Gathering Blue

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Self-Interest versus Compassion Theme Analysis

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The people of the town in which Kira lives are marked by their anger, greed, and profound self-interest. Healthy villagers dispassionately drag the sick, dying, and deformed to die in the Field of the Living—it doesn’t matter if the sick are the villagers’ own family or friends. The villagers do this because resources are so scarce in the town that they are afraid that it costs too much time and food to nurse the sick back to health. The implication is that the villagers’ behavior is a product of their environment: they can’t afford to have feelings for the sick, because caring for them would cause other people to go hungry.

This idea that behavior is a product of one’s environment is supported also by characters that do act compassionately. Kira freely admits that she’s kind and nurturing because she was born with a lame leg—if she’d been born healthy, she’d be no kinder than the other villagers. Even the village of “the wounded” that Matt discovers later in the book as he searches for a plant that can aid Kira in producing a blue dye is compassionate because it has to be: compassion and generosity are qualities that help the disabled people who live there survive.

And yet as the novel continues, particularly after Kira’s father, Christopher, returns to the town and reveals the secrets of the Council of Guardians and Jamison’s selfish actions in particular, it becomes clear that the behavior of the townspeople is actually by design. The Council of Guardians has designed its story of history, with its cyclical rise and falls and lack of any real change of progress, precisely to create in the townspeople the sense that it makes no sense to act in any way other than selfishly. Such selfishness ensures the continued power of the Council, as it eliminates the possibility of the townspeople ever working together to try to create something better than they have.

Similarly, a few characters in the novel show signs of innate compassion without any practical, environmental motives. Matt frees his dog, Branch, from underneath a cart, and nurses it back to health, and Kira’s mother, Katrina, saves Kira from infanticide when Kira is a baby. Taken together, these examples suggest some people—and maybe all people—have the innate desire to love and care for others. The idea that people can be taught to access their innate feelings of compassion is a key part of Kira’s decision to stay behind at the end of the novel. Kira wants to undermine the Council of Guardians by teaching her village “blue,” which has been a symbol of love and compassion throughout the novel. Thus, Kira will use her skills as a weaver to weave blue threads into the robe and, it’s suggested, teach the villagers to act out of love and compassion.

Gathering Blue ends on a note of cautious optimism. It will be difficult for Kira to educate the stubborn, selfish village in compassionate behavior, but her experiences in the novel have convinced her that it’s possible to do so, and therefore worth trying.

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Self-Interest versus Compassion ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Self-Interest versus Compassion appears in each chapter of Gathering Blue. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Self-Interest versus Compassion Quotes in Gathering Blue

Below you will find the important quotes in Gathering Blue related to the theme of Self-Interest versus Compassion .
Chapter 1 Quotes

She felt a small shudder of fear. Fear was always a part of life for the people. Because of fear, they made shelter and found food and grew things. For the same reason, weapons were stored, waiting. There was fear of cold, of sickness and hunger. There was fear of beasts. And fear propelled her now as she stood, leaning on her stick. She looked down a last time at the lifeless body that had once contained her mother, and considered where to go.

Related Characters: Kira
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

As the quotation makes very clear, Kira lives in a society where the dominant emotion is fear. In the village where Kira has spent her entire life, the weak are dispassionately dragged to a field to die, and the dead aren't given a burial of any kind. In general, "survival of the fittest" seems to be the only rule. There's no mention of cooperation or collaboration between people--everyone seems to be looking out for him or herself, and no one else.

Although Kira seems to dislike the constant fear of her society, she has no choice but to be afraid herself. Kira is crippled (the passage mentions her "stick"), which means that she's in danger of being regarded as weak and useless. Even more keenly than other people in her village, then, Kira feels afraid of being left to die.

This horrifying rite—of watching her mother's body decay—is also an important step towards Kira growing up. As in many of Lowry's works, Kira as protagonist must suffer a lot of pain, but also be transformed by pain to become a mature young heroine.


