context)
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...the mirror, and notes that she looks so happy that the strong resemblance to her mother doesn’t even matter. She considers changing her name to Maeve, believing it to be a... (full context)
Chapter 5: I for Isobel
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...present, Isobel ran away. Mrs. Adams adds that she tried to give the book to Mrs. Callaghan , who said that it would only encourage Isobel to “waste time” instead of completing... (full context)
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...whatever would have made her think that, and then, realizing that the answer is her mother, Mrs. Adams states that Mrs. Callaghan was “a strange woman.” Mrs. Adams tells Isobel sadly... (full context)
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...bastards.” She realizes that her father was in many ways just as bad as her mother, as he helped to instill the myth about Mrs. Adams in her. Isobel sobs as... (full context)