I for Isobel by Amy Witting: A Brief Synopsis for Year 12 English

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I For Isobel is a narrative text that tell stories which draw us into circumstances, relationships, fortunes and misfortunes of people’s lives and the themes, values and ideas in the story.

Key Knowledge for Writing an Essay on a Narrative Text

To write a High/Excellent essay students need to know:

  1. How structures, features and conventions such as narrative viewpoint, settings, symbols are used by the author to construct meaning and explain how they impact on the reader.
  2. The characters, ideas and themes in the text. How characters change and develop. How the important ideas and themes are presented can be through the behaviour and beliefs of characters. Characters embody values through their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and actions.
  3. Social, historical and cultures values embodied in the test. Analyse how the values are presented that could be through the characters or authorial comment.
  4. Ways in which different interpretations are possible might be through the positive or negative outcomes for the main character.
  5. Analysis and interpretation of the text are closely related but do differ. An analysis of the text looks at key textual features such as plot, narrative voice, characterisation and the role of key sections of the text such as beginnings, crisis points and resolutions. Whereas an interpretation pulls together the different elements of a text to present an explanation of what the text means.

No Viewpoint or Interpretation of a Text is the Ultimate or Right One

In fact interpretations of the text can vary significantly by personal responses in the way readers respond differently. The interpretations and readings can also differ in the literal or surface meaning of a text as well as deeper levels of implied meanings. Many views are possible and may be equally valid. It is a student’s task to support your viewpoint by using compelling evidence from the text and a logical sequence of ideas to create a credible argument. It is important to identify:

  1. What is the narrator really telling you about the world they describe?
  2. Do the characters decide their own fates?
  3. Or are they in a world in which their fates are decided for them?
  4. How you respond to the characters is important because you may lean towards being sympathetic to one and more critical of others. Back up your view identifying the characters using key quotations to focus your interpretation on critical points in the text.
  5. What happens to these characters – are they punished or rewarded in the text?
  6. What is your view of the text’s ideas, themes and values? Do you agree with how the author has presented them?

Interpretation of I for Isobel

In Charlotte Wood’s Introduction to I For Isobel : ‘A Potent Victory’, she describes the text as “… a simple coming of age story, the tale of Isobel Callaghan who must pretend to be nicer, stupider, duller than she is, because the reality of what she is, intellectually gifted, powerfully desiring, is a threat not only to her family but to society itself” (viii).

On the surface, I for Isobel seems to be a simple fictional narrative about a girl growing up in a family and society that show her few kindnesses. Yet, on a much deeper level, I for Isobel is about loneliness, child abuse and the lack of love; it is the story of a girl, who from a young age, is verbally attacked by her mother and mostly ignored by her father. Not surprisingly, this childhood produces an adolescent who has low self-esteem, lacks confidence and is liable to panic attacks.

However, the novel is also a portrait of the artist as a young woman with imagination, intelligence and courage to finally recognise, with joy, her true self and the writer she is to become. The last sentence that Isobel joyfully says “I met someone” (p.181) is a revelation that in fact Isobel has ‘met’ herself attaining a sense of unity and purpose. Isobel’s escape from the forces that shaped her is a victory, a powerful claim for self-hood. It is an irrevocable statement of ‘I’, I for Isobel.

Isobel Callaghan is Protagonist and Narrative Voice

Isobel is the novel’s central character, its protagonist. The novel’s title contains her name and the narrative voice is third person limited perspective meaning that every person, scene and incident is described from Isobel’s point of view. Therefore, as readers learn about the world in which Isobel lives, they also learn about Isobel herself. Sometimes the narrative voice shifts between third person and first person, and between past and present tenses. This technique allows the narrative to shift between the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings, as if permitting the reader to inhabit that character’s consciousness, and a more distanced, detached point of view.

The Opening Chapter 1 “The Birthday Present”

I for Isobel opens with Isobel’s mother, May Callaghan’s words “No birthday presents this year!” (p.3) Every year at the same time May said this, every year Isobel chose not to believe it, but in fact “experience told her that there would be no present” (p.3). While older sister Margaret always received birthday presents, Isobel never does. From the beginning of this narrative it is clear that there is an ongoing pattern of emotional abuse inflicted by May Callaghan on Isobel.

The opening of the narrative is significant because it gives readers a clear path to their own interpretation of I for Isobel (as identified above). What the narrator is telling us about their world, the people in it and their fate is largely determined by the ways in which Isobel tries to satisfy her mother’s expectations, or at least, avoid being punished or scolded. Isobel is repressed, her mother is abusive and she has trouble fitting into school as she is too smart. In effect, Isobel is not acceptable at home or school. Isobel observes the world as warily as an alien trying to pass for a native.

