‘Between Shades of Gray’ Theme of Hope and Survival in Ruta Sepetys
This essay will analyze the themes of hope and survival in Ruta Sepetys’ “Between Shades of Gray.” It will discuss how the novel portrays the resilience of the human spirit in the face of hardship during the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. PapersOwl showcases more free essays that are examples of Hope.
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The Influence of Art in Trying Times
“An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success.” Whether it’s in the form of literature, theatre, or painting, art can not only connect people but bring them joy and hope in the toughest of times. The Soviet Occupation in Lithuania devastated the people, but art provided an escape from both mental and physical imprisonment. Between Shades of Gray, written by Ruta Sepetys, delves into the world of Lina, a 15-year-old girl from Lithuania, and her family’s deportation across the Baltic Region.
Although her experiences are awful, art brings Lina a sense of comfort and a sense of home, which is otherwise stolen by the Soviets. Lina begins a battle within herself about making the right choices for survival. Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter and Lina’s idol drew as he saw and felt, which inspired Lina to do the same. This outlet granted her a freedom that the Soviets could not take. The importance of Lina’s favorite artist, Edvard Munch, creates an insightful connection to her painful journey through the Soviet Occupation in Lithuania.
Between Shades of Gray Theme: The Unspoken Atrocities
The World War II era inspires thoughts about Adolf Hitler and The Holocaust, but not many think about, or often were never taught, the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union. Although the United States was allied with Russia, the horrors that occurred within the country were not heavily discussed. Many people are unaware that Josef Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, had a kill count of more than ten million civilians, which is much higher than Hitler’s at about nine million civilians (Halloran). Both Stalin and Hitler were responsible for these casualties due to their use of propaganda, which inspired people to murder each other. As well as forming armies of soldiers that were specialized to kill off civilians who did not fit their “status quo.” Sepetys depicts the horrors of the Soviet Union through the story of Lina, who experienced the Occupation from beginning to end, from captivity to freedom, from hope to loss. Her story mirrors other Lithuanians whose stories have not been told and might not ever be told. In Lithuanian schools, textbooks “offer only fleeting mentions of the Litvaks.”
Litvaks are Jewish Lithuanians. During World War II, the Litvaks and regular Lithuanians were evacuated, sent to labor camps, and, in many cases, died because the Soviets were trying to “bring about a Socialist revolution in Germany.” In order to achieve their goals, they crossed through the eastern European countries, including Lithuania. Between Shades of Gray develops a perspective of the war through Lina’s eyes and how she and her family kept pushing through the Soviet Occupation. Lina’s art kept her going, giving her a reason to continue and try to ground herself in the hardest times. Within the novel, the painter Edvard Munch is mentioned through her flashbacks. Although the connection seems of less importance, the relationship between the two creates a different look at what Lithuanians and other eastern Europeans dealt with during World War II.
Lina’s Inspiration: Edvard Munch and His Legacy
Edvard Munch is a Norwegian artist whose paintings are roughly based on tragedies, death, love, and life. His art is a reflection of his life, which was filled with hardship and misfortune. For many, art is an outlet to express emotion. Edvard Munch used art to depict his overwhelming feelings of darkness and had a quite sinister approach to his paintings. In the labor camp, Lina flashes back to the first time that she saw his paintings in a museum. Fascinated, she thought that his works were wrenched and distorted, as if “painted through neurosis.” For Lina, art is her escape from imprisonment. She adored Edvard Munch, and he was the inspiration she needed to continue expressing her passion through her drawings. As she sketched her depictions of the Baltic Deportation, she “thought of [Munch’s] theory that pain, love, and despair were links in an endless chain.” Lina wanted to express the darkness she saw through her art, and on many occasions, she had to refrain from drawing her reality. The relevance of Munch’s art is imperative to the understanding of the novel and Lina as a character. Lina has become who she is because of the inspiration Munch has given her to continue fighting. Art linked Lina to her lost father, for she hoped the drawings she left would eventually reach him. The love Lina has for her father goes hand in hand with the pain and despair she suffered when they were apart. Lina not only gained encouragement from Edvard Munch, but the memory of her father also gave her the willpower to pick up her pencil. Ruta Sepetys’ conscious decision to make Lina an artist and the inclusion of Edvard Munch in Between Shades of Gray has a profound impact on the novel.