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"Of course not. Your strong hands and wise head make up for the crippled leg. You are a sturdy and reliable helper in the weaving shed; all the women who work there say so. And one bent leg is of no importance when measured against your cleverness. The stories you tell to the tykes, the pictures you create with words — and with thread! The threading you do! It is unlike any threading the people have ever seen. Far beyond anything I could do!"

Related Characters: Katrina (speaker), Kira
Page Number: 6-7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this flashback, Kira remembers something her mother, Katrina, told her before her untimely death. Katrina, rather than criticize Kira for her physical weakness and crippled leg, praised her daughter for her intelligence and creativity. Most of all, Katrina encouraged Kira to weave thread--an activity for which Kira showed notable aptitude.

Katrina's behavior toward her daughter shows that in spite of the atmosphere of fear and competition in Kira's world, there are good, kind people who are willing to help others instead of fight with them. Katrina's gentle, encouraging treatment of her daughter might seem perfectly natural to readers, but Lowry makes it clear that in Kira's village, it's not the norm at all: even mothers usually don't treat their own children as kindly as Katrina does. The flashback is also important in that it shows us where Kira gets her aptitude for weaving--a talent that, in the harsh, competitive village, might appear "useless."

Chapter 2 Quotes

Nodding in agreement, the women turned their backs on Kira and moved away, scolding and kicking at the small tykes by their sides. The sun was low in the sky now. They would attend to their evening tasks, preparing for the return of the village men, who would need food and fire and the wrapping of wounds. One woman was soon to give birth; perhaps that would happen tonight, and the others would attend her, muffling her cries and assessing the value of the infant. Others would be coupling tonight, creating new people, new hunters for the future of the village as the old ones died of wounds and illness and age.

Related Characters: Kira
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lowry describes how the village works--in other words, how a community of harsh, ruthless people could possibly survive for more than one generation.

Many of the activities described in this quotation are brutal and callous. The women help each other give birth, but there's no sign that they show any love or affection for newborns--on the contrary, their job is to dispassionately "assess" babies. And although the people of the community have sex, there seems to be little to no romance between them--the purpose of sex is to breed children, nothing else.

Yet as Lowry makes clear, the people of the village aren't entirely self-interested. Although the majority of the characters we've met so far seem selfish and small-minded, the people of the village recognize that it's important to work together for the good of their community as a whole. They dress the wounds of the hunters, so that everyone can have food to eat. Notably, it appears to be women who are most concerned with taking care of other people--even if they seem harsh, they're still gentler than their male counterparts.

Kira had always had a clever way with her hands. When she was still a tyke, her mother had taught her to use a needle, to pull it through woven fabric and create a pattern with colored threads. But suddenly, recently, the skill had become more than simple cleverness. In one astounding burst of creativity, her ability had gone far beyond her mother's teaching. Nov/, without instruction or practice, without hesitancy, her fingers felt the way to twist and weave and stitch the special threads together to create designs rich and explosive with color. She did not understand how the knowledge had come to her. But it was there, in her fingertips, and now they trembled slightly with eagerness to start. If only she was allowed to stay.

Related Characters: Kira, Katrina
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Lowry vividly describes the nature of Kira's creativity. Kira is a fantastic weaver: she instinctively knows how to manipulate thread to make beautiful, elaborate patterns. The key word here is "instinctive"--although Lira has had her fair share of training, thanks to Katrina, even she doesn't really know how she does it--her talent for weaving is like a magical power, beyond the limits of human comprehension.

It's interesting to note that Kira almost seems more concerned with continuing to weave than with continuing to live in the village at all; put another way, she only cares about her life insofar as she's allowed to continue pursuing her passion of weaving.

Chapter 9 Quotes

The Singer's robe contained only a few tiny spots of ancient blue, faded almost to white. After her supper, after the oil lamps had been lit, Kira examined it carefully. She lay her threads — the ones from her own small collection and the many others that Annabella had given to her — on the large table, knowing she would have to match the hues carefully in daylight before she began the repairs. It was then that she noticed — with relief because she would not know how to repair it; and with disappointment because the color of sky would have been such a beautiful addition to the pattern — that there was no real blue any more, only a hint that there once had been.

