Between Shades of Gray takes its title from the complex nuances of morality that Lina, the teenage protagonist and narrator, experiences and must grapple with during her years of imprisonment in the harsh Soviet labor camps of Siberia during World War II. In 1940, Josef Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, annexed Lithuania to make it part of the Soviet Union. Lina and her family are Lithuanians, and shortly after the annexation she, her mother Elena, her ten-year-old brother Jonas, and her father Kostas are deported from their comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Lithuania due to accusations that they hold anti-Soviet sentiments. Men are separated from their families during the deportations, and Elena eventually learns from a solider that Kostas has likely perished in the Krasnoyarsk prison.
The circumstances behind the family’s deportation, which Lina only learns about later in the novel, illustrate the complexities of morality with which she must struggle. For much of the novel, Lina believes that she and her family were deported because of her father’s close relationship with the local university (an institution the Soviets distrusted). But she eventually learns that her father had in fact actively helped targeted individuals of the Soviet regime escape to neighboring nations, and that it was for these actions that he and his family were deported. Lina’s father helped others to escape, but at the expense of his and his family’s lives. Even more specifically: while Lina, Jonas, and Elena starve in Siberia, and her father languishes in a prison, Lina’s cousin and best friend Joana’s family safely escaped to Germany through Kostas’s help. Lina can’t help but find it unbearably unfair that that her own family’s kindness leads to their persecution, but Elena’s mother teaches Lina and Jonas that it is their duty to help those around them to the best of their ability—even if it means sacrificing their own survival.
Throughout the novel, there are many additional instances of complex issues of morality that arise almost constantly for prisoners in the labor camps. Often, characters are faced with the choice of preserving their integrity or preserving their lives. For instance, the NKVD, the secret police under Stalin’s Communist regime, demand that Lina, her family, and the rest of the deportees sign documents accepting their status as criminals. Though limited freedom is granted to those who accept the charges, a handful of deportees, such as Lina and her family, refuse to falsely incriminate themselves even if doing so would ease their burden. Further questions of morality and sacrifice are shown in the case of Mrs. Arvydas, the wife of a member of the Lithuanian military, and her son Andrius. Mrs. Arvydas’ husband is presumed to be dead, and without his protection, the NKVD threaten to kill Andrius if Mrs. Arvydas does not sleep with them. She and Andrius are thus kept clean and well-fed, much to the resentment of the other starving deportees. Still, despite the Arvydas’ relatively comfortable positions in the camp, the other deportees have no wish to subject themselves to such whims of the guards in order to procure food and shelter. Ultimately, through its portrayal of the prison camps and the difficult moral choices that the prisoners must make to balance maintaining their self-worth and managing to physically survive, Between Shades of Gray shows that morality becomes fluid in matters of life and death.
Morality, Integrity, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Morality, Integrity, and Sacrifice Quotes in Between Shades of Gray
“Promise me that if anyone tries to help you, you will ignore them. We will resolve this ourselves. We must not pull family or friends into this confusion, do you understand? Even if someone calls out to you, you must not respond.”
“But what did you do?” I asked him.
“Nothing, Lina. Have you finished your homework?”
“But you must have done something to deserve free bread,” I pressed.
“I don’t deserve anything. You stand for what is right, Lina, without the expectation of gratitude or reward. Now, off to your homework.”
“Sir,” said Jonas, leaning around me. He held out his little ruler from school. The old woman who had gasped at my nightgown began to cry.
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.
The man who wound his watch approached me.
“Do you have a handkerchief I could borrow?” he asked.
I nodded and quickly handed him the hankie, neatly folded to conceal my writing…The man patted his brow with the handkerchief before putting it in his pocket. Pass it along, I thought, imagining the hankie traveling hand to hand until it reached Papa.
“Jonas,” said Mother, stroking my brother’s face. “I can’t trust them. Stalin has told the NKVD that Lithuanians are the enemy. The commander and the guards look at us as beneath them. Do you understand?”
“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?
My art teacher had said that if you breathed deeply and imagined something, you could be there. You could see it, feel it. During our standoffs with the NKVD, I learned to do that. I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength here.
I grabbed our family photo and stuffed it up my dress. I would hide it on the way to the kolkhoz office. Kretszky didn’t notice. He stood motionless, holding his rifle, staring at all the photographs.
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.
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.”
“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.
I closed my eyes. I felt Andrius moving close. “I’ll see you,” he said.
“Yes, I will see you,” I whispered. “I will.”
I reached into my pocket and squeezed the stone.