Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray

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Women and Mothers Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Morality, Integrity, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
Strength and Identity Theme Icon
The Power of Art Theme Icon
Genocide Theme Icon
Women and Mothers Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Between Shades of Gray, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women and Mothers Theme Icon

Though Lina’s description of her life in Lithuania depicts traditional gender roles for men and women, such roles are often broken down in the camps. Lina’s mother Elena, for example, becomes a matriarch and protector for their group of deportees. Though a homemaker back in Lithuania, she was educated in Moscow as a young woman. This means that she is fluent in Russian as well as Lithuanian, and therefore one of the only deportees who can communicate with the guards. Elena’s strength and willingness to stand up to the guards render her an important figure in the community of deportees. Though there are men on their journey and in the camps, all look to Elena for strength and comfort in their difficult times.

In the absence of able-bodied men, women in the labor camp generally become the providers of food and resources for the deportees. Mothers’ devotion to their children in the novel is portrayed as almost absolute, as Lina’s mother gives up her own food (and life) to protect those around her, and Andrius’ mother Mrs. Arvydas does anything and everything to try and protect him: first making sure that the NKVD believed he was mentally disabled (the only way they would allow him to survive because his father had been in the Lithuanian military), and then prostituting herself in exchange for his survival. These mothers are willing not only to protect their own children, but extend their maternal instinct to others as well.

The novel further portrays the power and influence of women and mothers to be universal, able to cut across even the chasm between Soviet camp guards and their prisoners. For example, Nikolai Kretszky, one of the NKVD guards who tortures the Vilkases most often, breaks down at the loss of his mother in front of Lina, who finds herself comforting the hand that beats her. The respect that children have for their mothers is a love that bonds people across enemy lines. The breakdown of traditional gender norms that view men as strong and women as weak is exemplified in Andrius’ admiration and love for Lina. It is Andrius who first tells Lina that she is “Krasivaya,” and challenges her to discover the meaning of the Russian word. Lina finally learns it from Kretszky, who uses it to describe Elena: “Beautiful, but strong.” The women in the labor camp may no longer be conventionally beautiful because of their lack of food and resources, but their fierce will to live and preserve the lives of others makes them both beautiful and strong.

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Women and Mothers Quotes in Between Shades of Gray

Below you will find the important quotes in Between Shades of Gray related to the theme of Women and Mothers.
Chapter 4 Quotes

The truck stopped in front of the hospital. Everyone seemed relieved that they would tend to the bald man’s injuries. But they did not. They were waiting. A woman who was also on the list was giving birth to a baby. As soon as the umbilical cord was cut, they would both be thrown into the truck.

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Mr. Stalas (The Bald Man), Ona
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

After they are arrested, Elena, Jonas, and Lina are thrown into a truck that spends hours rounding up people around Kaunas who are also being arrested by the NKVD. The bald man throws himself from the truck in an attempt to commit suicide, but only succeeds in breaking his leg. In this quote, the passengers on the truck hope that they have arrived at a hospital so that he can receive treatment. Instead, they learn that a woman who is currently in labor and her newborn infant will soon join them.

This quote is the first evidence of the absolute mercilessness of the NKVD. They will not stop at anything to subjugate and imprison people whom they believe to be dissidents towards the state, no matter who or what they are. Ona’s infant child is branded as a thief and a prostitute before it is even born. This shows that their violence is not just brutal, but that it is largely arbitrary, making the deportees feel even more helpless in the clutches of the NKVD. Ona’s infant will become a symbol for children arrested by the NKVD who are not even given a chance at life before they are branded as criminals and left to die on the trains and in the camps.


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Chapter 7 Quotes

Mother continued to speak in Russian and pulled a pocket watch from her coat. I knew that watch. It was her father’s and had his name engraved in the soft gold on the back. The officer snatched the watch, let go of Jonas, and started yelling at the people next to us.

Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Elena Vilkas, Jonas Vilkas
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

After all of those arrested in Kaunas are loaded onto the truck, the NKVD drive the deportees to a train station where they are forced off the truck. The NKVD then begin to separate families, but Elena is desperate to keep herself, Lina, and Jonas together. She begins to pull valuables out of her coat lining, but the NKVD officer doesn’t seem satisfied by her bribes. In this quote, he finally accepts a beautiful pocket watch that belonged to Elena’s father in exchange for Jonas’ life. Here, Lina is horrified that the officer believes her brother’s life is worth a watch, but also relieved that the bribe worked.

As instructed by Stalin, the NKVD treat the Lithuanian deportees as if they are “fascist pigs,” and truly seek to put them in situations not even fit for livestock. Elena has clearly foreseen the possibility of an arrest, and sews valuables and money into the lining of her coat so that she may use them as bribes and currency. There is no telling what would happen to a young boy separated from his mother and at the mercy of the NKVD. Lina feels conflicted over the fact that Elena gave a watch in exchange for Jonas—she is happy that it worked, but would like to believe her brother is worth so much more. In the NKVD camps, the guards attempt to break down the deportees so that they believe their lives are worthless.

Chapter 27 Quotes

“Hey, there was blond hair under all that dirt,” said Andrius, reaching out and grabbing a strand of my hair. I shrank back and looked away. Mother put her arm around me.

Related Characters: Andrius Arvydas (speaker), Lina Vilkas
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

After they are hauled off of the trucks and fail to be sold to Siberians, the group of deportees is brought to bathhouses where they wash for the first time in weeks. The women are forced to undress in front of the NKVD guards, who leer at them. One guard gropes Lina’s breast, and Elena violently pushes him away. In this quote, Andrius playfully compliments Lina’s appearance now that she has been cleaned, but she flinches from his touch instinctively, since the last man who reached out to touch her did so without consent.

Sexual assault and rape are often used against women in times of war. As a young girl, Lina is particularly vulnerable, and Elena will do anything to protect her daughter from the violence of the guards. Even though Lina finds Andrius kind and attractive, sexual assault can cause PTSD in victims, and Lina flinches from his touch despite the fact that she knows and feels safe with him. Lina doesn’t tell Jonas what happened because she doesn’t want to upset him, and because she is still not sure how to process the assault. Elena knows right away why Lina flinches, however, and she is there to comfort her and silently tell her that she has support.

Chapter 33 Quotes

We began to laugh. It was such a ridiculous sight, grabbing our knees in a circle. We actually laughed.... “Our sense of humor,” said Mother, her eyes pooled with laughing tears. “They can’t take that away from us, right?”

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Elena Vilkas (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

At the labor camps, the guards put the women to work digging a pit. They don’t give them proper shovels—many of them are missing handles—and it is very difficult to dig in the frozen ground. They are given occasional water breaks, but no food beyond their daily bread ration. It is hard, back-breaking labor. During their water break, the women go relieve themselves in the woods by squatting in a circle. One woman asks Elena to “pass the talcum powder,” causing the women to burst into laughter. In this quote, Elena points out the NKVD can’t take away their sense of humor at least.

The deportees cling to the little joys in life that humans derive from one another—kindness, stories, and jokes—since these are intangible things that even Stalin cannot institute into collective labor camps. Despite the sadness of their journey, the women become friends with each other, and are able to share a laugh in even the bleakest of situations. Lina’s story of the genocide of the Baltic people therefore shows both the most beautiful side of humanity—the deportees’ kindness and generosity—and the ugliest side of humanity—the NKVD’s merciless torture.

Chapter 39 Quotes

“Because they threatened to kill me unless she slept with them. And if they get tired of her, they still might kill me. So how would you feel, Lina, if your mother felt she had to prostitute herself to save your life?

Related Characters: Andrius Arvydas (speaker), Lina Vilkas, Mrs. Arvydas
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, Lina sees Mrs. Arvydas serving drinks to the NKVD through the window of the barracks. She realizes that Andrius and Mrs. Arvydas are working for the NKVD. She confronts Andrius about it and, in this quote, he flies into a rage and tells her the truth: the NKVD threatened to kill Andrius if Mrs. Arvydas didn’t agree to sleep with them. Here Andrius reveals that his life is still in danger should the NVKD ever change their minds.

