I for Isobel
Control in I For Isobel
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.
I for Isobel demonstrates that the strongest human desire is to belong
For a large portion of the novel, Isobel drifts through life believing intensely that the key to her happiness is belonging- that if she is a part of a crowd, if she is accepted, she will be “normal,” and it is this goal on which she focuses a vast amount of her energy. This desperation to belong is manifest in many heartfelt efforts- her deep concern with social propriety, her determination to be liked and accepted in the boarding house, her resolve to become a part of the university crowd, and later in her passive participation in casual sexual activity. However, as her attempts to assimilate herself continuously falter, she gradually develops the resilience to survive on her own. By finally confronting her past and resurrecting the lost part of herself, she gains the freedom to be satisfied with herself and less concerned about acceptance of others. While I for Isobel may suggest that the strongest human desire is to belong, it concludes with the message that true contentment lies in self-acceptance – in a sense, belonging to oneself. Isobel is filled with an acute sense of “longing and a sense of exile,” stemmed from a childhood-instilled belief that she is not “real,” not a “member of the human race.” As a child, Isobel perpetually finds herself as the outsider of the family, outnumbered against Margaret and Mrs Callaghan’s alliance, who share “contemptuous knowing glances” at each other, enjoying “well-known joke(s)” at Isobel’s expense. Similarly, after her mother’s death, Isobel embarks on her own life alone, while Margaret makes her home with Aunt Yvonne, a new family dynamic neatly encapsulated in the image of Margaret and Yvonne sitting together in the taxi “like as mother and daughter” while Isobel sits beside the driver, distinctly segregated from the comfortable, loving relationship in the backseat. As she grows older and experiences new social situations, Isobel finds herself unable to understand the casual interaction of young people, wondering in awe “Was it dialogue? Were they acting in a play?” and reflects that “people spoke poetry,” millions of different secret languages filled with euphemisms, metaphors and references that Isobel simply cannot comprehend, building an impenetrable barrier that closes her off from interaction. She soon finds that the workplace is “like school, therefore endurable, but disappointing,” leaving her once again distinctly separated from the people around her. Even with Aunt Noelene conversation is often awkward- there is no real closeness, and both are “relieved when the phone r[ings],” and breaks the uncomfortable silence.This sensation of being locked out and isolated, of being conspicuously abnormal, causes Isobel to strive to find acceptance in every environment she finds herself in, declaring to Frank that all she wants out of life is to “be one of the crowd” and live by the “eleventh commandment” – “Thou shalt not be different.” In hopes of achieving this goal of conformity Isobel constantly frets about social propriety, always pausing to check herself and consider what “the right behavior” would be, chastising herself for blindly overstepping conventions and strongly commanding herself: “right behavior first.” However, this deep concern with conformity to social convention causes her to become trapped in a position of obedient passivity from which she cannot escape. She becomes something of a “domestic pet” to Mrs Bowers, with the constant “offer of a cup of tea that she did not know how to refuse.” In addition, as she finds herself in environments whose conventions she doesn’t understand, Isobel’s attempts to remain socially proper invariably falter, causing Olive to chastise her for inappropriate behavior in the workplace. “It really isn’t right for you to be so familiar with Frank,” Olive says, “…and if you wouldn’t laugh at Mr. Richard so much… These things are more important than you think.” These comments leave Isobel confused and dislocated, wondering incessantly what she has done wrong. She “wishe[s] to know where she went wrong” and is unable to understand her blunders, but she has no guidelines, no one to elucidate the rules of social propriety to her. Inherently lacking the ability to perceive and understand the unspoken rules of society, Isobel is never truly able to belong there.As she begins her new life at the boarding house, Isobel’s desperation to be accepted and cherished is revealed not only in her desperation to be noticed by the younger boarders, but subconsciously in her determination to be Mrs. Bowers’ “favoured child,” striving for a new family dynamic in which she is included and loved. Isobel is “delighted to be included in the games young people played” as she participates in playful banter with Norman, intensely flustered with happiness (“excitement…making a fool of her face”) at even the smallest