Common Reader- Character reveals the ‘grayness’ of life

Terry Callis | AC student

Courtesy photo | Cover of between shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
Courtesy photo | Cover of between shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

In conjunction with Amarillo College’s Common Reader Project, The Ranger will feature a series of articles written by Dr. Mary Dodson’s Composition I classes that focus on the novel and the locations, customs, history and background related to the book. This issue’s installment features an analysis of how one character in the Common Reader, Between Shades of Gray, epitomizes the author’s choice of title for her book.

Life is rarely a place of absolute black and white issues, values, morals, or even character. Such is the case with the story in Ruta Sepetys’ novel Between Shades of Gray. In the novel, Sepetys captures that gray gulf between the plains of black and white. One individual in particular epitomizes that theme of “grayness” with the turmoil and personal conflict in his own life. The “bald man,” or Mr. Stalas, appears to be a ruthless, uncaring person, yet he eventually allows a certain kindness and compassion to break forth from the cold sepulcher of what appears to be a stony heart.

Sepetys introduces the “bald man” in chapter four where his initial words express absolute fatality and negativity. Being loaded onto a truck by the NKVD, he pines, “We’re all going to die . . . [w]e will surely die . . . [t]his is the end” (14). His demeanor can only be read as that of a man who lacks any civility, concern, empathy, or will to live. The “bald man” not only loathes his own life, but he attempts to demean everyone around him. He thoughtlessly uses derogatory terms about many others in his same dire situation. He acts superior to the others as if doing so will elevate his own despicable character.

It has been said that confession is good for the soul and that is possibly the epiphany for Stalas. While facing death by freezing and starvation in a Siberian work camp, the “bald man” confesses that he had been asked by the NKVD to provide names of Lithuanian people who held certain positions and vocations. He did not turn in the names, but his guilt and conscience at evidently even contemplating such has eaten a cancerous hole in the core of his being. Stalas reveals the true substance of his gloomy and disparaging demeanor; “Pathetic, and yet I survive. Surely, my survival is my own punishment” (318). This very statement becomes his catharsis and moment of clarity. He still continues to talk of death, but he also becomes more compassionate and amenable to the other prisoners.

The changed “bald man’s” final act of contrition and humility is illustrated when Stalas offers to provide assistance to a doctor who is visiting the camp and investigating the horrors of the starving and dying Lithuanians. Stalas states, “Yes, I will help . . . I will help as long as we tend to these children first” (332-333). Is this the same man who scoffed, ridiculed, and scorned others? Could he somehow have broken through his hard shell to find the softer more caring person inside? Beyond Shades of Gray is a treatise to the various and ever present “between” places in life: between good and evil, between right and wrong, between love and hate. Mr. Stalas is a tormented man and hates his selfsame own existence. He vents his anger and torment on anyone who happens to be in his proximity. Mr. Stalas is stuck in the midst of a dark area that haunts his hollow soul, but he breaks through the fog of dissention and reveals a kinder, softer, and more compassionate image. The “bald man” is finally capable of fully experiencing and expressing the cup of human kindness.

 

 
Sepetys, Ruta. Between Shades of Gray. New York: Penguin, 2011.

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