Chains Themes

The main themes in Chains are memory and ancestry; slavery, freedom, and rebellion; and growth and coming of age.

  • Memory and ancestry: Isabel has a powerful memory and connection to her ancestry, both of which help guide her in adversity but are threatened by loss and trauma.
  • Slavery, freedom, and rebellion: While Isabel struggles to achieve freedom from enslavement for herself and Ruth, the colonies struggle to achieve freedom from British rule.
  • Growth and coming of age: Isabel’s maturation over the course of the novel is reflected in her smuggled seeds and in her choosing her own new name, Isabel Gardener.

Themes

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Memory and Ancestry

The power of Isabel’s memory is a recurring theme throughout Chains. In the beginning of the narrative, she’s praised for it by others—her memory is remarkable enough that even Jenny, the woman who recognizes Isabel from her childhood and hasn’t seen her since then, mentions it when they meet at the inn where the sisters are sold to the Locktons.

When Isabel suffers a serious multipart trauma—the loss of her sister, Ruth, which leads to Isabel’s flight, beating, and subsequent public branding—her memory is notably affected. To handle what’s happened to her, she disconnects entirely and, essentially, forgets to think about her pain.

This disconnection doesn’t just have logistical consequences; it threatens Isabel’s very identity. By virtue of her constant uprooting, Isabel has lost the tangible artifacts of her life multiple times over: once prior to the events of the book, when her family is first separated, and then again when she is sold to the Locktons in chapter 3—“We couldn't take Momma's shells, nor Ruth's baby doll made of flannel bits and calico, nor the wooden bowl Poppa made for me. Nothing belonged to us.” She suffers the same sense of loss yet again when she loses Ruth’s doll in the fire at Lady Seymour’s house, and one final time when she abandons her basket while rescuing Curzon.

Both practically and spiritually, Isabel also calls on her memory to save her in times of hardship. When Madam has her locked in the potato crate, it’s only by calming herself down and making herself remember her prior experience that Isabel is able to locate and exploit the crate’s weak spot. Similarly, it’s by calling on her ancestral ghosts—who “help” her pull the boat along—that she finds the strength to row herself and Curzon across the river to the banks of New Jersey in the book’s final scene.

Slavery, Freedom, and Rebellion

Throughout the book, Isabel’s actions are in service of one overarching goal: liberating herself and her sister, Ruth, from enslavement. This goal is especially urgent to Isabel, who now has to live knowing just how close the two came to achieving freedom—per the will of Miss Mary Finch, they were to be freed upon Miss Finch’s death. When Mr. Robert Finch denies them this promise in order to make money on their sale to the Locktons, the inherent injustice of this enslavement is painfully multiplied.

Isabel’s struggle for freedom is mirrored by the book’s wartime setting. In the Revolutionary War, Loyalists to the crown fought in opposition to the rebel movement for American independence. Isabel, caught between these two worlds, is unsure which alignment offers her and Ruth the greatest chance at their overdue liberation.

Though her fight for freedom is a constant struggle from the moment it’s denied to her at Miss Mary Finch’s funeral, Isabel’s moment of true clarity comes in chapter 42, when she reads the copy of Thomas Paine's Common Sense covertly given to her by the rebel bookseller: “Way I saw it, Mr. Paine was saying all people were the same, that no one deserved a crown or was born to be higher than another. That’s why America could make its own freedom . . . If an entire nation could seek freedom, why not a girl?”

Growth and Coming of Age

Throughout Chains, plants can be seen as an analog to Isabel’s own growth and maturity.

When Isabel and Ruth are sold by the Locktons, Isabel realizes there’s only one souvenir small enough to covertly fit in her pocket: a handful of Momma’s seeds. When she arrives at the Lockton home, Isabel notes that the Locktons aren’t especially adept gardeners, and this foreshadows the inhospitable environment she and Ruth find there. After planting the seeds she smuggled, Isabel notes how well they grow, though she does not know what they will become.

In chapter 43, Isabel catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror and is similarly surprised by the way the woman looking back at her has matured. Her journey has brought her a mark of adulthood that mirrors the ceremonial marks her father received in Guinea as a young man:

In truth, it seemed I was looking at a stranger who lived beyond the glass. My face was thinner than I remembered and longer from brow to chin. My nose and mouth recollected Momma’s, but the set of the eyes, those came from Poppa. As I stared, their two faces came forth and drifted back, until I could see only me. I turned my head to the side a bit and studied the brand on my face; for the first time, studied it hard: the capital I that proclaimed my insolent manners and crimes . . . The scars on Poppa’s cheek had been three lines across his cheek, carved with a sharp blade. He was proud of his marks. In the country of his ancestors, they made him into a man. I traced the I with my fingertip. This is my country mark. I did not ask for it, but I would carry it as Poppa carried his. It made me his daughter.

In this same scene, Isabel forges herself a fraudulent pass in case she’s stopped while out after dark. When pressed to write her last name, she pauses—she’s not a Finch, nor is she a Lockton. Instead, she recalls the sense of growth and life on the farm she still considers home and chooses something new: Isabel Gardener, her “true name.”

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