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.
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