sliver of attention. Being noticed allows Isobel to believe for a moment that she is normal, interacting with boys in the casual, confident way that she sees other girls do. However, when her attempts at flirtatious teasing come across harsher than she intends, Isobel realizes that she simply does not know how to play this game correctly. Finding Norman’s gaze “fixed on her, tense and dull with hatred” is something of a turning point in Isobel’s attitude towards the boarding house- she realizes that she will never quite belong, and, perhaps to prove this point, from here onwards she finds “no sympathy anywhere.” The boarders become increasingly “hostile” towards her, a cruelty which Isobel describes as “the very kind of bitchery I most detest.” However, while Isobel knows that she does not belong, she cannot understand what she has done wrong. “This is when I worry,” she laments, “when people dislike me and I don’t know why.”The child within Isobel, the “idiot in the attic” who “played its games with the real world…behind Isobel’s back” uses the boarding house as a chance to make up for always being the victim in the Callaghan household, striving sub-consciously to be Mrs Bowers’ favourite child. Her “sucking up” to Mrs Bowers reflects her intense need to belong in a family, a yearning for the mother that she never had. Despite her desperate attempts to suppress it, this need has remained with her, lurking constantly in the back of her mind and weighing her down, expressed concisely in Isobel’s mind through the syllogism “idiot wants a mother. Idiot can’t have one,” finishing with the weary conclusion, “Life is very difficult.” Isobel reflects, “You left the house thinking of freedom…but you didn’t go on, you went back. To fight the old fight and this time to win…to be the favoured child.” By taking the place of Madge, Mrs Bowers’ real daughter, Isobel has unknowingly done what she was never able to achieve as a child, yet she realizes now that being the favourite is no better a position- this is not love, this is not closeness, nor even a sense of true belonging; she is merely playing the role of the meek and obedient “domestic pet,” accepted not for who she is but for her dutiful passivity. Realising this, Isobel abandons her efforts to belong in this surrogate family, finally defying Mrs Bowers by helping Madge and effectively exacerbating her dislocation in the household in the process. Isobel is distinctly isolated but no longer cares; she is no longer even trying to belong here.When Isobel encounters the university crowd, she is entranced by their intelligence and what she sees as the wonderful freedom and sophistication of their existence, and is determined to be one of them. She watches them yearningly, wistfully thinking “that was living as she longed to know it. Did they know how lucky they were?” When she summons the courage to approach them, Isobel quickly becomes “intoxicated by their attention,” feeling that she is “really alive now.” Her desperation to be accepted is evident as she imperatively urges herself, “she must entertain, she must be a success,” and she is willing to “offer up anything that made them laugh,” even if it means using Mrs Bowers, who has at this stage offered Isobel only kindness and compassion, as an object of ridicule, feeling that “making them laugh might make her acceptable.”However, Isobel gradually comes to the realization that “no matter how willingly they accepted her” the overwhelming sense of being “somehow disqualified, never to be truly one of them” remains. Although she is welcomed amiably into the group- she is allowed to sit with them in the café and follow them around- there is no real evidence of any warmth or connection binding her to them. Even with Trevor, while the reader can see from the special attention he pays her that he has some interest in her, Isobel is unable to truly give herself to the friendship- she remains too guarded to ever really permeate the distance between them. Isobel only consciously realizes the troublesome extent of this distance when Trevor tentatively attempts to turn their relationship into a romantic one. As she struggles frantically from his embrace, “it was her body that fought, not she,” and though she later contemplates the “vanished prospect of being Trevor’s girlfriend,” of belonging somewhere, she knows instinctively that sacrificing her own integrity and sense of self for the sake of conformity is not possible. “She was what she was and nothing could change her, so best to be done with it,” for not matter how much she pretends to be somebody else, “in the end you would resurrect yourself.” Isobel eventually relinquishes her ambition to belong in the group, acknowledging resignedly that “she did not belong with them, though they had not shut her out,” reflecting her instinctive sense of the impossibility of conformity. Isobel’s search for belonging later manifests itself in her involvement in meaningless sexual activity with virtual strangers, striving