Why colour matters: symbolism in literature

Towards the end of the summer term, I was teaching a lesson on “Your Shoes”, leading to monologue writing – it’s a nice one, usually provokes interest and some creative responses. But this time, one girl in particular was very frustrated by the shoe imagery and ended up exclaiming “how am I supposed to know that white means innocence?”

It got me thinking about the use of literary symbols – what I’ve started thinking of as a literary shorthand – and the way that I often take for granted that students will see some of them. Not all, of course, but something beyond the sun=good, rain=bad pathetic fallacy, into the colours being used or the idea that nature is innocent, while cities can symbolise loneliness or destruction.

Of course, when I started thinking about it, it made little sense to me! Students who read are likely to get it, but perhaps need it pointing out for it to become conscious. Students who don’t read have no reason to see it. And from experience they’re more likely to be the ones who complain about the “blue curtain” theory:bluecurtain

I personally think it’s rare that they’re “just” blue. They don’t have to symbolise the character’s falling into despair, or the inner misery of the room. They might just tell you about the writer’s study window! There’s always a choice that’s been made and it’s part of our job as literary critics to figure out whether that choice is important.

What do colours symbolise in literature?

I’ve put some common meanings below – do add any more in the comments!

White

Purity – often formed as innocence, and sexual purity / virginity. An untouched, untainted colour. Because of this, often used to symbolise goodness – the white queen in The Wizard of Oz, for example. But white’s often worn by those trying to symbolise goodness, like the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia.

Black

Evil, death, sadness, mourning. grief. A complete loss of innocence, whether in the moral/religious sense, or in gaining knowledge of something (e.g. mourning – knowledge of death). Used in settings to create mystery and something sinister. Can often be used to hide things, secretive. In clothing, can represent elegance but likely to have some undertones to the character.

Blue

Usually calm and peaceful, rather than the more generically cultural “blues” of melancholy and depression, though it does depend on the shade and surrounding description. Often linked with water, which if blue – clear, crystal and clean – is usually cleansing and purifying. Some associations with Mary, who’s often painted in religious images as wearing blue, so can have connotations of virtue and piety.

Brown

Earth, nature and poverty. Frequently associated with lower status or poor characters, due to stereotypes about the types of clothing worn, the manual labour undertaken, and th brown coarseness of unrefined, undyed fabric. Brown can either be warm – earthy, rich, comforting, like freshly-rained soil, or melted chocolate – or murky, something on the edge of becoming black, something tainted.

dollarsGreen

Nature, growth and vitality – the colour of grass, trees, spring and summer. Green is about new life, and rebirth. It’s also about endurance and honour (Gawain and the Green Knight) . Green’s more negative connotations include jealousy – Othello’s “green eyed monster” – and being inexperienced (being ‘green’, or new). In American literature, green can be the colour of money, and therefore greed. In English literature, green is often a supernatural colour, in part because of the associations with nature – fairies, magical creatures, spells, all hold a green tinge.

Yellow / GoldYellowWallpaper

Sunshine – a warm happiness is usually what comes to mind. Yellow also associates with gold, and its connotations of wealth, not only in the coins of many countries but in the value of gold itself as a relatively universal commodity. Particularly in older literature, yellow also symbolises sickness or cowardice (perhaps due to the yellowing of the skin due to jaundice, a liver disease, especially as “lily-livered” is an insult to a coward too). Read the Yellow Wallpaper for a chilling inversion of the colour!

Purple

Royalty, primarily – a throwback to the British sumptuary laws of the Renaissance era dictating that by law only the royal family could wear purple. Its meaning has ameliorated slightly to simply mean luxurious or decadent – a full bar of Cadbury’s! Purple also has some religious connotations, associated with some of the highest status bishops, the cloth used at the most celebratory times, as referenced in Rossetti’s poem ‘Birthday’.

Red

Sometimes love, but an angry and passionate, lustful love. Red is often the strongest colour, confident and ambitious but also seductive, wicked and tempting. Red has connotations of fire, burning bright and hot, and hell, linking it with sin. It’s also the colour of blood – hot blood raging, or damage done. The link with blood brings in representation of women through the menstrual cycle and the first blood of sex, linking again with sin – the original sin – and with rebirth, but in the messy, difficult, painful way rather than the calm renewal of green.

Ways in:

Start with a recall list – words or phrases associated with colours. Then, characters associated with or named for colours. Do any of these have additional symbolism? Give them the Harry Potter house colours – see article below – and ask what the colours indicate.

Houses of Harry PotterUseful extracts to use when teaching colour symbolism:

  • Description of Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby (even in her name)
  • The party scene, The Great Gatsby (a whole host of colours!)
  • Jane Eyre in the Red Room (red!)
  • Rossetti’s Birthday (purple, silver, white)
  • Hardy’s Neutral Tones

All available on my dropbox here

If any students are still doubtful, then what about this article by J K Rowling on her use of colours in Harry Potter?

 

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