Brown Color Symbolism in Literature (Poetry and Prose)

Image of dots of light coming from an aged, open book on brown background

When you think of color symbolism in literature, you might imagine vivid and fantastically bright shades: rich reds, shimmering silvers, and sunny yellows. However, even dull and commonplace shades can impart paradoxically rich symbolism.

Brown has a reputation for being drab and uninteresting. But as we’ll see in a moment, it can add new and exciting meaning to poems, novels, and short stories. Here’s a look at the symbolism of the color brown in poetry and prose.

Brown Symbolism in Poetry

It’s not often you come across a poem whose meaning lies entirely on the surface. Most poems have layers upon layers of subtext, and part of the joy of reading poetry is slowly wading through those layers to discover a deeper, symbolic meaning — or more than one. In most cases, when a poem includes a particular color, that color is doing something to develop or further the poem’s meaning. Here’s a look at a few poems where brown does a lot of symbolic heavy lifting.

“Across the Brown River” by Galway Kinnell (1955)

Image of a low riverbed with muddy banks winding through a forest

“Across the Brown River” is one of those poems that defies easy explanation. It includes allusions to Biblical creation and explorations of the natural world — both the wild beauty of the woods and the controlled wonder of an outdoor sculpture garden. There’s a lot of symbolism here, and if you look closely, you can see that brown is working as a symbol of nature. And as the poem shows you, the natural world is often more peaceful and welcoming than any human-made “paradise.”

However, it’s important to note that the Brown River is the name of the river the speaker crosses, not necessarily a reference to color. But each word in a poem has a job to do, and if the concept of brown wasn’t important, Kinnell could easily have changed the name to something more traditionally poetic.

Notably, the speaker in the poem doesn’t gain a full appreciation of nature until he’s seen the artificial beauty of a sculpture garden. In the beginning, the natural beauty of the woods is simply something to get through to see the “paradise” of paths, sculptures, and manicured trees:

The Brown River, finger of a broken fist,
Moved sluggish through the woods and dust.
We made a bridge of the crashed oak, dancing over
The limbs like monkeys or lovers,
Eschewing the deeps with our eyes;
For on the other side they said lay paradise.

If you ask most people to imagine a river flowing through woods, they’d probably think of something picturesque — like crystal blue water moving through greenery. In the opening stanza, the scene is surprisingly dull. The river is a “finger of a broken fist” that is “sluggish through the woods and dust.” For the speaker, the “crashed oak” is a bridge across the river in the same way that the woods are a mere bridge to what lies ahead — so fittingly enough, the whole landscape is dull, brown, and unremarkable.

When the speaker finally arrives at the (alleged) paradise, we quickly see that it’s not exactly what was promised. The language used to describe it isn’t what anyone would use to describe paradise. Even the speaker’s tone seems disgruntled and thoroughly underwhelmed:

It was a modern replica, built by the offspring of some rich
Dog-like dowager—some son-of-a-bitch
Who liked formal gardens of paths and shaven trees

The tone seems to change a bit as the speaker admires the statues. But as he marvels at a sculpture of a centaur, he hears a fellow visitor go on a rant against race-mixing. As Eden-like as the sculpture garden may have seemed before, the speaker is thoroughly disillusioned, and he walks off into the woods.

He notes that although “from the woods outside of Eden came a snake,” he has “found no principle of evil here” except for two birding women. The dull, brown imagery is gone, and the speaker has a new sense of appreciation for the unfettered natural world.

“Time in a Brown House” by Mark Halliday (2002)

Closeup of an antique glass window in a brown wooden house

“Time in a Brown House” is an interesting poem that celebrates (or at the very least, chronicles) the ordinary interactions that happen each day in ordinary houses. And because the poem’s focus rests so squarely in the mundane, what better color is there for the example house than brown?

The color descriptor shows up in the poem’s title, but it’s referenced only obliquely in the rest of the piece. However, there’s an allusion to another of brown’s meanings besides mundanity. Early on, there’s a reference to brown’s association with stability and safety: “Sam looked at the clock twice. The day was dropping/softly away while Sam’s sneakers made the wood stairs creak./The wood was sure it was wood.” When “Alice brought in/the brownies and minor pleasure colored the house,” we also see the connection between the color and simple, comforting pleasures.

Why all this focus on such ordinary things? That has to do with the poem’s overall focus. Sam, the occupant of the house the speaker focuses on most, is on a kind of quest to find “the central story.” It’s understandable — many people try to find sense or meaning in their lives by identifying some kind of unifying narrative. Throughout the poem, Sam is clearly looking for that narrative. He asks, “What was the story?” or a similar variant multiple times, all while taking in the everyday actions of the house’s other occupants. They unload groceries, play badminton, and laugh at stories about horrible egg salad.

