It’s been noted that the characters in Lowry’s children’s books endure an unusual amount of pain and suffering. Gathering Blue is no exception: that Kira loses her mother isn’t so remarkable (there are plenty of protagonists of children’s books who are orphans, after all), but she has to drag her mother to a field and watch her corpse for four gruesome days. It’s fair to say that Lowry seeks to explore the impact of pain: what people do with it, how they respond to it, and how they learn from it.
Kira is hardly unique in her village—all the villagers have to deal with pain and suffering. Many of the adults lose their husbands or wives to sickness, and others are injured while hunting. When a villager endures a huge amount of pain—an injury or disease, for example—the other villagers drag him to the Field of the Living to succumb to his pain and die. When the pain is of a milder sort—for instance, when a child annoys its mother—the pain is immediately returned upon the person who causes it—the mother beats her child. In the former case, pain is ignored, swept under the rug; there is no point in trying to minimize another’s pain, the villagers believe. In the latter case, the pain is reproduced in the short term (the child is beaten) and perpetuated in the long term (presumably the child grows up to beat its own children).
At the core of the way the villagers deal with pain is a deep pessimism about the world: pain cannot be fought; it can only be ignored or passed on to someone else. This pessimism mirrors exactly the pessimism of the Ruin Song, which teaches the village that Ruin cannot be fought; it can only be accepted as an inevitability.
The similarity between the pessimism of the villagers and the pessimism of the Ruin Song suggests that part of the role of art is to teach humans how to deal with pain. Thus, it’s no coincidence that Kira, an artist, learns how to live with pain by transforming it into something new. Kira’s mother teaches her that pain can make her stronger. We see many examples of this in the novel. When she first arrives in the hall of the Council Edifice, Kira is frightened and nervous. Yet the very nervousness and fear she feels teaches her to be calmer and more confident in the future. Thus, when she returns to the hall for the Gathering, she’s not afraid at all, and even notes how much more mature she’s grown. Similarly, Kira insists on making the difficult journey to Annabella’s house, even though it’s exhausting for her to walk with a lame leg. Her perseverance makes her stronger, and makes it easier for her to travel freely. In both cases, pain is a crucial part of growing up. By going though a painful experience, Kira teaches herself to deal with that experience, so that when she encounters it in the future, it causes her less pain.
Transforming pain into experience is an almost artistic process: it requires Kira to see beauty and value in ugly things, thereby shaping them into something beautiful and valuable. Although Kira’s ability to transform pain into experience is closely tied to her abilities as an artist, Lowry makes a much more general point: maturation is only possible with pain. Thus, children become adults by experiencing pain and learning how to deal with it.
Pain and Maturity ThemeTracker
Pain and Maturity Quotes in Gathering Blue
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.
"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!"
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.
Now, secret in her hand, the cloth seemed to speak a silent, pulsing message to Kira. It told her there was danger still. But it told her also that she was to be saved.
"It's a lovely thing," he said, seeing the small cloth. Kira stroked it before she closed the lid.
"It speaks to me somehow," she told him. "It seems almost to have life." She smiled, embarrassed, because she knew it was an odd thing and that he would not understand and could perhaps find her foolish.
But Thomas nodded. "Yes," he said to her surprise. "I have a piece of wood that does the same. One I carved long ago, when I was just a tyke.
"And sometimes I feel it in my fingers still, the knowledge that I had then.” He turned to leave.
That you had then? No more? The knowledge doesn't stay? Kira was dismayed at the thought but she said nothing to her friend.
The fabric gave a kind of answer but it was no more than a flutter, like a breeze across her that she would not remember when she woke at dawn. The scrap told her something of her father — something important, something that mattered — but the knowledge entered her sleep, trembling through like a dream, and in the morning she did not know that it was there at all.
"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."