I for Isobel


Amy Witting

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Transience and The Search For Belonging Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Mothers, Daughters, and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
Poverty, Abuse, and Violence Theme Icon
Storytelling, Fiction, Narrative, and Escape Theme Icon
Transience and The Search For Belonging Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I for Isobel, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Transience and The Search For Belonging Theme Icon

The trauma Isobel suffered in her childhood has served not only to estrange her from herself, but also to make her feel as if there is nowhere she really belongs. Unsure of who she is, unlearned in social cues and graces, and without the foundation of even one truly healthy, nurturing relationship, Isobel is launched into adulthood at the age of sixteen when her mother dies of an unmentioned disease. Isobel receives a modicum of support from her wealthy Aunt Noelene, but she is largely left to her own devices, taking up residence in a boarding house and struggling to understand and connect with those around her. Through Isobel’s search for belonging, Witting argues that without knowing oneself in the first place, forging meaningful connections and developing healthy relationships is nearly impossible. The gap left in Isobel’s social consciousness by the years of abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, Witting argues, is what holds her back now from feeling as if she belongs and threatens to turn her life into a transient, rootless existence.

Isobel feels desperately out of place throughout her childhood—the first time she feels a semblance of belonging is in the company of Miss Halwood, a fellow guest at a lake house where the Callaghans are spending their holidays, who encourages Isobel to read despite her mother’s objections. Isobel begins to search for belonging in books at a very young age, and even as she grows older, she feels out of place among real people and only like herself in the company of a good book. At the boarding house where she lives following her mother’s death, Isobel wishes every night for dinner conversation to end so that she can curl up peacefully with a book; her inhibited social skills, largely as a result of her mother’s constant abuse and degradation of her character, are malformed, and Isobel’s only way of feeling like she has friends or like she can understand other people’s lives and emotions is through the sense of belonging she encounters in literature. Isobel searches for belonging in the books she reads, and will come to also search for belonging in the well-read people she meets throughout her life, seeing them as kindred spirits despite the fact that they may be very different from her. After she moves to the city, she meets a group of young, literary-minded intellectuals at a nearby café and sees them as the friends she has always wanted to have—despite their occasional cruelty or indifference toward her and their highly dramatic interpersonal conflicts. When Nick, one of the members of the café group, dies in a freak accident, Isobel is devastated. As she cries over Nick’s death, she feels uncertain as to whether she is feeling the right thing—or whether she ever “belonged” in their group in the first place. Ultimately, Isobel thinks that her tears “were for Nick, for whom she hadn’t felt entitled to grieve—but she was entitled; she was one of them.”

More than achieving a sense of belonging is overcoming the “impostor syndrome” that comes with achievement—the feeling that one’s accomplishments are never truly one’s own or never enough. Isobel believed herself unlovable and unlikable for so long due to her mother’s abuse, that even when she achieves a sense of belonging, she constantly questions it and undermines the progress and friendships she has made. Isobel is aloof and rootless to begin with, and this constant second-guessing of her own sense of belonging further threatens to propel her towards a life of loneliness and transience. In the end, Isobel finds her sense of belonging not in a group of people or in a fantasy world that isolates her totally, but instead in the simple self-satisfaction—and hopefulness—that she is meant to be a writer. At the end of the novel, as Isobel finally begins putting words to paper, she feels she has at last encountered herself and found “where” she belongs, though it is more a state of mind than a physical place.

The painful journey of self-discovery Isobel goes on throughout the novel runs parallel to the search for belonging—the two are entwined, but different, and as Isobel searches for the place where she belongs, she ultimately finds that she doesn’t have to isolate herself from others just because it is difficult to feel at home in the world. Though the novel is based on Isobel’s difficult upbringing and the rough start she’s had in the city, it ends on a hopeful note, as readers see Isobel throwing herself into writing, in pursuit of finding an identity to which she belongs and a world she can make her own.

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Transience and The Search For Belonging ThemeTracker

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Transience and The Search For Belonging Quotes in I for Isobel

Below you will find the important quotes in I for Isobel related to the theme of Transience and The Search For Belonging.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished. [Isobel] sat on the floor reading till the noise of cups and saucers in the kitchen warned her that the grown-ups would be coming in for afternoon tea, then she went to the little room where she and Margaret slept, next to their parents’ bedroom. It was too hot there, but if she went outside to the cool shade of the fig tree, Caroline and Joanne Mansell would come asking her to play with them, or Margaret would want her to go for a swim. Besides, it wasn’t hot in Baker Street. What a lucky thing that she had found this new place in time to spend the birthday there. Presents didn’t matter so much, if life had these enchanting surprises that were free to everyone.

Page Number: 7-8
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:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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:
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:

“When do you plan to be married, Rita?”

“In September. We don't want a long engagement. Stephen's firm are sending him to Melbourne and we want to be married and go together.”

Isobel heard this with dismay. This was the opportunity Aunt Noelene would expect her to grasp, seizing that wild horse money by the bridle as it passed. She lacked courage for the deed. If she did manage it, she would have to take dictation from Mr. Walter instead of checking invoices with Frank. This was life: no sooner had you built yourself your little raft and felt secure than it came to pieces under you and you were swimming again.