Though Lina and Elena have fortunately not been raped by the guards, Lina was groped by the guard at the bathhouse, and Elena was once accosted by many guards and saved at the very last moment by Kretszky. Like Elena, Mrs. Arvydas would do anything to protect her children, and she is willing to prostitute herself if it means saving Andrius’ life. However, they all know of the arbitrary nature of the NKVD’s decisions—one day, they might decide they don’t want to keep up their end of the bargain anymore, and kill them both. Though Andrius and Mrs. Arvydas live lives that are relatively more comfortable compared to the other deportees, no one would want to trade places with them. Lina is horrified at this revelation, and disgusted with herself for jumping to conclusions.

Chapter 57 Quotes

I hated that Mother shared with Ulyushka. She had tried to throw Jonas out into the snow when he was sick. She didn’t think twice about stealing from us. She never shared her food. She ate egg after egg, right in front of us. Yet Mother insisted on sharing with her.

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Elena Vilkas, Jonas Vilkas, Ulyushka
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

After Lina completes the portrait for the commander, she goes to the kitchen of the NKVD barracks to get the bread and potatoes she is owed. Instead of the officers just handing it to her, they instead throw food, cans, and garbage out onto Lina and Jonas. A can hits Lina on the head and causes a gash. Lina and Jonas bring the food back to Elena as fast as they can, before they are accused of stealing it. In this quote, Elena forces them to share with Ulyushka, despite how much Lina hates her.

Elena consistently teaches Lina and Jonas that it is important to be kind to everyone, no matter how rude they are to her. She operates under the assumption that everyone needs and deserves a helping hand, and Elena recognizes that Ulyushka, too, is suffering hardships under Stalin and the NKVD. Having been ousted from her own home, she imagines it must be difficult to be forced to share her home with complete strangers. Even though Elena does not expect anything in return from Ulyushka, the woman does ultimately repay Elena’s kindness by giving her lots of food and a thick animal hide when the family is relocated.

Chapter 62 Quotes

“Look at me,” whispered Andrius, moving close. “I’ll see you,” he said. “Just think about that. Just think about me bringing you your drawings. Picture it, because I’ll be there.”

Related Characters: Andrius Arvydas (speaker), Lina Vilkas
Related Symbols: Drawing
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

One day Andrius comes into Lina’s shack, warning her, Jonas, and Elena that they are on an NKVD list to be relocated. Andrius and his mother, however, are not. Lina and her family do not know where they are being sent or why they are on this list, but they assume it is because they have not signed the documents. Wherever they are going, it is unlikely to be any better than the labor camp. The NKVD come in the morning, while it is still dark, and call names. In this quote, Andrius says goodbye to Lina, and promises her he will keep her drawings safe. He also promises her that they will see each other again some day.

The romance between Lina and Andrius is proof that despite the NKVD’s best efforts, they cannot remove the humanity and the spirit of the deportees. Even though they treat them like animals, they are real human beings whose true love and sacrifice come to light in the worst of conditions. Lina and Andrius fall in love not despite, but perhaps because of the horrors they face together. As Lina goes off into the great unknown, Andrius puts his own life in danger by harboring her drawings, which contain potentially dangerous and subversive images. The idea of seeing Andrius again is something that gets Lina through the worst of times, and the thought of Lina likely helps Andrius through many hardships as well. One of the small miracles of the novel is that, in the end, they do reunite, and get married.

Chapter 66 Quotes

Mother grabbed my arm. Pain shot up into my shoulder. She spoke through clenched teeth. “We don’t know. Do you hear me? We don’t know what he is. He’s a boy. He’s just a boy.” Mother let go of my arm. “And I’m not lying with him,” she spat at Jonas. “How dare you imply such a thing.”

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Elena Vilkas (speaker), Jonas Vilkas, Nikolai Kretszky
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

While traveling to their new location, Lina and Jonas notice Elena speaking often to Kretszky, and that she refers to him as “Nikolai.” Jonas becomes angry, as he fears that Elena has been subjected to the same fate as Mrs. Arvydas, and that she must prostitute herself to save their lives. Lina hates Kretszky, and is angry that her mother, always kind, would even have compassion for him. In this quote, Elena is shocked and angry at her children’s accusations. She asserts that Kretszky is “just a boy,” and that she would never, ever sleep with him.