Sam also looks for those answers in books by Ronald Sukenik and Thomas Merton. He seems removed from everyone else in the home — more of an observer than a fellow resident. At night, when things are calmer, the poem takes a turn for the surreal:

...Sam paused
on the hard wooden stairs. J.J. was gone. She was gone.
Leland was eating yogurt at midnight. The whole brown house
was floating, gliding very smoothly for some reason
with Sam not clear whether the gliding was a story
and if so was it central and was it his?

This image might not resolve Sam’s constant quest for meaning, but it’s an interesting conceptualization of how the world goes by for so many people. These people move through the world insulated in their own ordinary, brown (or at least metaphorically brown) houses. Just as the brown house in the poem is “gliding very smoothly,” their lives continue to move forward even if it’s hard to tell if time is moving at all.

Sam is attuned enough to be aware of the passage of time, but he just wants to know what it means. That wondering is one that’s been shared by countless people since time immemorial. Is there some kind of unifying story or greater meaning behind the collection of mundane events that make up everyday life? As it does for so many people, for Sam, the question remains unresolved.

“Having It Out With Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon (1993)

Photo of a brown wood thrush singing on a tree branch

Many poems have speakers who view the world through a veil of melancholy. The speaker in Jane Kenyon’s “Having It Out With Melancholy” is one of them. One of the first things you notice as you read this poem is its unusual format. Like a very short chapter book, it’s divided into several named and numbered sections. It may be uncommon, but it’s a format that works for this poem. The speaker is dealing with bouts of melancholy (in this case, “melancholy” is working as a more poetic word choice for “depression”), and for most people with major depression or bipolar depression, depression comes in episodes.

From the outset of the poem, we learn that the speaker has been plagued by melancholy from childhood. The poem is written as if it’s a letter to melancholy itself — some of the stanzas directly address melancholy as “you.” This stanza (from the first section) offers some insight into the kind of hold melancholy has had on the speaker since her early years:

I only appeared to belong to my mother, 
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours—the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.

We also see brown appear for the first time here. This isn’t the most significant instance of color symbolism in the poem, but any time a color (or really any adjective) is included in a poem, it’s usually important to the subtext. This stanza mentions a handful of some of the mundane things in the life of a child: blocks, lunch boxes, undershirts, and report cards. But the report cards aren’t just mundane — they’re covered in “ugly brown slipcases.” The speaker’s melancholy itself is a lot like an ugly brown slipcase. It’s an all-consuming, heavy force that holds her down and keeps her from even the small joys of everyday life.

Brown appears again in the poem’s final section. But this time, it has a nearly opposite symbolic meaning:

9  WOOD THRUSH

High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome

by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.

Until this point, the poem has been largely filled with the titular melancholy. But now, the speaker is finding joy in a surprising place — the song of the wood thrush, a small brown bird. When used symbolically, brown can indicate that something is dull, commonplace, and utterly unremarkable. But it can also symbolize warmth. In this instance, it’s working both ways. The speaker has found a momentary respite from her misery in the bird’s song.

Given the immensity of the speaker’s melancholy, it’s surprising that something so small can uplift her. She says that she is “overcome/by ordinary contentment,” but that feeling — at least for the moment — is the center of the speaker’s focus. It’s as if she’s looked up from her vast pit of despair to see a sliver of light, and she’s holding her gaze on it like the bird’s “bright, unequivocal eye.”

“Toad” by Diane Seuss (2013)

A brown toad with golden eyes sits in a person's hand

When you stumble upon a poem whose title is simply “Toad,” it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting into. In this poem, the color brown is working as a symbol of decay. However, “Toad” covers a lot more ground than you might think. It’s a poem that centers around grief, fear, and unanswered questions.

In the beginning of the poem, the speaker mentions seeing a flattened toad on the road, noting that it had “arms spread out /a little like Jesus.” It seems like a trivial detail, but it’s what establishes the connection between death, the afterlife, and resurrection. These themes show up later on.

The speaker later finds a live toad and picks it up, noting that “its skin was the dull brown/of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s/clothes as he stood behind the barber’s/chair.” Here, the poem takes an unexpected turn. We learn that the speaker’s father and grandfather are dead, and she asks “Do you ever/wonder, in your heart of hearts,/if God loves you, if the angels love you…If your father/loved you.” It’s a question with a lot of intensity, and the gravity of it becomes even greater as it hangs, unanswered, in the air. For now, the speaker’s curiosity seems quenched by the certainty of death:

Either way, they’re all safely 
underground, their gentleness or ferocity,
their numb love, and my father’s

tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good
suit softened by wood tannins,
and grandfather’s glass eye with its
painted-on mud-colored iris,

maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut
box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes,
and the poets before and after him.