to behave as “normal” young people do such that she too might become normal, accepted. When Michael cantankerously asks her why she “does things like this,” Isobel is forced to think about what she is doing. She notes about herself that “you like to join the human race on the only level you can manage… putting on an act” of what she perceives as normal behavior. However, going through the motions does not make her like everybody else- as hard as she tries to fit in with social norms, Isobel never truly belongs in this sort of situation. She knows that this is not a pursuit of love. While it is possible that she may have initially thought that physical intimacy might bring her emotional and mental intimacy, she now knows that the connection between love and sex is “dubious” and is no longer fooled by romantic ideas of sex as a manifestation of love that she has undoubtedly read about. As she reflects, “oh lyric love, half angel, half bird, or 99% bird,” she recognizes, somewhat despondently, there is nothing magical or beautiful about this experience; it is a bird, not an angel. She receives no physical pleasure from it (“even on that level you can’t join the human race”) and in fact finds the whole experience somewhat “funny,” describing it as “groping about in the dark,” clumsy, humorous and devoid of any enchantment Observing their behavior detachedly, Isobel comments bemusedly “it was a bit sad really…working and moaning and gasping together in the dark…avoiding all signs of love, and what they had in common, the map of the mind and dislike of their bodies not to be spoken of,” a social critique of the whole absurd process of casual sex, astutely aware of all the ironies and the innate meaninglessness of it. Thus, even as she participates in such things, Isobel remains an outsider, watching human interaction with bemused curiosity, but never truly belonging.Isobel gradually comes to realize that finding comfort and belonging within herself is more important than belonging with others; that before she can ever be accepted, she must first accept herself. The burdensome weight of her past and her excruciating sense of being inadequate and worthless severely prevent her ability to value herself and feel comfortable in her own skin. Thus in order to quell some of the “currents and undertows” threatening to engulf her, Isobel must actively challenge the past rather than simply suppress it- she must face her problems, surrendering to the “door held straining against memories” and taming the “dogs of the past always yapping at her ankles” before she is able to move on from them. Eventually, Isobel decides to visit her childhood home, bravely confronting her painful memories and laying some ghosts to rest. In doing this, Isobel develops a “new tolerance” for her childhood self, learning that she should not regard herself with such harsh contempt, commanding: “Isobel Callaghan, pick on somebody your own size.” She realizes at long last that her childhood trauma was not her fault, but rather that she had been horrendously mistreated by her parents, “two murderers” who destroyed her sense of self-worth. As she rages, “bastards, bastards, bastards! Spiteful, tormenting bastards!” she is finally able to achieve some closure over her past, an understanding of what has happened to her, thus finally liberating her sense of self. With this new freedom from the tight, restricting cordons of the past, Isobel is free to discover her purpose in life, to understand and accept who she really is. Reflecting on Mrs Adam’s comment that “I was so thrilled with that little poem of yours…it’s the little poem that brings [her cat] back more than the photograph,” Isobel realizes that her writing has value- something that she has produced has affected another human being profoundly. Recognizing at last that “there’s a writer in there…a naked infant greased and trussed in the baking dish with an apple jammed in its mouth,” Isobel is finally able to release the “poor little bugger,” liberating herself just in time, before the baking dish, struggling baby and all, is plunged into the burning oven. This realization is empowering, enlivening. Isobel gains a definite sense of self as she understands, “I am a writer, I am a writer,” a revelation that she declares is “the happiest moment of [her] life.” Isobel “knew she could choose to be a writer,” firmly and powerfully demonstrating her ability to take control of her existence, to survive in the world as her own person, no longer needing to rely on the acceptance of others. Through her own active discovery and acceptance of herself, Isobel is able to endure her struggles, and to emerge from them as a stronger, more independent individual. She has finally found a sense of belonging- while she remains segregated from the people around her, her sense of self and affirmation of her worth have been restored, empowering her with the realization that belonging to a crowd is dispensable as long as she belongs within herself.