Related Characters: Kira, The Singer
Related Symbols: Blue, The Robe, Staff, and Ruin Song
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolic scene, Kira studies the Singer's robe and realizes that it's almost entirely missing the color blue. Traditionally, the color blue has been associated with mercy, love, and intimacy. Thus, for the Singer's robe to be missing blue is a sign of a broader problem in the society that's based around the Ruin Ceremony: it's missing compassion. Based on everything we've seen in the village, Kira's world is cruel, brutish, and competitive; it's rare that one person will help another person out.

The passage also suggests that there was blue in the Singer's robe--in a symbolic sense, one could say that there used to be compassion in the world. From the reader's perspective, most of the behavior that goes on in Kira's world is barbaric, and her society seems dystopian. By craving the color blue (and the emotions that go with it), Kira seems to be yearning for contact with an earlier time, and also for contact with us, the readers.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Ruin. Rebuilding. Ruin again. Regrowth. Kira followed the scenes with her hand as larger and greater cities appeared and larger, greater destruction took place. The cycle was so regular that its pattern took on a clear form: an up-and-down movement, wavelike. From the tiny corner where it began, where the first ruin came, it enlarged upon itself. The fires grew as the villages grew. All of them were still tiny, created from the smallest stitches and combinations of stitches, but she could see their pattern of growth and how each time the ruin was worse and the rebuilding more difficult.
But the sections of serenity were exquisite. Miniature flowers of countless hues flourished in meadows streaked with golden-threaded sunlight. Human figures embraced. The pattern of the peaceful times felt immensely tranquil compared to the tortured chaos of the others.
Tracing with her finger the white and pink-tinged clouds against pale skies of gray or green, Kira wished again for blue. The color of calm.

Related Characters: Kira
Related Symbols: The Robe, Staff, and Ruin Song
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kira studies the Singer's Robe and grasps the vast story of history that it's designed to tell. The Robe is covered with cyclical patterns, in which a civilization arises, grows, and then is consumed with fire. If there is an overall arc to history, it's that life is getting harder and harder--rebuilding gets more difficult with every ruin.

Although Kira doesn't fully grasp the implications of the Robe's version of history, she already disagrees with it. Where the designers of the Robe in years past have painted history as a story of death and destruction, Kira--a naturally compassionate person--sees history differently. She focuses on the happy moments in the lifespan of a civilization--the points when communities took care of one another instead of competing or fighting. One could say that the Robe was designed to inspire Kira's village's attitude toward life: the village thinks that life is a constant process of fighting and avoiding danger, so it makes sense that the Robe, which teaches the people of the village, would see history in identical terms. Kira, by contrast, sees life as an opportunity for cooperation and even love--thus, she disagrees with the story the Robe is telling.

Chapter 17 Quotes

"Why must there be such a horrible place?" Kira whispered to Thomas. "Why do people have to live like this?" "It's how it is," he replied, frowning. "It's always been."
A sudden vision slid into Kira's mind. The robe. The robe told how it had always been; and what Thomas had said was not true. There had been times — oh, such long ago times — when people's lives had been golden and green. Why could there not be such times again? She began to say it to him.
"Thomas," she suggested, "you and I? We're the ones who will fill in the blank places. Maybe we can make it different."

Related Characters: Kira (speaker), Thomas the Carver, The Singer
Page Number: 177-178
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Kira talks with Thomas about the Fen—a place that seems similar, but even worse than Kira's home village. Kira is well-aware of the horrors of life in her village: infants are murdered, children are beaten, the sick are left to die, etc. She asks Thomas why these things continue to happen, and Thomas offers the conventional wisdom: "that's just the way it is."

