The Invention of Wings

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Themes and Colors
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Voice and Silence Theme Icon
Equality and Intersectionality Theme Icon
The Evils of Slavery and the Necessity of Resistance Theme Icon
Belonging and Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Invention of Wings, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Voice and Silence Theme Icon

Kidd explores the power of a person’s voice, and the many ways that people find to speak out in a world that consistently tries to silence them. From the beginning of the novel, one of the horrors of slavery is that nobody speaks of it, using silence as a way to protect white innocence in the face of black suffering. Kidd advises breaking that silence as a way to undermine this oppression, as Sarah learns to express her voice against slavery despite any personal cost to herself. Sarah, though a woman with little power of her own, uses her ability to read and write in order to fight for equality. By teaching Handful to read, Sarah also gives Handful the tools necessary to express her own voice, through letters and written passes that give Handful more freedom though she is a slave. Eventually, Sarah is able to literally speak out against slavery as part of an anti-slavery lecture circuit, though polite society is scandalized by women speaking in public (and Sarah faces another, more personal obstacle in her speech impediment—she has a stutter). Yet every time men try to silence Sarah’s voice, she continues to use writing as a way for her opinions to be heard.

Beyond literacy, Kidd explores other ways that characters can find their voice. Charlotte “writes” her life story into a quilt, witnessing all the pain she has felt as a slave as well as all the joy she has found as a human. This quilt gives Handful strength and inspiration to keep fighting against slavery after her mother is no longer there to encourage Handful with words. Through letters, pamphlets, quilts, and speeches, Kidd’s characters continually let their voices be heard to battle the silence that perpetuates oppression. By using their voices in support of a fairer world for all, Sarah and Handful insist on their own power in a world that would rather they remain silent.

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Voice and Silence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Voice and Silence appears in each Part of The Invention of Wings. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Voice and Silence Quotes in The Invention of Wings

Below you will find the important quotes in The Invention of Wings related to the theme of Voice and Silence.
Part 1 Quotes

…I remembered the oath I’d made to help Hetty become free, a promise impossible to fulfill and one that continued to cause me no end of guilt, but it suddenly rang clear in me for the first time: Charlotte said I should help Hetty get free any way I could. Turning, I watched her carry the lantern to my dressing table, light swilling about her feet. When she set it down, I said, “Hetty, shall I teach you to read?”

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), Hetty Handful Grimké, Charlotte Grimké (Mauma)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarah previously promised Handful’s mother, Charlotte, that she would help free Handful someday, even though her first attempt to emancipate Handful failed. Sarah remembers this oath many times as she grows closer to Handful, but is unable to think of anything to help Handful until she opens up her own definition of “freedom.” Sarah still cannot legally or physically free Handful from a life of slavery, yet Sarah can give Handful the necessary tools to free Handful’s mind from slavery-imposed ignorance. Sarah knows that teaching any slave to read is a rebellious act, having already been chastised for teaching the slave children the alphabet at Sunday School. The ability to read (and write) give slaves the opportunity to broaden their world beyond the plantation or house where they work, and also negates the argument that slaves deserve their position because they are not as intelligent as their white masters. Teaching Handful to read is one step closer to helping Handful free herself, just as important an act in the long run as freeing Handful in body alone.


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Part 2 Quotes

Night after night, I endured these grand affairs alone, revolted by what objets d’art we were and contemptuous of how hollow society had turned out to be, and yet inexplicably, I was filled with a yearning to be one of them.
The slaves moved among us... without being seen, and I thought how odd it was that no one ever spoke of them, how the word slavery was not suitable in polite company, but referred to as the peculiar institution.

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Sarah comes of age to join society, she is forced to go to dances and balls at the houses of all the elite families of Charleston. Sarah compares the other women to objets d’art, French for art objects, pointing out how no one expects these women to do anything more with their lives than look beautiful. Sarah feels out of place at the party, marked by her ambition to be more than an empty-headed pretty face. Yet critical as Sarah is of the limits on women’s lives, she still has a twisted desire to be one of these effortlessly beautiful women. Sarah can see how much easier her life would be if she were content to find a husband and live out her days as a committed wife and mother.

Sarah is also marked out by her insistence on speaking about the injustices she sees in society. The role of women is one thing that society in Charleston refuses to talk about, but the bigger issue couched in silence is that of slavery. Sarah describes how “polite” society can’t even say the word “slavery,” even though all of their wealth and privilege is due to the slaves that work their land. Calling slavery “the peculiar institution” makes it into a curiosity that all Southerners happen to live with, rather than a monstrous practice that is essentially the foundation of their privilege. The taboo against talking about slavery also gives slavery more power, making it harder to imagine any other way to live in the South. It’s easier for the white planter to ignore the injustice they live with every day when nobody speaks of it. Yet Sarah cannot ignore injustice, and therefore cannot live comfortably in Southern society.