I for Isobel demonstrates that in order to survive, we need a rich imaginary world
Isobel’s wildly vivid imagination serves as a powerful survival tool throughout a traumatic childhood and subsequent tumultuous transition into adulthood, providing escapism from an agonizing and often humiliating reality, and comfort that she cannot receive from anyone or anything else. Her love for and reliance on fantasy is manifest in many forms- her insatiable appetite for reading, the imaginary characters and worlds that she invents, and the everyday wanderings of her mind, colouring a reality rendered only in shades of grey, and empowering Isobel, giving her the resilience to persevere through travail. However, while escaping into her many imaginary worlds is powerful as an interim distraction from the agonizing realities of life, it is not a method that can sustain a fulfilling existence in the long term. Escaping from problems does not solve them; distraction can only ever be transient, and her uncontrollable imagination gradually becomes a menace, irritating Isobel rather than assisting her as it used to. Ultimately, Isobel is not truly able to survive in the world, to surge through life rather than drift, and to live with the confidence to be herself until she confronts the past and conquers the demons of memory rather than suppressing them, reaching an acceptance of herself that allows her to be strong and free. The real world for Isobel is a dark and turbulent place laden with the heavy fog of emotional unrest, insecurity, loneliness and an acute sense of being inadequate, or inherently incomplete. Struggling amid the chaotic “currents and undertows…mysterious evil passions, rage and envy…(and) most of all an unconquerable sadness,” Isobel frequently feels powerless, floundering through the overwhelmingly chaotic dynamics of the world, succumbing to “inertia” rather than striding forward in her own direction. She is convinced of her faults, acutely aware of being “born bad” and “accept(s) herself as a hopeless born liar,” often feeling weighed down by the resigned idea that she is ultimately unable to control her behavior, but merely serves as a puppet for the “idiot in the attic,” the “spiteful little bastard” who “play(s) its games with the real world…behind Isobel’s back.” This sense of being a contemptible, inherently flawed person causes intense insecurity, causing Isobel to panic incessantly that she is “wounding people without being aware of it,” always pausing to question, “could she have offended him?” Similarly, her timidity and apprehension lead her to assume that others are constantly thinking poorly of her, and she anxiously questions everything she does, feeling ashamed- “was that the wrong way of reading then?” She feels defeated, as if there is no way to ensure her safety and security. Even as a child she acknowledges, “you couldn’t make yourself safe,” and this idea remains entrenched within her into early adulthood, as she reflects, “no sooner had you built your little raft and felt secure than it came to pieces under you.” This inherent perpetual sense of being unsafe, and of being a failure, isolates Isobel from those around her- “you build a wall around yourself and too late find yourself walled in,” creating an impenetrable distance between herself and her peers, as evident as she sees Trevor “from the other side of the river,” powerless to break down the barrier of her own insecurity. Ultimately, she feels incomplete, filled with “anguish, with longing and a sense of exile”- a painful, exhausting existence that would surely destroy her spirit entirely had she no release from such agonies.However, Isobel is able to escape from the excruciating pressures of everyday life through reading. As a child, she uses her books as a shield from her mother’s cruelty, discovering early on that “birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished…(they) didn’t matter so much if life had these enchanting surprises that were free to everyone,” and finding profound relief from the callousness of her surroundings. Isobel’s love of reading remains with her into adulthood, offering comfort and a feeling of being “really at home” with her books, preferring the company of these fictional characters to the insensitive and unreachable people around her. Her ability to become entirely consumed in a book, feeling that “it’s not like reading…it’s like living it,” and “whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world…(being) conscious of being in exile from (the story),” is testament to the intensity of her imagination and her capacity to live her stories, forgetting (temporarily) the harshness of reality. In addition to reading, Isobel extends the idea of fantasy and storytelling into the creation of her own imaginary characters, finding both comfort and excitement in her thrilling new worlds, and guidance in the more spiritual mentor-type figures that she fabricates in her mind. Isobel’s childhood fantasies of Gerald, Antonia and the traveling theatre provide a thrilling world of drama and romance that fulfills Isobel’s need for excitement, intensity and freedom, a sensation that is distinctly missing from her life. Filled with cozy, comforting images of family closeness and togetherness, “the campfire at night…Antonia in slacks and sweater singing old folk songs…Gerald putting out his arm to bring Robert close to him, Robert snuggling up,” these imaginary stories impart on Isobel a sensation of love, comfort and tenderness- the antithesis of the cold family dynamics offered to her by the real world. As a young