Isobel was not responsible for her mother’s unjust actions when she was a child but as a result of Ms Callaghan’s distortion and sadistic manipulation, Isobel closed herself off emotionally grappling for control over her own life. Through the characterization of Ms. Callaghan we are able to understand Isobel’s past and what eventuated in her shutting herself off emotionally from everyone. Her mother served as the ‘invisible knife’ and a reminder of what happens when Isobel allows people into her life. The imagery of the emotional isolation that Isobel faces throughout her adolescence is shown through the recurring symbol of building a wall and making her life “into a room” and choosing who she emotionally opened up to. Isobel goes through an emotional journey but the theme of internalized anger and need for control was the catalyst for Isobel finally realizing that her mother’s treatment was not her fault and that she could not choose to make her “life into a room and choose what came into it” and ultimately her grapple for control evolves into her realization that she is the master of her own destiny.
Witting’s characterization of Ms. Callaghan challenges the notion of maternal responsibility and ultimately makes Isobel shut herself off emotionally and come to fear human interaction. Witting constructs Ms. Callaghan in such a way that her past is never revealed which makes it difficult to empathize with her being so cruel to Isobel and Margaret. The animalistic aggression that the character has is shown through the shredding of Isobel’s yellow dress during her “state of grace” persona phase is shown when “she heard the dull snap of threads and the nearing noise. She cried out as if she’d been hit.” Through Isobel’s mother ripping and tearing the yellow dress from her sister’s body, Witting is showing us Ms. Callaghan’s need for control and sadistic aggression shaped Isobel’s childhood immensely and how “it wasn’t only a dress, it was much more”. The dress came to represent Isobel’s complete lack of control over her life and how her mother was ruthless in her attempts to control her. Witting’s characterization of Ms. Callaghan demonstrates the total lack of control that Isobel had over her life and emotions. This was shown again when Isobel received a “gift for a real girl”, the brooch. The brooch represented that someone cared for her even if her own mother didn’t. It symbolized worth and recognition of Isobel’s birthday. A happy moment for Isobel where she was genuinely happy was tarnished by her mother saying “Don’t you dare to cry. Ungrateful little bitch. You little swine, thankless little swine, you couldn’t say thank you, couldn’t even say thank you.” This form of emotional manipulation showed Ms. Callaghan punishing Isobel because she didn’t have control over the gift given to Isobel and that made her furious. Ms. Callaghan’s lack of control led to her animalistic outburst resulting in Isobel’s happy memory of the validation of her birthday being distorted into a scenario where everything was Isobel’s fault. This resulted in Isobel finding solace in books, in literature and in stories that allowed her to escape. All Isobel had control of were her senses and her memory, but witting constructed a truly heartless character with no remorse and no empathy. “It was well established that Isobel was a liar.” This thought about herself was entrenched in her through her mother’s words and distortion of the truth. This shaped Isobel’s construction of herself and how she would come to view herself all throughout her adolescence. Before anyone else, Isobel’s mother hurt her. This resulted in Isobel closing herself off and not allowing anyone else to hurt her ever again without her permission as a form of attempted control over her life.
Isobel’s need to protect herself is shown through the imagery and symbolism of the walls she builds around herself and the escapist perspective that she internalizes through reading literature. The reflective quality of literature to her life is constructed by Witting to reveal the novel’s contention and Isobel’s inner conflict with the Sherlock Holmes title: “A case of Identity.” This foreshadows and reflects Isobel’s inner turmoil and how she would come to question everything she knows and not know who she is, constantly trying on different personas. The symbolism of her trying to change and alter her persona is retrospective of her fear of ending up like her mother who’s voice is dead but not “silenced”. The imagery of literature serves as a backdrop for her finding her own identity and escaping the traumas of her life by sliding “behind the curtain of the dark into her private world.” This demonstrates Isobel’s habit of escapism through literature is recurring throughout the novel and is ultimately Isobel’s way of control by trying to escape her life during adolescence and avoiding other members of “the human race”, especially in the boarding house. Throughout her adolescence the imagery of the “room” and how she builds a wall around herself. The decision to hide herself behind a wall and become indifferent to taunts and insults is a form of Isobel controlling her life. The walls that Isobel builds around herself for protection from pain and neglect is symbolic of her attitude toward those who show her attention. The internalized pain and trauma of her childhood that she could not control manifests itself through the imagery of the walls she builds around herself for protection. Throughout the progression of her adolescence Witting shows that Isobel cannot “make [her] life into a room and choose what came into it” due to the nature of humans as social beings. Witting showed these metaphorical walls adversely stops her from establishing meaningful and affectionate relationships with those she encounters due to building metaphorical walls around herself in an attempt to gain control over her life. The imagery of the room is a motif throughout the progression of Isobel’s growth from childhood to adolescence to show Isobel’s inability to cope with with human attention, blocking and deflecting all compliments and not recognizing that people are trying to connect with her.
Isobel’s metaphorical walls that she builds around herself in conjunction with her inability to recognize human empathy is a vehicle for Witting’s theme of childhood neglect and self identity. The theme of self identity is evident through Witting’s narratorial voice to force readers to enter the head of Isobel and empathize with her struggles of the past. The construct of Isobel’s traumatic past is the foundation for the theme of self identity and how it is used as a form of control in Isobel’s life. In childhood she was told constantly that she was a liar by her mother, resulting in her doubting her own senses and her own memory. Although Isobel is depicted as having no control over her life her mother dying was the catalyst for her taking control over her life and taking a job, moving to the boarding house and ultimately becoming a writer. The authorial choice of narration through Isobel’s perspective to highlight the theme of control as readers are able to identify with her and question the nature of physiological and emotional neglect and internalized anger. Throughout the progression of the narratorial voice of Isobel, she is coming to terms with who she is as a girl without her mother. The theme of control is shown through the final realization of Isobel admitting to herself that she was not responsible for her mother’s treatment. “Bastards, Bastards, Bastards!” This represents her admittance of her mother’s treatment and her realization that it was not her fault and that she had no control over when her mother abused her. The emotional scar that her mother left on her ultimately led to Isobel regaining control of her life and through Isobel shouting to the sky is a release of anger that she had been harboring through childhood. Through this brief loss of emotional control, Isobel gained control of her past and began recasting the memories that her mother distorted.
Through the characterization of Ms. Callaghan, Witting is highlighting the abuse that Isobel faced in her childhood resulting in her negative self perception and emotionally indifferent human interactions. The imagery of the wall and escape through literature serves as a vehicle for Witting to show Isobel’s attempt to regain control over her life. Although Isobel lacked any control over her emotions memories and senses throughout her childhood, the narratorial voice shows the progression of Isobel fighting for control over her own emotions that results in a moment of clarity yelling “Bastards, Bastards, Bastards!”. This moment of emotional clarity solidified Isobel’s control over her own destiny and allowed her to recognize that the past was not her fault and that her loss of control was not of her doing. Isobel was robbed of the control of her life in her childhood, but in the closure of the novel Isobel regains control by emotionally letting the metaphorical walls that she built around herself crumble.