The unimaginable mental pain Edvard Munch experienced from the deaths of his mother and sister influenced his depressed state of mind. The abuse he experienced at the hands of his father also contributed to his misery. Individuals cope with pain in different ways, and in Munch’s case, like Lina, he coped using art. Munch felt that without his pain, he would not have succeeded. He had a different view of everything he saw and didn’t see things using his eyes; he “came to treat the visible as though it were a window into a not fully formed, if not fundamentally disturbing, human psychology” (www.theartstory.org). This window was perfectly clear to Munch and revealed more than one perspective to him. The obvious perspective on a seemingly good thing could be perceived as just the opposite through Munch’s ability to use his emotions as his first sense. The world he had known with great hate was rich with hidden feelings of anxiety and pain, which he portrayed in his paintings.
Munch’s art created a platform for people like Lina to express their full emotions better through their works of art. For as long as she could remember, Lina admired Munch’s art for his authenticity. She desperately wanted to express this authenticity through her art when she was asked to draw a portrait of the NKVD commander who was punishing her family. Her brain was bombarded with grueling images of snakes around the commander’s face as the result of the terrible aura surrounding him. She was constantly reminding herself, “There are no snakes. Don’t draw the snakes” (Sepetys 215). Her urge to draw the commander as she saw him was unmissable and the environment around her was suffocating with a heavy sense of fear and pain. She knew that if she were to follow Munch’s words and draw things as she could see through the window, she would receive unimaginable punishments and maybe even death. Through art, Lina is able to express her overpowering desire to portray reality as she sees it.
When Lina Vilkas faced confrontation from the NKVD police, she chose to latch onto her family and friends that she met in the labor camps rather than face the punishments that could possibly be presented to her. The presence and influence of the people that Lina was surrounded with before and during her imprisonment overall shaped the outcome of her life. However, when she was separated from all of the different people that she was surrounded with, there was a distinct theme of detachment that Ruta Sepetys portrayed through Lina’s flashbacks. She and her family were violently removed from Lithuania and carted away to Siberia. Lina, her mother, and her brother try their best to stay together, but they are separated from Lina’s father, Kostas. Kostas is a professor at a local university in Lithuania and is accused of participating in anti-Soviet activity. He is labeled as a criminal and is sent to a prison camp far away from the rest of his family.
Throughout the novel, Lina reminisces about her father, and different memories come to her periodically in the form of a flashback. Her experiences are mirrored through Edvard Munch’s painting Separation, which depicts the visual emotions of withdrawal that a person goes through when they face separation. There is a man in the center of the painting who appears very lonely and upset, with his hands highlighted in red and his heart covered in crimson veins (Mendoza-Martinez). Near his feet, burning shrubbery engulfs the pain and misery he is suffering through. Off in the distance, a woman is dressed in white, which symbolizes the person that the man was separated from. She is not there physically but rather there in the man’s memory. Comparatively, Kostas Vilkas is not physically there, but memories of him often come to Lina while she is working in the labor camps. Lina misses Kostas terribly and goes through the feelings of withdrawal that a person faces with separation. The relationship between Munch’s painting, Seperation, and Lina’s separation from her father illustrates the tragedies she experienced during the Baltic deportation.
Lina experiences hardships that are difficult to endure at her young age. From her family being separated to the death surrounding her, she continues to move forward. Her art was used to fill the hole in her life that was missing since she was no longer an average teenager. Munch was an inspiration to her, with his paintings of sadness and tragedies. His paintings show the realities of life. Edvard Munch has paintings of different styles, all with different meanings; whether it’s tragic or emotional, it always tells a story. The Sick Child, painted in 1885, is a painting created while his sister, Johanne Sophie, was dying. Munch’s sister was diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 15. The painting shows Johanne in bed while their aunt cannot bear to look at her sick niece (edvardmunch.org). The death of his sister really affected Munch, and he used painting to avoid reality and to “record both his feelings of despair and guilt that he had been the one to survive and to confront his feelings of loss for his late sister.” Throughout Between Shades of Gray, the children in the novel experience loss all around them, whether that is a parent, friend, or even themselves.
Just like Munch, Lina, too, questions why she is a survivor and why she should carry on. Her thoughts get the better of her when she thinks to herself, “Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived?” Lina uses art, similar to Munch, as her escape from the tragedies that surround her and to distract her from the awful thoughts that are filling her head. When the family is deep in the North Pole, Lina’s younger brother Jonas is struck with scurvy that could have possibly taken over his body. During this time in the labor camps, Lina had to witness her younger brother’s body deplete over time. Not only fearing for her life, Lina is now worrying about her family more than ever before. Her ability to keep drawing and documenting while the horrors of the Soviet Occupation are building up around her shows just how strong and full of hope she is trying to be. Her art creates a method for her to attempt to find her father, who was also taken away. This connection provides Lina with a sense of ambition to keep going. As the story continues, Lina finds a way to reach him, drawing and hiding secret messages on paper, handkerchiefs, and anything else she can find. Lina imagined “the hankie traveling hand to hand until it reached Papa.” Lina continues to do what she loves in the hardest times that she will ever endure: to express emotion and reach her father. Her motivation to continue throughout the hardships of the war is one that is unmatchable to any other character.
