Between Shades of Gray Themes

Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray

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Between Shades of Gray Themes

The Power of Love 

The main theme of Between Shades of Gray, and the biggest lesson Lina must learn, is that even in the face of great suffering, brutality, and hate, love is the better choice.  Sepetys is very deliberate in her framing of love as a choice one makes.  It is not just that she wants us to understand that love can conquer hate in many small ways.  It’s that love is hard work and it must be practiced, over and over, as compassion.  In this novel, Elena is the most accomplished practitioner of love and compassion, extending it to two of the most disliked characters, the bald man and Kretzsky.  And both men are changed for the better as a result.

Elena’s love is also practiced as maternal self-sacrifice, as she literally starves herself to death to feed her children.  The lesson that Lina learns from this act of sacrifice is, paradoxically, how much she wants to live.  Through Elena’s ultimate act of compassion, she teaches her children how precious life is, how much it matters to “smell the lily of the valley on the breeze” (314) and “to paint in the fields” (314).

The Moral Good 

While Lina’s mother is the representative of love in the novel, her father is the representative of “stand for what is right” (28).  Kostas appears only once in the present time of the novel, but his appearances in Lina’s flashbacks illustrate his willingness to act morally regardless of the consequences.  Indeed, one of the novel’s clearest messages is that if more people acted for the moral good, without fear of consequence, there would be less suffering for everyone, and regimes like Stalin’s would not become so powerful.  On a smaller scale, if someone like Kretzsky had acted sooner in accordance with his own moral conscience, Elena might not be dead.

Though it is never confirmed, the text hints that the Vilkas’s next-door neighbor, Mrs. Raskunas, may have been the one to turn them in.  She worked at the university with Kostas and she peered out of her window from behind a curtain on the night…

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