Related Characters: Olive (speaker), Rita (speaker), Isobel Callaghan, Aunt Noelene, Frank, Mr. Walter
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

“Do you ever think about being a writer?”

“What made you think of that?”

“Well. No need to bite my head off! You nearly made me drop a week's wages.” He brushed the packing away from a molded iridescent fruit bowl and set it on the table. […]

“I'm sorry I snapped.” She could offer no explanation either for the panic reaction.

“Well. You have this way of putting things. I thought of it when you said that about your little number fours. Summed it up in six words and made me mad, what's more. Made Olive madder, I'm thinking. Everyone can't do that.”

“I wish you'd drop it, Frank.”

“OK. But, to come back to it, what do you want out of life? What do you want to be? If you say Mr. Walter's secretary, I'll award myself a big horse laugh.”

'I want to be one of the crowd.'”

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker), Frank (speaker), Olive
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

She said to Joseph—in bed at night she humped her pillow to the shape of a shoulder and unpacked her thoughts for Joseph—“Suppose one is born bad—not by choice—the hand of the potter shook, you might say—why can't one choose to be different? I thought I could. I thought I could make my life into a room and choose what came into it. I was a bit above myself, wasn’t I? That's what monks and nuns do, with God and prayer and fasting and all that stuff. No job for an amateur. Besides, life isn't like that. It's more like swimming in a sea, with currents and undertows carrying you where you don't want to go.”

The currents and the undertows were mysterious evil passions, rage and envy; most of all an unconquerable sadness—no matter how willingly they accepted her—at being somehow disqualified, never to be truly one of them.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan (speaker)
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

You left the house thinking of freedom, of being a different person, seeing the world ahead of you, but you didn't go on, you went back. To fight the old fight and this time to win, to have the verdict set aside, to be the favored child.

Any rag will make a doll for the idiot in the attic.

Auden had a general in his head. (“But they've severed all the wires, and I don't know what the general desires.'”

Isobel had an idiot in the attic.


Back in her room, she sat on her bed and reflected. She was in a different position from Auden; she knew what the idiot desired, all right, and had to watch to see it didn't get it.


The idiot played its games with the real world and- and what was worse-it played them behind Isobel's back. Not any more, now that she knew. Could she do this, watch a part of herself and control it, fight against it all her life?

She was not too discouraged, the new knowledge giving her a feeling of strength. At least she knew where she was going wrong-no wonder the others disliked her, watching her suck up to Mrs. Bowers, taking what ought to be Madge's.

Idiot wants a mother.

Idiot can't have one.

Life is very difficult.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan, Mrs. Bowers, Madge
Page Number: 120-121
Explanation and Analysis:

Later, she thought wistfully of the vanished prospect of being Trevor's girlfriend, of belonging... Couldn't she have pretended? Would it have been enough, if she had done everything he wanted? That would have been no trouble; she would have been quite ready always to do what Trevor wanted. But she would have had to know what he did want. It would be like being a spy in a foreign country, having to pass for a native. She would be found out. The penalty for being found out appeared as Diana, walking and watching, obsessed with suffering. That moment when you found out they hated you and you did not know why—any deprivation was better than that.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan, Trevor, Diana
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

You could change your name, have your face altered, change your country and your language, but in the end you would resurrect your self.

Nevertheless, she felt cheerful as she packed her belongings. She was glad to be escaping from a grief not her own, she looked forward to the foolish pleasure of buying a saucepan and a frying pan, a cup and saucer and a plate, a knife, a fork and a spoon and two tea towels. Into the suitcase she put Shakespeare, Keats, Byron (now known as facile), Shelley, Auden. Though she knew the passage of Auden well, she found the place and read it with a grin.

“It's no use turning nasty

It's no use turning good.

You're what you are and nothing you do

will get you out of the wood.”

She shut the book and put it in the suitcase. One is never quite alone.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

The tears were coming slowly. How could tears come from so deep, as if she was a tree with tears welling up from its roots? Then they came in a roaring flood that drowned thought; she put her cheek against the rock, which was as rough as a cat's tongue and unyielding, but she was too far gone to feel any perverse pleasure in that. Her sobs were so loud that even in this wasteland she had to put her hands over her mouth to muffle them; when her mind sobered up her body went on snuffling and heaving along ten years of roadway.

I am a writer. I am a writer.

Too late. It must be too late. The poor little bugger in the baking dish; nobody came in time.

Suppose I tried? Suppose I went through the motions? The writer might come back.

You've tried that with love. It doesn't work.

But that was other people, too. This is me.

The crying had slackened. There was such a feeling of limbs stretching, of hands unbound, she knew she could choose to be a writer. A pen and an exercise book, that was all it took, to be a rotten writer, anyhow. Good or rotten' that came later.

It meant giving in to the word factory. That frightened her, because the word factory was such a menace. Now she understood why the idea of being press-ganged was so alarming.

Oh, well. If you can't lick 'em join 'em.

Maybe that was what the word factory was all about, the poor little bugger trying to get out of the baking dish.

Related Characters: Isobel Callaghan, Mrs. Adams
Related Symbols: The Baby in the Baking Dish
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis: