Art in the novel is powerful in a variety of ways. Lina is a talented artist, and much of the narrative of Between Shades of Grey is structured around her deep connection to drawing. Lina connects to the world using her art—she can best express herself using images, and understands her world better when she sees it out on the page. And, at the same time, art can speak the truth: as it does when Lina is asked to draw the portrait of an NKVD commander and her artistic vision sees snakes sliding from his skull; or in her caricature of Stalin; or even in the stick map that a man draws to communicate with a relative about where he has been enslaved. The testament to the power of art’s truth is clear in the camp guard’s reaction to it: Lina knows that if she were to actually draw the NKVD commander with snakes slithering from his skull it would result in her death; just as her father knows her caricature of Stalin, if seen, would as well; and just as the man who drew the stick map was killed by the guards.
But art is powerful in the novel not just as a tool of truth-telling—it is also life-affirming, and life-giving. Though Lina knows it is wisest to stop her drawing based on the dangers her own art has exposed her to, and especially after the death of the man who drew the stick map, she cannot. For her, to draw is to live, and she does not want to live a life without art. In the novel, art is the flavor of life, necessary for a life worth living beyond the utilitarian needs of food and water and shelter. Though Lina is able to physically persevere through her Soviet enslavement, it is her connection to art—and what it means to both her and the people around her—that give them something to live for beyond the sake of survival.
And finally, as shown in the epilogue of the novel, art both endures and connects: the novel is, in the end, a product of Lina’s drawings: She documents her journey through the labor camps using sketches of what she sees and feels, and hopes to have these images passed along to her father to indicate her whereabouts and the fact that she is alive. Ultimately, under circumstances not explained in the narrative, the drawings end up in the soil, dug up forty years later and used as evidence (within the world of the novel) to reveal the otherwise hidden Baltic genocides and to return to the people who suffered that genocide a kind of eternal life in art.
The Power of Art ThemeTracker
The Power of Art Quotes in Between Shades of Gray
“You’re very brave to have come. You must all stay together. I know you’ll take good care of your sister and mother while I am away.”
“I will, Papa, I promise,” said Jonas. “When will we see you?”
Papa paused. “I don’t know. Hopefully soon.”
I clutched the bundle of clothes. Tears began dropping down my cheeks.
“Don’t cry, Lina. Courage,” said Papa. “You can help me.”
“Do you understand?” My father looked at Andrius, hesitant. “You can help me find you,” he whispered. “I’ll know it’s you…just like you know Munch. But you must be very careful.”
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.
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 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.
It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.