There were ten good-size squares. I spread them out cross the frame. The colors she'd used outdid God and the rainbow. Reds, purples, oranges, pinks, yellows, blacks, and browns. They hit my ears more than my eyes. They sounded like she was laughing and crying in the same breath. It was the finest work ever to come from mauma’s hands.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Charlotte Grimké (Mauma)
Related Symbols: Charlotte’s Quilt and Black Triangles
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

After Handful’s mother disappears, Handful goes against her mother’s wishes and looks at the quilt that Charlotte has been sewing for two years. This quilt is Charlotte’s finest work as a seamstress, not just for the techniques and skill used in the applique, but for the story that the quilt tells. No matter how many wonderful things Charlotte sews for the Grimkés, her finest work will always be this quilt that she sewed for herself. Handful describes the vitality and life that the quilt encompasses, explaining how it involves more senses than just her eyes with the colors that leap off the fabric. Charlotte’s life has been hard, and there are scenes of brutal physical and emotional pain told on those quilt squares. But Charlotte’s indomitable spirit turns that anguish into something beautiful. Though there is intense pain, like Charlotte crying, there is also intense joy, like Charlotte laughing. The quilt is a way for Charlotte to take control of her life, asserting that she has a perspective on these struggles and triumphs that deserves to be told.

Part 3 Quotes

"Forgive you for what, Sarah? For following your conscience? Do you think I don’t abhor slavery as you do? Do you think I don’t know it was greed that kept me from following my conscience as you have? The plantation, the house, our entire way of life depended on the slaves." His face contorted and he clutched at his side a moment before going on. "Or should I forgive you for wanting to give natural expression to your intellect? You were smarter than even Thomas or John, but you’re female, another cruelty I was helpless to change."

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), John Grimké (Father) (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarah goes north with Father in an attempt to improve his health, but Father admits that he never expected to return to Charleston. On his deathbed, Father admits that he always agreed with Sarah’s beliefs about the injustices committed against slaves as well as the injustices against white women, but he felt unable to do anything to help. For Father, these issues were too big for any one person to affect. Father is not strong enough to give up his privileged life in order to fight for what is right. And while Father certainly could not have changed Sarah’s femaleness, he could have decided to support Sarah’s desire to express her intellect anyway. Instead of risking his status, money, or safety in society, Father decided to stay silent his entire life. If Sarah wants to avoid the same fate – and even the same wasting disease that takes her father’s life – she must gather the courage to boldly speak out against the cruelties of racism and sexism in her life.

How does one know the voice is God's? I believed the voice bidding me to go north belonged to him, though perhaps what I really heard that day was my own impulse to freedom. Perhaps it was my own voice. Does it matter?

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarah’s religious fervor and her focus on the beliefs of the Quaker religion eventually lead her to hear a “Voice” telling her to “Go North,” despite the impracticality of doing so as an unmarried woman. Sarah at first wrestles with this pronouncement, uncertain if she should take on the risk and the scandal involved in traveling alone. Yet the more she thinks about it, the more she decides that this is something that she must do no matter the potential consequences. Sarah has spent significant portions of her life searching for a religion that she can belong to, rejecting the Anglican faith of her family because of the Anglican support of slavery, and rejecting the Presbyterian faith for its limits on women. Quakerism’s radical ties to abolition and the possibility of female ministers calls deeply to Sarah. Yet in the end, Kidd asserts that Sarah does not need to find a religion that fits her beliefs—Sarah instead just needs to find the strength to follow her own principles and passions. This voice telling her to go north might be God’s or it might be Sarah’s own subconscious. Either way, Sarah has to follow her heart in order to find a fulfilling life and fight for her principles.

Part 4 Quotes

"The Lord has spoken to me," he cried out. "He said, set my people free. When your name is written in the Book, you’re one of us and you’re one of God’s, and we'll take our freedom when God says, Let not your heart be troubled. Neither let it be afraid. You believe in God, believe also in me…” …My name wasn’t in the book, just the men’s, but I would’ve put it in there if I could. I would’ve written it in blood.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Denmark Vesey (speaker)
Page Number: 224-225
Explanation and Analysis:

As Denmark Vesey’s slave revolt gains more followers, Denmark uses biblical rhetoric to help sway potential converts to their side. He justifies any insecurities that slaves might have about rising up against the “natural order” of black inferiority that is pushed in the Anglican Church. Denmark builds a community of the slaves by having them write their names in a Book, echoing the “Book of Life” that holds the name of all those who are saved in the biblical book of Revelation. The call to action, “You believe in God, believe also in me,” quotes Jesus Christ, comparing Denmark to a savior for this oppressed people. The rebellion and the Book create a place where slaves can come together as people who will receive the same rights as any white person.

