There are many themes explored in Craig Thompson’s award-winning graphic novel Blankets, but perhaps its chief theme is that of spirituality. Particularly, the text explores how spirituality can be distinct from religion: religion is illustrated as a blunt instrument with which individuals divide themselves, whereas the positive spirituality advocated by Thompson grows out of human experiences, such as his first love.
In this sense, the modified view of spirituality overlays traditional religious thought: the titular quilt blanket takes on a totemic significance, like that of a saint’s body part. This is fitting enough, as Thompson presents the relationship with Raina as something sanctified and, not coincidentally, outside the realm of religion. Fittingly enough for a meta-narrative such as this, art forms the basis for Thompson to impose his own distinct narratives over the unfavorable narratives around him.
This belief in transformative power becomes important when he discovers his blossoming sexuality: he must realize it is not embodied by the abusive babysitter of his past, but in the relationship he possesses in the here and now. Raina represents the clearest presentation of actual spirituality in the text: she presents the stability that Thompson craves so much, which is the only thing that really allows him to take solace. It is not coincidental that the two begin their relationship at Bible Camp: in a camp that is ostensibly devoted to finding spiritual fellowship, both Thompson and Raina feel like they do not fit in.
Accordingly, they must develop their own fellowship with each other, substituting their unique friendship (and eventually erotic love) in place of the relationship with God that the camp is supposed to offer. This is one of the spiritual notions that Thompson hammers home quite effectively: the heart of a true spiritual relationship is one of interaction. Traditional spiritual models rely on following God’s will without having a real relationship with anything other than a personal interpretation of God as a social construct.
Romantic love fills that need when spirituality falters. Raina’s place as a saint-like person seems quite intentional in the text. The work culminates, after all, with Thompson finally willing to forge his own path in life…but by naming the work after the blankets on which he laid beside Raina, he situates the work as a kind of return to the grace and serenity he discovered in his relationship with her. In this sense, the ending of the work represents a kind of spiritual pilgrimage that Thompson is undergoing, with a remnant of Raina to guide him.
In the spiritual spectrum, she seems like a successor to the understanding of Mary offered by Thompson’s religious upbringing. In that conservative religious view, Mary represents the glory of women, but also their aloof subservience to the greater glory of men: Mary is great because she delivered Jesus, but because of that sanctified relationship, a relationship with her is denied to mortal men. Raina, then, represents the spirituality that Thompson is able to interact with.
She also represents an opportunity to restore sexual equality to spirituality, as she is not aloof, nor is she playing second fiddle to men. This continues the theme of spirituality as a matter of unity, rather than divisiveness. The final confrontation with his parents represents the final necessary aspect of spirituality: a willingness to seek commonality in all living creatures. This is the nature of their dispute, after all: a difference in beliefs. However, by bringing this conflict out into the open, Thompson is asserting the sovereignty of his own beliefs.
They do not fully define him, as religious beliefs define their followers, because the innate aspect of Thompson’s spirituality is that it is constantly evolving. Raina helped him discover it, but she does not represent the be-all, end-all of it. Similarly, Thompson’s pilgrimage at the end is not to literally find Raina, but to use his memento of the time they shared as a way of finding a new relationship that will further help challenge and evolve his notion of spirituality. Interestingly, Thompson does not decry all religion as the enemy of spirituality.
However, he does emphasize that religious dogma is often used as an excuse to shut one’s self off from the world. In confronting his parents, Thompson is quite clear: his spiritual beliefs will not be quieted, nor will they be closeted, any longer. Blankets is a work that is certain to endure for many years to come. The reason for that is not lofty ambition to tell an epic story, but rather, a commitment to following the fault lines of human intimacy and romantic relationships all the way to their inevitable quakes.
Unwilling to move the camera away (so to speak), Thompson does the audience one better by showing the slow process of picking up the pieces and trying to rearrange a Picasso-esque jumble into a self-constructed identity that he can actually recognize in the mirror. Raina helped him discover what spirituality really represented: not the missing piece, but the knowledge that pieces are missing. And all that is required of true spirituality is an ongoing commitment to never stop seeking completion.