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“I for Isobel suggests that books can be both a source of solace and an excuse for avoiding social realities and responsibilities” Discuss.


The use of literature as a source of solace is strongly portrayed throughout I for Isobel, showing how it can provide comfort, support, relief, and consolation and still be enjoyable. The novel also demonstrates how books can be used as an avoidance technique of both social realities and responsibilities, but more particularly it demonstrates how Isobel shuts out the abusive environment that surrounds her. However, it is this self-seclusion and the psychological abuse during her childhood that causes Isobel to develop problems with relating to other people, and hence after her mother dies she continues to isolate herself in her novels and experiences difficulties with dealing with people.


Isobel learns at a very young age to rely heavily on her novels to provide her with the support, relief and comfort that she needs to continue with her daily tasks due to the overpowering psychological torment that her mother causes her. The novels and Isobel’s passion for reading is what pulled her through her abusive childhood. “Bed was Isobel’s kingdom; it was always a comfort to arrive there at last … (and) slid(e) behind the curtain of the dark into her private world … birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished.” The solace Isobel seeks in novel can also be seen through the way she steals the little book because “there was no doubt about it, the calm she felt flowed into her from the solid little faded book … she put it down panic threatened. She picked it up and was calm” it worked like a “wand” and she used it “book against telephone box” to prevent her from becoming the “phone freak” again. Reading also enables Isobel to relax and feel secure; she doesn’t have to be concerned about what other people are thinking of her or what is the appropriate behavior to use and words to say because books have no expectations of such things and aren’t judging her every move.


Reading also allows Isobel to avoid social realities and responsibilities in some ways, as evident when Isobel secludes herself from her fellow boarders by reading so as to avoid being asked to join them in their nightly ritual game of bridge. Or the times when she hides in an old chair on the back verandah with her head in a novel so she doesn’t have to play with Caroline and Joanne Mansell, or be asked to go swimming with Margaret. But more importantly, apart from the enjoyment Isobel finds in reading, it allows her to escape for a while from the agony of the psychological abuse that she’s forced to faced every day, especially from her mother. It’s a place where she can retreat to, a world without expectations and uncertainties and where “birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished.”


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However, through continually retreating from others in early childhood, as well as the daily exposure to psychological abuse, Isobel doesn’t developed her social skills, like communication and interpretation of others intentions. May Callaghan was the major cause of the emotional abuse, she used it to such an extent that she attempted to deny Isobel of any form of pleasure by punishing and criticising her at every opportunity. At such a young age this had an enormous effect on Isobel’s self-esteem and confidence among others, causing her to seek solace in novels and use them to avoid having conversations or interacting with people. Like the way she feels that she “carried an invisible knife, wounding people without being aware of it” or when Olive tells her “ ‘try not to mind Mr. Richard. He means no harm, you know.’ She must mean, that he meant harm but couldn’t do none.” Such is the extent of negativity embedded within Isobel that she sees the worst of every situation without realising that’s what she’s doing and this heightens her uncertainty of how to behave or the correct thing to say, “two ways to do it and our Isobel would get it wrong.” So while books were a source of solace for Isobel and an excuse for avoiding unfavorable situations, they, along with the emotional abuse she suffered, caused greater problems for her as she hadn’t had the experiences need to develop proper social skills and become comfortable communicating with other people.


While it is very clearly expressed by Witting throughout the novel that books can be a source of solace, to use them as an excuse for avoiding social realities and responsibilities is considerably less defined. But rather, it demonstrates how novels can be used to escape for a brief period of time from the harsh, cruel, complicated or hectic environment that can either surround or overpower one’s life. However, too much solitude during the developing years can have drastic effects on the ability to interact and socialise with others, as shown through Isobel’s inability to relate to others. Towards the end of the novel there is a sense that she may be finally overcoming this problem as she begins to realise her true identity. And perhaps in the future the need to take solace in novels will diminish to a more appropriate amount as she gains confidence with communicating with others and dealing with social realities and responsibilities.





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