Warlight Questions and Answers
by Michael Ondaatje

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What is embroidered in the frame on the wall that Nathaniel reads after leaving the bathroom at The Darter’s near the end?

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As Nathaniel leaves the bathroom at The Darter's apartment, he encounters a framed piece of embroidery that reads,

I used often to lie awake
through the whole night,
and wish for a large pearl.

By itself, it might sound like an excerpt of pleasant poetry, but the tragic bombshell of meaning is what it means to Nathaniel in the context of his life story. If you have read carefully through the novel, you may remember that Nathaniel had a girlfriend as a teenager. Her real name does not seem to ever be revealed, but she is known as Agnes, after the street name of the house where they met in secret. Nathaniel first heard the embroidered line from Agnes, who said it to herself in the dark house. Her poetic wish for a pearl was not a desire for a literal pearl, which would be a rare request in impoverished wartime England, but a wistful desire for a life she did not have, a teenage dream unfulfilled.

Upon seeing the embroidery, Nathaniel recognizes the verse and realizes that The Darter's absent wife, Sophie, is actually his ex-girlfriend "Agnes"—and that, given the timing, The Darter's beloved daughter is Nathaniel's biological child. Agnes had discovered herself pregnant during the period of time Nathaniel had been abruptly sent away, and she ended up turning to The Darter for help. And so Nathaniel lost not only his girlfriend but also his child and a chance at a happy family life together.

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