Much of Elena’s strength has come from her love of Kostas, and her desire to be with him again, to make her family whole. She is a very kind but extremely principled woman, and would never stoop to do something she felt compromised her morals. Yet her children also know she would do anything to save them. Later on, Elena explains to Lina that Kretszky saved her when she was nearly raped by a number of NKVD officers. Even though Kretszky has power over the deportees, as Elena points out, he’s just a confused young man who has been swept up into the brute force of the Soviet Union’s secret police. Elena is right to maintain a bond, however tenuous, with one of her prison guards, and she is shocked and angry when her children suggest that her intentions are anything but pure.

Chapter 69 Quotes

“I can’t do this! I won’t die here. I will not let a fox eat us!” Suddenly the woman grabbed Janina by the throat. A thick gurgle came from Janina’s windpipe.
Mother threw herself on Janina’s mother and pried her fingers from her daughter’s neck. Janina caught her breath and began to sob.

Related Characters: Lina Vilkas (speaker), Elena Vilkas, Janina
Page Number: 274
Explanation and Analysis:

When the deportees are told to leave the barge, they find themselves in an even more barren tundra than the one they had been in in the labor camp. They are in the Artic Circle, almost in the North Pole. Unlike the shacks they were previously made to share with the Altaians, here there is no such infrastructure, and the NKVD basically make them fend for themselves in the wild while they build buildings of comparative luxury for the officers. In her desperation over the bleakness of these conditions, Janina’s mother goes mad with fear and tries to take her and Janina’s death into her own hands.

Though a mother’s attempt to kill her daughter may seem like one of the cruelest acts thus far, in context it pales in comparison to the horrors committed by the NKVD every day since the deportees’ arrest. In her manic state, Janina’s mother wants to take control of her and her daughters’ fate by taking it away from the NKVD and into her own hands. She doesn’t want herself and Janina to fall victim to the freezing cold temperatures, rampant diseases, or cruel whims of the NKVD officers. Yet Elena, determined to protect every one of the deportees, luckily wrestles Janina’s mother off of her daughter in time to save them both. She is determined that no one fall victim to the NKVD until it is absolutely too late to save them. Still, her promise that “everything will be fine” falls on somewhat deaf ears in this new, barren tundra.

Chapter 82 Quotes

“No, I saw it. She was pretty. Krasivaya.”
No. Not that word. I was supposed to learn it on my own. Not from Kretszky.
“It means beautiful, but with strength,” he slurred. “Unique.”

Related Characters: Nikolai Kretszky (speaker), Lina Vilkas, Elena Vilkas, Andrius Arvydas
Page Number: 324
Explanation and Analysis:

After Elena dies, Lina is the sole provider for herself and Jonas. One day, she sneaks behind the NKVD barracks to try and steal some firewood—but Kretszky is there, and he is drunk. Though Lina is afraid he is going to report her for stealing the wood, he reveals that he is sad about the loss of Elena, and he tells Lina about the death of his own mother when he was young. In this quote, he tells Lina that he thought Elena was special—“krasivaya.” This is the same word that Andrius tells Lina he believes applies to her, but that he wants her to find the translation for herself. Lina, who hates Kreszky with a passion, is horrified that she finds out what the word means from him.

In the novel, the traditional patriarchal gender roles are flipped when the men are separated from the women, children, and infirm, and the women are allowed to show their true strength and resilience. This kind of strength is suppressed in domestic life, where women are generally expected to carry out certain duties and keep their opinions to themselves. Indeed, Kostas’ protective view that Lina should not have opinions about the Soviet Union is a part of this suppression, however good his intentions are. Ironically, in the prisons of the NKVD in the Siberian tundra, Lina and Elena are allowed to let their true strength and inner beauty flourish without internal patriarchal suppression. Even Kretszky, an NKVD officer who has meted out his own fair share of torture, sees that both women have an astounding inner strength that helped them to survive. Though Elena has passed, Lina carries on her strength and grace—her krasivaya.