adult, these ideas similarly culminate in the fabrication of Joseph, the “loved, respected authority,” a guiding father-figure to whom Isobel reflects and prays at night, finding comfort and support in this imaginary mentor that she cannot find elsewhere.Isobel’s imagination finds itself spiraling throughout her daily thoughts, wandering into everyday occurrences as escapism from any discomfort and embarrassment. At work, she tells herself “I am not here. I am in Czechoslovakia” to transcend the humiliation of being disparaged and reprimanded by Mr Richard, and she spends her dreary mornings wondering extensively about and creating a detailed image of Mr Vorocic, a glass manufacturer whose German letter Isobel is supposed to be translating. This preoccupation with the romance and poetry of life and her ability to fabricate rich stories from a bland business document distract her from the mundanity of her job, allowing the writer within her stimulation amid a lackluster, unfulfilling environment. Her vivid imagination also provides her with comic relief from misery or fear, allowing her to find amusement amid a “horror dream,” such as waking up at Michael’s house and pretending that she is in a train compartment having an exciting adventure rather than being naked and vulnerable in a strange man’s bathroom. As Isobel reflects, “there was a mind for you, darting about on its own adventures, giving the owner a fright of a lifetime”- her imagination is almost beyond her control, surprising her with its intensity. Essentially, Isobel’s ability to co-exist in the real world and her many imaginary worlds allows her vital release from the agonies constantly threatening to engulf her, temporarily allowing distraction from the shadows that might otherwise consume her entirely.Yet although escapism is effective as an interim distraction, it is merely that- a distraction from, as distinct from a solution to, her problems. As her troubles continue to accumulate and intensify, festering beneath a struggling cover of suppression, the positive power of her imagination reciprocally falters, gradually culminating in the menacing “word factory” constantly nagging at Isobel, incessantly frustrating her with its uncontrollable “groaning, grinding and defining.” Isobel describes this overworking imagination as “words we have plenty of, nasty little buzzing insects that they are. Awake two minutes and the word factory is at it already”- the term “insects”, a recurring motif throughout the novel, immortalizing ideas of sin, flaw, and contemptible characteristics not unlike the “mysterious evil passions” of “rage and envy”, creating a vivid impression of a relentlessly irritating force, one that Isobel constantly tries to silence, reprimanding herself, “listen you don’t have to paint his portrait,” or “it’s a stain coloured stain and shut up.” Above all else, it is perhaps the futility of her imagination and compulsive need to describe, to use language to create images of everything she sees, that frustrates Isobel- these ideas are “to be handed in nowhere at the end of the day,” thoughts, images and words merely “running like mice on a treadmill,” perpetually, repetitively and utterly serving no purpose. Her imagination is no longer simply something that she treasures- it has developed into something unmanageable, irrepressible, exacerbating her frustration with the world rather than providing release from it. Isobel soon realizes that in order to survive she must actively challenge the past rather than simply suppressing it- she must face her problems, surrendering to the “door held straining against memories” and taming the “dogs of the past always yapping at her ankles” before she is able to move on from them. Eventually, Isobel decides to visit her childhood home, bravely confronting her painful memories and laying some ghosts to rest. In doing this, Isobel develops a “new tolerance” for her childhood self, learning that she should not regard herself with such harsh contempt, commanding “Isobel Callaghan, pick on somebody your own size.” She realizes at long last that her childhood trauma was not her fault, but rather that she had been horrendously mistreated by her parents, “two murderers” who destroyed her sense of self-worth. As she rages “bastards, bastards, bastards! Spiteful, tormenting bastards!” she is finally able to achieve some closure over her past, an understanding of what has happened to her, thus finally liberating her sense of self. With this new freedom from the tight, restricting cordons of the past, Isobel is free to finally discover her purpose in life, to understand and accept who she really is. Recognizing at last that “there’s a writer in there…a naked infant greased and trussed in the baking dish with an apple jammed in its mouth,” she is able to release the “poor little bugger,” liberating herself just in time before the baking dish, struggling baby and all, is plunged into the burning oven. This realization is empowering, enlivening. Isobel gains a definite sense of self as she understands finally, “I am a writer, I am a writer,” a revelation that she declares is “the happiest moment of (her) life.” Isobel “knew she could choose to be a writer,” firmly and powerfully demonstrating her ability to take control of her existence, to survive in the world and be her own person. Thus while her imagination assists her along the way to revelation, it is her own active discovery and acceptance of herself that ultimately allows Isobel to endure her struggles, and to emerge from them as a stronger, more independent individual.