Yet while the community of believers promises to free the slaves, it ignores the further oppression of women. Handful is not allowed to sign the book because she is female. Though women like Handful and Denmark’s wife, Susan, contribute just as much to the rebellion efforts – providing food and even stealing arms for the men – their actions are not recognized publically the way the men are. Handful is just as committed to Denmark’s vision of freedom as any of the men are, ready to sign her name in blood or risk her life to obtain a bullet mold. The slave movement is a huge step forward for racial equality, but Kidd does not lose sight of the ways that Denmark’s revolution still needs to address gender equality.

I drew myself up, glaring at their angry faces. “…What would you have the slaves do?” I cried. “… If we don’t free them, they will free themselves by whatever means.”

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker)
Page Number: 253-254
Explanation and Analysis:

When Sarah returns to Charleston, her Quaker clothing makes her the target for many white citizens who are nervous about the rumors of slave revolt. As the Quakers are known for being staunch abolitionists, other white Charlestonians accuse Sarah of helping the slaves rise up against their masters. Sarah, for once, does not stay silent in order to protect her place in the status quo of society. Though she still has her stammer, evidenced by the ellipses in her speech, Sarah fights against her speech impediment to speak up for the slaves’ right to be free. She is not in favor of the potential violence that a slave revolt could bring, but she brings up the important question of what other options the slaves have after years of oppression at the hands of white citizens. Sarah’s questions refuse to let the white citizens act like victims; they created the circumstances that now force the slaves to use “whatever means” to achieve freedom.

Sarah outburst also works towards true racial equality. Sarah specifically points out that the slaves can free themselves, recognizing that black people are not helpless without a white savior to come and free them. True equality means more than freeing the slaves; it means allowing black people to assert themselves in their freedom. Sarah’s belief in equality means that she has to recognize black people’s right to free themselves even when she may be uncomfortable with their methods.

The edict from the judges said we couldn't cry, or say his name, or do anything to mark him, but I took a little piece of red thread from my neck pouch and tied it round one of the twigs on a low, dipping branch to mark the spot. Then I cried my tears and said his name.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Denmark Vesey
Related Symbols: Red Thread
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

After Denmark’s slave revolt is crushed, Charleston officials hang Denmark in a secret location and pass an order that prohibits mourning Denmark in any way. Handful ignores these warnings and follows Denmark’s wagon from his holding cell in the Work House to a field, where she is the only one to witness Denmark’s execution. Though she knows the risks, Handful cannot let Denmark’s grave go unmarked. No matter his “crimes,” Denmark is still a person who deserves to have a memorial for his death. Handful effectively breaks the silence that Charleston officials used to ignore and shame the slaves who wanted to revolt. Handful marks the grave site with red thread, which Kidd has used throughout the novel to symbolize Handful’s spirit and desire for freedom. Handful also deserves the chance to mourn this loss of the dream of freedom. Denmark gave hope to so many slaves that their bondage might end soon, and offered them practical ways to resist their treatment. With Denmark gone, resistance against slavery is a much harder prospect. The red thread shows that Handful is still committed to the dream of freedom despite this heavy blow.

Part 6 Quotes

We'd set down every argument the South made for slavery and refuted them all. I didn’t stutter on the page. It was an ecstasy to write without hesitation, to write everything hidden inside of me, to write with the sort of audacity I wouldn’t have found in person.

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), Angelina (Nina) Grimké
Page Number: 317
Explanation and Analysis:

When Nina and Sarah are forced to leave the Quakers in Philadelphia, they hole up in the attic of two of the black members of the Quaker community. With nothing else to do, Nina suggests that they write a letter to Southern women and clergy defending the cause of abolition. Sarah comes alive with this idea, finally able to fully speak her mind on the evils of slavery. The written word gives Sarah the freedom to say everything that she stutters and stumbles over in person. Whereas her family laughs off Sarah’s ideas about freeing slaves, and the other high-society Charleston elite look at Sarah as a strange failure of a woman because she never married, Sarah can truly come into her own as a writerr. On the page, Sarah’s female identity does not get in the way of her serious intellectual mind. Sarah herself can let go of the judgemnt that she expects from others when she is writing and focus on the truth of what she is fighting for.

