Colors provide symbolism in our everyday lives. When we look at the color red, we might link it to anger without a second thought. We might see yellow and perceive it as joyful or connect the color blue to sadness. These associations are something our brains do without us trying.
So, many authors have used color symbolism to their advantage when writing. If you see colors described in detail and/or colors making recurring appearances in a book, there’s a good chance those colors have a deeper meaning.
What Is Symbolism in Literature and Poetry?
Writers regularly use symbolism in their work as a way to convey deeper meanings in their stories. Symbolism is a way to show something to the readers without the writer having to directly say what the purpose is. Writers can use symbolism in a variety of ways, such as focusing on objects, locations, words, or even abstract ideas. Yet, one of the most common ways to convey a recurring thought, emotion, or idea in a story is to use colors.
What Do Colors Symbolize in Literature?
The meaning of each color in literature can vary based on the context. Yet, colors have a lot of common associations both in stories and in our daily lives, so here’s what each color might mean in a writing piece.
Red is regularly used to convey some of the most powerful human emotions, such as love, lust, anger, or violence. It can often foreshadow that a character is evil or it can hint that blood will be shed in the future.
Orange is less common in literary symbolism, but it can share the powerful meanings of red and the optimistic meanings of yellow. It’s often associated with energy, excitement, and creativity. In some books, it’s also a symbol of fire.
Yellow is commonly used as a sign of happiness, optimism, and warmth. It’s often represented as yellow sunlight peeking through dark clouds. In some cases, it can be used as a sign of caution or to signify that a character is cowardly. Yellow can also be used to symbolize someone who’s sickly or mentally ill. The Yellow Letter is a short story that depicts almost every meaning of yellow.
Green is a sign of health, renewal, and rebirth. It’s also linked to themes related to nature and the environment. In some cases, it can signify that a character is jealous or sick. After all, most people are familiar with the phrase, “green with envy.”
Blue has lots of positive and negative meanings, so context is important. It could be a sign of calmness, peace, and harmony, but it could also signify coldness and depression. If it’s described with sky or water, it’s often related to tranquility, but if it’s mentioned with ice or darkness, it’s likely linked to sadness.
In books, purple items are often used to signify that something is associated with royalty or magic. The color symbolizes luxury, spirituality, and mystery. In negative contexts, purple could be a sign of arrogance. Purple is a popular color in Greek mythology, especially when paired with gold.
Black is most commonly used to convey death, grief, and evil. Associating black items with a character could foreshadow that something bad will happen to them. On a more positive note, black could also be related to sophistication and authority. Black is a common color in poetry due to its dark meanings.
White is the opposite of black, so it’s a sign of goodness, purity, and innocence. White could also represent coldness or a lack of emotions. Using white and black in various parts of a story can showcase a character’s arc, whether it’s from good to bad or bad to good. In East Asian culture, white is used as a sign of mourning.
When pink appears in a story, it’s usually a sign of love, romance, or femininity. In some cases, it’s a symbol of playfulness and innocence. Since it’s a tint of red, it often showcases strong emotions, especially when it comes to romantic relationships.
Brown can be either a comforting color or simple color, depending on the context. Warm, earthy browns are usually seen as a sense of stability and dependability. Yet, dull browns could be related to predictability or poverty. If an area is going through tough times, its natural surroundings may be described as brown instead of green.
Since most people associate gold with money and valuable items, gold in literature is a symbol of wealth, success, and high status. Gold may also be linked to the hero of a story. Depending on the context, characters associated with gold may be seen as generous or selfish. In some cultures, gold is linked to religion.
Examples of Color Symbolism in Books
Most of the books read in English class are full of color symbolism. Some symbolism is easy to spot while certain cases are difficult to determine during a first read-through. Here are a few examples of books that use colors to convey deeper meanings.
The Great Gatsby
One of the most prominent colors in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is green. The author uses the color green to convey greed and jealousy, such as when Gatsby becomes obsessed with money and when he longs for a married woman. The green light on Daisy’s dock is one of the most notable symbolic items.
Blue is sometimes used to represent Gatsby’s longing and loneliness, especially when he’s thinking about Daisy. White is often used when describing Daisy, which can be linked to her purity or emptiness, depending on the scene.
The Scarlet Letter
As the title implies, red is a key color in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Red is used to convey lust, passion, and sin in the novel. For example, Hester Prynne has to wear a letter “A” made of red fabric as a punishment for his infidelity. The red represents the lust that got him into that situation in the first place.
Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies by William Golding focuses a lot on light and dark color schemes to showcase the contrast between good and evil. Light colors are associated with the boys’ innocence, and when the colors darken, it symbolizes innocence slipping away. Green is sometimes used to symbolize the boys reverting to a wild state since green is associated with nature.
In Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, the apple’s colors are symbolic. The apple that the Queen gives to Snow White is half red and half white. The white half is harmless, so the color is a sign of purity. However, the red half is poisoned, so red is a sign of evil or danger.
White is a symbolic color in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It has several meanings throughout the story. In some contexts, it’s a symbol of beauty and reflection, but in other parts, it represents terror and damnation.
Examples of Color Symbolism in Poetry
Books have a lot more time to develop color symbolism than poems do, but poems can still mention colors to provide deeper meanings. In a first read-through of a poem, you might think the colors mentioned are just descriptive words. However, since poetry is short, it relies on deeper meanings to become powerful. Most colors in poems are more purposeful than they seem.
For example, Edgar Allan Poe regularly used black and red in his poems. Red was a sign of terror while black was associated with death. Poet Robert Frost often used the color white in his poems when describing objects that are usually associated with death and darkness. In those contexts, white signified the connection between the peace of someone’s soul and the nature around them.
However, not all poems are interpreted the same. Some poems are meant to be read differently depending on what someone associates colors with. Thus, many poems are up to interpretation, which is why using colors is crucial when writing poetry.
For example, The Moon and Daffodils by Christina M. Ward relies heavily on the color yellow. If you use yellow’s traditional meanings of joy, then it seems like a simple poem. However, if you see yellow as a negative sign, such as jealousy or dishonesty, while reading the poem, the mood shifts drastically. Some people also believe the yellow in the poem could signify mental illness.
Color Meanings Are All Around Us
In the media, colors do more than just look nice. Colors are used strategically in storytelling to convey deeper meanings, and while this article focuses on books and poems, it’s present in all types of media. For example, many films rely heavily on color symbolism to showcase moods and character arcs.
Sometimes, you’ll feel a certain way or perceive things differently when colors appear in a story. That’s the author’s way of adding another element to the piece without directly explaining it to you. So, next time you curl up with a book, consider what each color mentioned in the book is supposed to represent.