If readers haven’t made the connection between the color brown and decay yet, the images here should help. The speaker might have unanswered questions on death and what comes after, but she finds what might best be described as a sense of relief in knowing that the answers are hidden away, insulated by a layer of ground. There’s a subtle implication that the speaker’s questions — like all of our questions about death and the afterlife — can only fully be answered after death. But for now, that layer of earth between the speaker and those who came before her is a comfort.

Brown Symbolism in Prose

Brown is a color that can have many different meanings. But over the centuries, one particular meaning has remained constant — it’s a color often used to symbolize the dull and nondescript. However, that isn’t brown’s only meaning. It can sometimes represent earthiness, warmth, and stability. And as you’ll see in a moment, it can even be a symbol of dishonesty or a lack of morality. The following section offers intriguing insight into how brown can be used to underscore important themes and expand the meaning of some of our favorite prose pieces.

“Araby” by James Joyce (1914)

A row of brick European houses on a river on a cloudy day

“Araby” is a short story from James Joyce’s collection Dubliners. It follows a young boy who is infatuated with his friend’s older sister, but it’s far from being a love story. More than anything, Araby is a tale of disillusionment. The narrator sees Dublin as a dull place, but when the object of his affection asks if he’s going to Araby — a bazaar featuring exotic goods from faraway places — his world starts to brighten a bit.

The girl can’t go, so the narrator says he’ll go and bring her something. But by the time he makes it to the bazaar, it’s nearly closed, and it’s far less exciting than he had hoped. He finds himself once again crashing back down to earth, disillusioned by both the market and the painful realization that his friend’s sister (whose name is never mentioned in the story) will never be interested in him. That realization is succinctly captured in the story’s final line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

The dullness that seems to permeate the narrator’s existence (and the city of Dublin in general — at least from the narrator’s point of view) is symbolized throughout the story by the color brown.

The color itself might be meant to symbolize dullness, but Joyce uses it in new and interesting ways. The first paragraph notes that “the other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

Although the narrator is fascinated by his friend Mangan’s sister, she’s described as being a “brown figure,” which suggests that even Dublin’s most interesting citizens dress in dull and uninteresting colors. Even in the narrator’s thoughts, the girl is dull — she’s simply “the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination.”

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” by Flannery O’Connor (1955)

A rusted 1920s car sits in a field

Flannery O’Connor’s stories are famous for capturing the American South as it was decades ago. Her writing itself is never overly florid, but the stark prose has a paradoxical richness rife with subtext. Like many of her short stories, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” centers around a handful of characters in the rural South.

In the beginning, a man named Tom Shiftlet shows up at a house where a mother and daughter (both named Lucynell Crater) live. The daughter is deaf and mute, and the elder Lucynell is eager to find a husband for her. Shiftlet picks up on this fact, and he also notices a rusty car he’s interested in.

Lucynell agrees to let Shiftlet stay with them in exchange for fixing up the place. It’s clear that she’s eager to have a son-in-law, so she tries to convince him of the benefits of having a wife who can’t talk. Shiftlet lets her believe he’s interested in marrying Lucynell, but what he really wants is the car.

Mrs. Crater had initially told him she couldn’t give him any money. But because she thinks her daughter will finally be married, she gives him the funds to make car repairs. Shiftlet really just wants the car, but he plays along to the point that he actually marries Lucynell. He acts as though the two will be going on their honeymoon, but he abandons Lucynell at a diner and takes off in the car.

As it is in some other poems and stories on our list, brown is symbolic of a lack of morality or (figurative) dirtiness. The color only appears a handful of times. When Mr. Shiftlet first shows up on the property, he’s described as wearing “a black town suit and a brown felt hat that was turned up in the front and down in the back.”

Brown is a color that can be symbolic of decay, and black can be symbolic of death, so together, they show us that Mr. Shiftlet is up to no good. However, Mrs. Crater “could tell, even from a distance, that he was a tramp and no one to be afraid of.” When Shiftlet talks with the Craters, we see he has “clay-colored eyes” — another hint at moral decay and untrustworthiness.

However, as the story continues, we get the sense that Shiftlet might be able to redeem himself. He gets the car running “as if he had just raised the dead.” The old, rusting car — a symbol of decay in itself — comes back to life, and Shiftlet paints it green, which is often seen as a color of new life.

Unfortunately, despite this symbol of hope, Shiftlet is revealed to be just as shifty as his name implies. At the story’s humorous and telling end, he prays for God to “break forth and wash the slime from this earth” just before the sky opens up and rain pours down onto him.

“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

A close-up of a cream-colored cloth with brown stains

You’re almost certainly familiar with the movie American Psycho. The 2000 film stars Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street investment banker who is either a serial killer or someone whose psychosis makes him think he’s a serial killer.

However, the movie is based on the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel “American Psycho.” The novel follows Bateman’s life, including the many violent acts he may or may not be committing. The book itself is a disturbing read (as the possibly imagined violent acts are described in extreme detail), and it includes particularly unsettling (and repeated) brown color symbolism.