"How can you ask us to go back to our parlors?" I said, rising to my feet. "To turn our backs on ourselves and on our own sex? We don't wish the movement to split…but we can do little for the slave as long as we’re under the feet of men. Do what you have to do, censure us, withdraw your support, we 'll press on anyway. Now, sirs, kindly take your feet off our necks."

Related Characters: Sarah Grimké (speaker), Angelina (Nina) Grimké
Page Number: 334
Explanation and Analysis:

As Nina and Sarah become more famous in the abolitionist lecture circuit, they draw the attention and criticism of people who do not think that women should speak in public. These concerns about the role of women threaten to overshadow the plight of the slaves, leading some of the leaders of the anti-slavery society to ask Sarah and Nina to step back from giving public lectures so that the more conservative members of the anti-slavery society will not split into another group that bans women. Sarah staunchly refuses, on the grounds that women can do more to help slaves when women themselves are not silenced. Sarah furthermore exposes the hypocrisy of the leaders of the anti-slavery society, who profess to believe in the equality of all people but act in ways that suggest that women are inferior to men. Sarah and Nina are just as intelligent as the male orators, and should be allowed to share their passionate rhetoric against slavery. Further, the sisters are actually more able than some men to argue against slavery due to their childhood surrounded by the evil practice. Kidd addresses how sexism and racism can (and should) be fought simultaneously, as no form of oppression stands entirely on its own.

I watched her fold her few belongings on top of the quilt and thought, This ain't the same Sarah who left here. She had a firm look in her eye and her voice didn’t dither and hesitate like it used to. She'd been boiled down to a good, strong broth.
Her hair was loose, dangling along the sides of her neck like silk vines, like the red threads I used to tie round the spirit tree, and I saw it then, the strange thing between us. Not love, is it? What is it? It was always there, a roundness in my chest, a pin cushion. It pricked and fastened.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Sarah Grimké
Related Symbols: Red Thread
Page Number: 355
Explanation and Analysis:

When Handful decides that she and her half-sister, Sky, are running from the Grimké house for good, Sarah comes back to do whatever she can to make sure that Handful and Sky reach the North safely. Handful notices a marked difference in Sarah, now that Sarah has finally devoted her life to her passion for ending slavery. As a young child, the horror of slavery and her repressed feelings about it caused Sarah such psychological trauma that she stuttered and stammered as she tried to speak. Now Sarah can speak smoothly and clearly because she is honest and forthright about fighting for abolition. Speaking against slavery empowers Sarah just as it also helps the slaves that she advocates for.

Handful also compares Sarah’s hair to red thread, which has symbolized Handful’s strong spirit and desire for freedom. Now, the reference to red thread acknowledges how Sarah too sees Handful’s incredible inner courage and will also fight to help those who are still enslaved reach freedom. At this moment, the bond between the two women is clearer than ever. Sarah and Handful have a deep, complex friendship that forms a solid foundation underneath all of the trials and troubles that they face throughout their lives. Like the stitches in the quilt that Handful sews, Sarah and Handful are bonded together in a way that slavery and injustice cannot break.

Sarah put her hand on my arm and left it there while the city heaved away. It was the last square on the quilt… I thought of mauma then, how her bones would always be here. People say don’t look back, the past is past, but I would always look back… When we left the mouth of the harbor, the wind swelled and the veils round us flapped, and I heard the blackbird wings. We rode onto the shining water onto the far distance.

Related Characters: Hetty Handful Grimké (speaker), Sarah Grimké, Charlotte Grimké (Mauma)
Related Symbols: Charlotte’s Quilt and Black Triangles
Page Number: 359
Explanation and Analysis:

As the boat pulls away from the Charleston harbor and takes Handful and Sky towards freedom in the North, Sarah and Handful stand together at the rail and watch the city fade into the distance. Handful calls this moment “the last square of the quilt,” imagining that her journey out of slavery completes her mother’s story quilt. The last square of the quilt shows Handful and Sarah together, able to interact as equals at last. Throughout Charlotte’s life, Charlotte used her quilt to take back her life story from the white masters who try to silence Charlotte’s voice. Handful finally escapes a life of slavery and achieves Charlotte’s dream of a life where her voice is just as strong as anyone else’s voice. Handful keeps Charlotte’s legacy in mind as she moves into her future, keeping her mother’s memory alive. The book ends with the same image of blackbird wings from the blackbird legend in the first chapter. As Charlotte said in the beginning, the slaves did find their wings once again.