Not Quite Herself: Isobel’s Self-Imposed Limitations
“I thought I could make my life into a room and choose what came into it.”
While influenced by others at times, one’s life is impacted the most by the choices they make and whether or not they decide to grapple the opportunities they are presented with. Amy Witting’s novel “I for Isobel” explores this idea through the protagonist Isobel, who reflects that she “thought [she] could make [her] life into a room and choose what came into it”, suggesting that she doesn’t believe she has any power over her destiny and that her fate is predetermined. It is undeniable that Isobel experiences a harrowing childhood. Her mother’s hatred is commonplace and has a devastating impact on her life, however ultimately Isobel is not beyond criticism for how her life unfolds. Isobel has multiple opportunities to lead herself in a positive direction, such as the times when she is shown kindness by others. Nevertheless by playing the victim, she only puts herself at more of a social disadvantage when trying to form and keep relationships. Isobel’s lack of happiness and challenge to discover herself in the novel, is due to multiple factors, including her upbringing, her faith in religion, fate and literature. Yet, ultimately it is her unwillingness to believe she has any control over her life that leaves her spiralling.
Throughout Isobel’s youth, due to the unfair treatment inflicted by. May Callaghan’s incessant attacks erode her daughter’s self-esteem, making her question herself and her choices constantly and influencing her actions so as not to be a “home devil”, a “nasty little beast” or a “brazen little liar.” Isobel’s innocent story about witnessing a fireball – which turned the “welling storm water rosy red” before her eyes, leads to “fireball [becoming] another word for lie and the rosy water [damming] up forever behind a wall of derisive laughter.” While being youthful and imaginative, young Isobel comes to accept her mother’s reiterated claim that she is an inveterate liar, to the extent that even “she [accepts] herself as a helpless born liar”. Through Isobel’s joyous moment when spinning around and catching coins from the adults on her birthday, it is evident that her mother’s domination and disapproval affects Isobel’s ability to see right from wrong. After this instance, Isobel constantly questions her actions which holds her back from the opportunities in front of her, as her mother has stripped her of childlike innocence and imagination. Furthermore, May Callaghan’s unfaltering better treatment of her eldest daughter, Margaret, compared to her poor treatment of Isobel, diminishes Isobel’s confidence and causes her to feel unloved and disliked by everyone. In addition, due to the disgust shown by her parents at the cat poem Isobel writes as a child, she denies any talent she has as a writer, as she associates writing with her parents’ criticism. Therefore this impacts Isobel’s life choices as she must realise her parents were overly judgemental, in order to embrace this talent and begin writing. Hence, the amount of control Isobel has over her life is impacted by the how she is brought up.