The Power of Symbolism and Artistic Connections
Lina’s motivation and hope are not always constant along her frightful journey. Sepetys uses a variety of symbols to create an allusion to Munch and foreshadow Lina’s imprisonment. Smoke, which is quite the elusive symbol in Between Shades of Gray, has a subtle significance that symbolizes Lina and her family’s journey. In Munch’s painting, Self Portrait with a Cigarette, there is an older man of about thirty holding a cigarette. The purple, black, and bluish tones suggest a mystery, which is emphasized by the smoke. This reigns true for Lina when she realizes she and her family “…were about to become cigarettes.” The smoke signifies how she is about to become a mystery and how her journey will not be acknowledged until years after it’s over. Her conviction and sentence also began with a hint of smoke, but at the time, little did Lina know what it would represent for her and her family.
One night, Lina enters her dining room only to find her father, his colleagues, and the remnants whispering. She also finds that “A cloud of cigarette smoke hovered over the table, held captive by the closed windows and drapes.” Her father and his friends were discussing Lina’s cousin Joana and her family. They wanted to escape the Soviet Occupation, and the Vilkas family helped them, unbeknownst to Lina. They became prisoners for the sake of their cousins’ freedom. The smoke on the table signifies the secrecy of Joana’s away to Germany and the imprisonment that was to come. In Munch’s painting, the nameless man seems to be looking at the viewer, but in reality, he is merely gazing into himself. Komorov, the NKVD commander in Between Shades of Gray, resembles the man in the painting through their self-absorbed and arrogant natures. The connection between Komorov, Lina, and the painting seamlessly builds the plot to create an understated significance. This work of art by Edvard Munch has helped illustrate the smoke, a symbol hidden by subtlety, and has given an insight into the novel that foreshadows Lina’s story and may have been overlooked otherwise.
Not only did thousands of people disappear into the ashes of this war, but thousands of female prisoners faced challenges that attacked their physical and mental stability. Not only were these women pushed to work in extreme conditions, but they also had to deal with the harassment of the NKVD officers. The main character of the novel, Lina, is physically harassed by an NKVD commander who reaches out and gropes her breast. After this incident, Lina “thought of the guard who touched her and all the things she should have done- slapped him, kicked him, screamed in his face.” Lina felt violated and enraged by the actions of the commander. In Edvard Munch’s painting, Weeping Nude, a young girl appears to be crying into her hands, and her hair is placed over her face. The way her hair is placed suggests that she feels ashamed, and the fact that she is nude reveals that she is vulnerable in this situation. Lina can be interpreted as this somber girl because when Lina was in her own situation, she expressed similar emotions as the girl in Edvard Munch’s painting.
The insight that Edvard Munch’s paintings give to the novel contributes to Lina’s arduous journey and how the importance of art saved her life. Lina’s story, along with the story of others, needs to be shared to enlighten the ignorant. The Baltic Deportation and Soviet Occupation should never be forgotten, no matter how dreadful. The psychological effects of these events are forever-lasting, but art, in all its forms, continues to be an outlet for the passionate to express their pain. As Henri Matisse once said, “An artist should never be a prisoner…” Although imprisoned, art was Lina’s freedom, Munch her inspiration, and her family was her purpose.
- Halloran, R. (n.d.). Deaths in World War II. MacroHistory and World Report. https://www.fsmitha.com/h2/ch36.htm
- Gerdziunas, K. (2019). Why Lithuanians want to forget the Soviet past. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-lithuanians-want-to-forget-the-soviet-past-117686
- The Art Story Contributors. (n.d.). Edvard Munch Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works. The Art Story. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/munch-edvard/
- Edvard Munch. (n.d.). The Sick Child (1885). Edvard Munch.org. http://www.edvardmunch.org/the-sick-child.jsp
- The National Museum. (n.d.). Edvard Munch: Weeping Nude. Nasjonalmuseet. https://www.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/exhibitions_and_events/exhibitions/national_gallery/edvard_munch/