In effect, Thomas is saying that the force of routine (and, in a broader sense, tradition and history) keeps the villagers (and the people of the Fen) passive and complacent. They have no model for how life could be, other than the way it is now; thus, they continue hurting one another, unsure of any other kind of culture. Kira, on the other hand, thinks that she can use her artistry to make the village and Fen a better place: by exposing the people to happiness, peace, and cooperation, she can prove that life need not be harsh and cruel--in short, that constant pain is not necessarily "the way it is."

Chapter 20 Quotes

"Them be all broken, them people. But there be plenty of food. And it's quiet-like, and nice."
"What do you mean, broken?"
He gestured toward her twisted leg. "Like you. Some don't walk good. Some be broken in other ways. Not all. But lots. Do you think it makes them quiet and nice, to be broken?"
Puzzled by his description, Kira didn't answer. Pain makes you strong, her mother had told her. She had not said quiet, or nice.
"Anyways," Matt went on, "them got blue, for certain sure."

Related Characters: Matt (speaker), Kira
Related Symbols: Blue
Page Number: 210-211
Explanation and Analysis:

Kira reunites with Matt, who's been traveling to a far-away community. Matt describes the community he's just visited: it's peaceful, kind, and "nice." Furthermore, everyone in the community is wounded or disabled in some way: people have broken legs, are blind, etc.

In a way, Matt's report reiterates everything we already knew about pain and kindness, based on Kira's behavior. Kira has spent her life without full control of her legs. Largely as a result, she's grown into a kind, gentle person who doesn't bully others for their weaknesses. So although Kira finds the link between pain and compassion a little surprising, we don't--it's no coincidence that Kira is both the most compassionate character in the novel and the only disabled one. Lowry reinforces the connection between compassion, pain, and Kira in this passage by then alluding to the color blue--both Kira's favorite color and an important symbol of compassion. Blue is missing from the village, the Guardians, and the Singer's robe, just as compassion is—but according to Matt, blue is plentiful among this community of the disabled.

Chapter 21 Quotes

"Kira," he said, but he did not need to tell her now, because she knew, "my name is Christopher. I'm your father."
In shock, she stared at him. She watched his ruined eyes, and saw that they were able, still, to weep.

Related Characters: Kira, Christopher
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Kira reunites with her father, Christopher, whom she can barely remember. Christopher (who was driven out of the village by his rival, Jamison) has spent the last decade living in the community of invalids--a place where compassion is celebrated instead of condemned.

The scene is interesting because there's no way for Kira to know, to a certainty, that the blind man standing before her is her father. And yet Lowry makes it clear that Kira and Christopher are related: she shows that they're kindred spirits, linked by their disability and their compassion. The fact that Christopher's eyes, though ruined, are able to weep suggests that he's a gentle, compassionate person in spite of (or because of) his physical weakness--just as Kira is a more gentle, compassionate person because of her lame leg.

Chapter 22 Quotes

“We have gardens. Houses. Families. But it is much quieter than this village. There is no arguing. People share what they have, and help each other. Babies rarely cry. Children are cherished."
Kira looked at the stone pendant that rested against his blue shirt. She touched her own matching one.
"Do you have a family there?" she asked hesitantly.
"The whole village is like a family to me, Kira," he replied.

Related Characters: Kira (speaker), Christopher (speaker)
Related Symbols: Blue
Page Number: 228-229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Kira reunites with her father, Christopher. Christopher has spent many years living in a faraway community that--it's pretty clear--is altogether unlike Kira's. While Kira's community is barbaric and cruel, Christopher's is compassionate, and everyone looks out for everyone else. Christopher describes how babies are cherished instead of neglected and tortured (as they are in Kira's village). One could say that Christopher's new community believes in the principle of compassion--everyone should love and help each other--while Kira's community believes in the principle of "survival of the fittest."

The presence of the color blue in this scene is another important sign of Christopher's compassion. Just as the color blue (symbolically, the emotion of compassion) is almost entirely missing in Kira's community, it's overflowing in Christopher's new home.