In Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, what do bees symbolize?  

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In literature, symbolism is a literary device that gives meanings to things which are different from their original meaning or purpose. It then ties these symbols to significant themes within the story. There are a number of things/objects in Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, which have symbolic significance. For example, there are scars, Ruth’s corn husk doll, seeds, Curzon’s red hat, a water pump, and bees.

The bees symbolize what is going on inside Isabel’s head: not only her feelings of depression and confusion, but also her desire for escape and revolt against her oppressors. Sometimes the bees start to buzz and make a commotion as Isabel thinks about her family and struggles to deal with her situation. The quote below shows how dead bees are used to symbolize Isabel’s feeling of positivity when she thinks about joining the British:

The thought washed over me like a river, sweeping away the dead bees that filled my brain with confusion.

Also, when Isabel is feeling melancholic after finding out she cannot be with Curzon in Bridewell Prison, she says,

The ashes of sadness and the buzzing bees of my melancholy all spun a storm inside.

The bees are used to symbolize any shifts in Isabel’s thoughts and feelings.

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In Chains, Anderson uses the bees as a metaphor to represent Isabel's suffering. When she loses Ruth, Isabel is so overcome with grief the bees "hold her hostage." She also describes her feelings by saying, dark honey filled up inside me, drowning out my thoughts and making it hard to move my eyes and hands. I worked as a puppet trained to scrub and carry, curtsy and nod" (Anderson, chapter 25, paragraph 1). In this way, it is not only the bees that cause her suffering, but also the product of the bees, the honey, which has the power to paralyze Isabel. She becomes an unthinking puppet.

Besides the activity of the bees in her brain, the hive with the bees symbolize the sting of reality. It is this sting that causes Isabel's pain and suffering.  The buzzing serves to slow her thoughts.

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The bees symbolize Isabel's racing and cloudy thoughts.  

When Anderson writes about Isabel and bees in this book, it is always referencing Isabel's state of mind.  Additionally, the bees become a prevalent symbol after Madam Lockton sells Ruth.  

Melancholy held me hostage, and the bees built a hive of sadness in my soul.

Whenever Isabel mentions the bees and their effects, it is always to illustrate how unclearly she is thinking.  The bee symbolism might be because the "bee" activity of her brain is so hectic that she can't think straight.  The bee activity also fills so much of her head that Isabel's thoughts are slowed down.  Anderson also allows the bee activity to be so noisy that Isabel couldn't process any other information coming in.  The bees are simply too noisy and bothersome to Isabel.  

The bees threatened to overtake my mind again, their wings beating quickly. 

When Isabel begins thinking clearly again, Anderson makes a point of telling readers that the bees also fall silent.  This doesn't happen until chapter 26.  Isabel subconsciously hears somebody say that the British can give slaves freedom.  Isabel's brain focuses on that singular thought, and the bees fall silent momentarily, because Isabel does not have a head full of beehive activity.  

"If the British win, we'll all be free."

"Shhh!" several people scolded.

I blinked. The bees in my head fell silent and hugged their wings tight to their bodies.  The British would free us? All of us? 

 

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