When you get a paper cut on your finger (or any other injury), the blood that comes out is red. However, in nearly every violent scene, Patrick (who narrates the novel) describes fresh blood as “brown.” A particularly vivid example is the scene where he kills his “friend,” Paul Owen.

Old bloodstains tend to be brown in color, or close to it, but fresh blood does not. But when you start to get a sense of Patrick’s personality, the meaning of the brown blood becomes clear.

Patrick is a person for whom life seems profoundly meaningless. We get glimpses of his character and attitude toward life throughout the text. A particularly disconcerting one comes after he takes a child’s life at the zoo.

In another instance — a rare, reflective moment — we get a clearer look at the strange, pathological numbness that has descended upon Patrick:

Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

Even the bright parts of life now seem horribly dull to Patrick. So it makes sense that blood — something that is vivid in color and tends to evoke strong emotions in people — would seem dull, muted, and utterly unremarkable.

“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst (1960)

Photo of a brown mud path with gray rocks

“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst is a brief, very sad story. In it, an unnamed narrator reminisces about his time spent with his younger brother, a sickly little boy who has heart problems, unusually sensitive skin, an inability to walk, and other problems. The narrator nicknamed his younger brother “Doodle.” Despite Doodle’s limitations, he is a happy, optimistic child who seems happy to be alive.

Through the narrator’s recollection, we learn that he is ashamed of having a brother with such severe limitations. He decides to teach Doodle to walk and do other normal activities like swimming and rowing — not because he cares about Doodle, but because he wants to escape his own embarrassment.

If you’ve already read “The Scarlet Ibis,” you know that the most obvious color symbolism within it is red. There’s a clear connection between Doodle’s “red and shriveled” body when he was born, the titular bird, and the blood that the narrator finds on Doodle after his death.

However, there’s another subtle kind of color symbolism here. You might barely see the word “brown” mentioned, but it plays an important role in the story. Consider the opening sentences:

It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. The flower garden was stained with rotting brown magnolia petals, and ironweeds gre rank amid the purple phlox.

Many stories that open with descriptions of nature focus on something beautiful. This one doesn’t. “Summer was dead” conjures up images of dry, yellow grass, but the most vivid image is that of the rotting magnolias staining the garden. Why open with such strong images of decay?

The brown images here are accomplishing a couple of things. Just like the scarlet ibis’s death, the “dead” summer and “rotting” magnolias foreshadow Doodle’s death at the story’s end.

But these images (and especially the word “stained”) are symbolic of something else: moral decay. Of course, that moral decay isn’t readily apparent. We hear about how the narrator (who was six years older than Doodle) found a way to connect with his little brother despite Doodle’s physical limitations. The image of the two taking in the beauty of Old Woman Swamp is a heartwarming one, but things start to turn.

The narrator himself addresses the kind of cruelty that becomes characteristic of his moral decay. Because his parents thought Doodle would die as an infant, they built him a mahogany coffin (another brown symbol). One day, the narrator decides to show the coffin to his little brother:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle. One day I took him up to the barn loft and showed him his casket, telling him how we all had believed he would die. It was covered with a film of Paris green sprinkled to kill the rats, and screech owls had built a nest inside it.

This kind of cruelty seems at odds with the relationship the narrator had described before. But we see another hint of moral decay: no matter how unkind the narrator is, little Doodle still clings to him.

Even when the narrator appears to help Doodle, he’s doing so to serve his own interests. He teaches his younger brother to walk simply because he’s embarrassed by him.

In the final scenes of the story, the narrator’s cruel treatment of his brother takes a tragic turn. After making Doodle row a boat against the tide, the narrator sees a storm descending upon them.

The two start to head home, and we see even more of the brown color symbolism: Doodle falls into the mud, getting it all over his pants. The narrator’s cruelty and utter moral decay have now (metaphorically) stained his brother.

Even though Doodle begs his brother not to leave him, the narrator sprints ahead through the pouring rain until he can’t hear Doodle’s cries. When Doodle doesn’t appear, the narrator goes back and finds his little brother dead. Finally, the narrator’s utter lack of morality comes to affect him, too — he says that he “threw my body to the earth” above Doodle’s. The two lie in the mud, finally consumed by the narrator’s “knot of cruelty.”

Discover New Facets of Your Favorite Literary Works

If you have a favorite poem, short story, or novel, you know that each time you revisit it, you pick up a new image, metaphor, or little detail that you might have missed before. And as you saw in the above examples, color symbols and other details don’t have to be loud or highly noticeable to have a major impact. The next time you discover a new piece of literature or pick up an old favorite, keep an eye out for brown color symbolism and how it shapes and enhances the meaning. Brown may be an unremarkable shade, but it can certainly make any read more remarkable!

Continue exploring and discover what all the other colors mean in literature.