The Opening Chapter tells us about Emotional Abuse and Being a Victim

Throughout her childhood, Isobel is emotionally abused by her mother. The narrative’s unsympathetic portrayal of Mrs Callaghan and its emphasis on the debilitating effects of abuse are integral to the reader’s understanding of Isobel as an alienated artist figure. The narrative charts the writer’s struggle for self-expression against the obstacles placed in her path. Therefore, Isobel’s recognition of herself as a writer is inseparable from her experience of childhood abuse. In fact, one interpretation could be that Mrs Callaghan may represent society’s indifference to the artist or even to art.

May Callaghan’s Cruelty is her Power over Isobel

One fact stands out and that is May Callaghan’s hatred for Isobel is commonplace throughout the novel and it is devastating. It manifests in the most vindictive emotional and psychological abuse of Isobel. Mrs Callaghan insults Isobel at every opportunity, calling her an idiot, a liar and a ‘nasty little beast’ (p.34). May Callaghan’s dismissal and disregard for Isobel is evident in horrible childish competitiveness and the scoring of petty points is so transparent, even nine year old Isobel recognises it.

The unspeakable truth in this narrative is that May Callaghan does not love her child but uses her power over Isobel for cruel purposes. If Isobel refuses to react to her mother’s cruelty, she makes her mother even angrier prompting her to find alternative ways to upset her. However, if she does react, she sets herself up as a victim of her mother’s control. This engenders a form of powerlessness that Isobel must overcome later in her life.

Isobel’s quest for a sense of identity is the story of the novel

How people establish a sense of their own identity both socially and privately are at the centre of the novel’s thematic concerns. Isobel’s quest for identity, including her self-doubts, the obstacles in her path and her eventual sense of purpose and well-being is clearly signposted by the novel’s title. “I” is the first letter of Isobel’s name and it is also the letter/word by which people identify themselves as themselves. Isobel is not so much at ease with the flesh-and-blood people she meets, and least of all with herself, until a lucky encounter and a little detective work reveal her identity and her true situation in life.

The Truth about the Cat Poem and the Cruelty of her Parent’s Deception

In Chapter 5 “I for Isobel”, Isobel revisits the key settings of her childhood, the church, the school and her childhood home in an attempt to discover “… a small authentic piece of her lost self” (p.166). Isobel’s greatest shock is when she meets Mrs Adams, who had been a neighbour of the Callaghan’s. The source of Isobel’s anxiety when meeting Mrs Adams, is a poem Isobel wrote when she was nine, about Mrs Adam’s cat, Smoke, which had been published in the newspaper. Her parents convinced her that Mrs Adams would be furious because her name had been published in the paper. Mr Callaghan’s “…pompous talk about libel and slander” (p.177) was ridiculous but, to Isobel’s childish innocence, seemed terrifying plausible. Her parents’ teasing caused Isobel “… years of misery … years of terror” (p.174). To find the truth that Mrs Adams not only liked the poem but wanted to thank Isobel by giving her a scrapbook strikes Isobel as forcibly as anything in her life. As Isobel struggles with her emotions she cries “Artesian tears, rising from the centre of the earth” (p.177). As Isobel hurried crying along the street she remarked her parents were “Cruel, deceitful bastards” (p.177). Then she roared aloud, “Spiteful tormenting bastards” (p.177).

The Revelation “I am a writer”

Once her tears are released, Isobel gains a new sense of her identity: “I am a writer. I am a writer” she tells herself (p.177). In order to make her new self-belief and identity become real and tangible, Isobel purchases an exercise book from a corner store. For Isobel, reading had been, and continues to be, a means of escaping from the reality of family and social life. Writing, however, involves a retreat from society in order to reflect on and better understand it. The ability to ‘be’ in the world on her own terms leads, in turn, to greater self-acceptance than Isobel has ever known.

Themes, Ideas and Values to consider in I for Isobel

Emotional abuse and being a victim

  • Types of abuse in particular emotional or psychological abuse
  • Isobel’s negative self-image
  • Other victims and the desire to see oneself in others
  • Transformation of victim into writer


  • Isobel’s ‘double’ personality is related to her uncertain sense of identity
  • Embroidery a metaphor for self-images

Truth and lies

  • Realism versus subjectivity – may be due to Isobel’s tenuous grasp on reality
  • Hope and idealism versus experience


  • Knowing the time is to be able to order experiences
  • Isobel has the opposite experience of never being prepared for events or able to anticipate what other people expect of her

The word factory

  • Is a metaphor for how Isobel perceives the words that seem perpetually inside her head, words are both a gift and a burden to her
  • Speech and tone of voice – during times of great emotion, Isobel is virtually speechless
  • The word factory as a loom – the words are spinning inside Isobel’s head for what reason?


  • Words and serious literature becomes a medium between Isobel and the world, enabling her to take a more confident and assured place within in it.

Other Values to Consider in Isobel’s Experiences in the Novel

  1. Love / hate
  2. Rejection / shame
  3. Life / love
  4. Madness / intellect
  5. Isolation / coming in from the cold
  6. Domestic life / artist
  7. Repressed / accepted
  8. Bullied / standing up
  9. Despair / saintly

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