Isobel does try to improve her circumstances by looking for a source that will give her inner peace, however as she is not resilient in character, when these sources fail to help her find this peace, she only ends up worse off than she started. The ‘state of grace’ makes Isobel feel like she has some power over her life. When she receives the yellow dress from Aunt Noelene, she evens says that “the state of grace, the peace and the security of it, meant more than any dress.” However when her mother rips her yellow dress, she strips away any control Isobel had because “it wasn’t only a dress. It was much more.” Consequently Isobel is then disadvantaged because not only has she lost the state of grace yet she also feels that she has a lack of authority over her life. Turning to fate, as the answer for the way her life is unfolding, Isobel convinces herself that she cannot control her destiny because it is fate that has this power. Moreover, the way in which Isobel retreats to books rather than socialising with others, shows that books control her life in some ways. Books have always been there for Isobel and because in her childhood she does not receive enough support from others, she fosters this dependency on books into adulthood. However, this means she struggles keeping relationships with others because she does not develop this social ability. When Isobel “writhes…with pain” walking past the telephone box in which she used to “let out a stream of hatred”, by using the book as protection she “[straightens] up and [walks] towards the box, in control.” She also describes her German dictionary as a “talisman”, therefore she sees it as a symbol of good luck and protection. This shows that the control Isobel has over her life is greatly impacted by literature. When Isobel turns to religion and the Saints for direction and only becomes more lost she explains that “ritual had failed her” and that it “depressed her so much,” which illustrates how when other sources do not help her, Isobel feels lost. Furthermore, Isobel’s mother was conservative and rigid and then Mrs Bowers and Mrs Prendergast’s traditionalist values make her view relationships as a “disagreeable penalty” and an “enemy.” Therefore this impacts Isobel’s ability to make connections with others which is extremely important in one’s life.
Initially Isobel’s life is shaped by her unfortunate childhood especially her mother’s influence yet as visible through Amy Witting’s choice of narration, Isobel plays the victim to the point that it is destructive. Isobel is overly caught up in being “one of the crowd” that she is blinded by her talent as a writer. Furthermore, her self-deprecating nature is displayed through Amy Witting’s third person limited narration which is extremely self-critical for most of the novel. This constant psychological self-abuse means Isobel does not take up opportunities when they arise and interprets much of what others say to her the wrong way. Moreover, Isobel stops writing because her parents discourage it, she stops embroidering because Miss Harman tells her that she has “vulgar bad taste” and she gives up with the state of grace after giving in and reacting to her mother’s rage. These instances show that Isobel is unable to persevere and this puts her at a disadvantage as much of her life is driven by what is said by others. In addition, the reason she cannot seem to become “one of the crowd”, is partly self-imposed as she cultivates her own social isolation and fails to acknowledge those who support her. Mrs Bowers and Mrs Prendergast offer a form of kindness she never had before, Olive gives her advice about work, Frank encourages her to become a writer, the special crowd invite her into their social group and Aunt Noelene pays for her rent and gives her life advice. Nevertheless Isobel denies all of this kindness as she feels she does not deserve it. Building walls as a child was an effective method of coping as they provided her with a sense of protection. However, consequently, as an adult who is searching for meaning these walls segregate her from others. Isobel thinks “she [carries] an invisible knife wounding people without being aware of it”, showing she does not have social awareness. Her belief that she is hurting others through her actions, causes her to conform to other people’s expectations rather than living her life the way she wants. When Isobel leaves the special crowd because “she did not belong with them, though they had not shut her out”, yet again she demonstrates how she is responsible for her own isolation – she ‘went away’ though they had not asked her to do so. It is therefore Isobel’s self-loathing nature that means while she has control over her life she does not necessarily use this control very often in order to improve her circumstances.
It cannot be denied that Isobel’s childhood was affected by the poverty her family faced, perhaps setting her back further than other children who had more opportunities. Although, there are many opportunities that arise for Isobel, such as; being part of the special crowd, a job rise and being a writer, that she fails to have the confidence to take on. The amount of control Isobel has over her life is somewhat impacted by her reliance on books and her belief that fate has sole power over her future. This is because these sources prevent her from believing in her self and trusting in other people. However, despite the various factors that somewhat influence the amount of control Isobel has over her destiny, ultimately it is her inability to embrace the person she is, and the opportunities in front of her, that impacts her life the most.