Color Symbolism in Literature: What Do Colors Mean in Literature and Poetry?

Snow White from the fairy tale is laying on the ground deep asleep surrounded by red apples

Colors have been used in stories since as early as the first story was told. Writers and poets use colors to create concrete images of their characters, scenes and events.Language itself uses a system of symbols, either verbal or written. Therefore, color symbolism in literature imparts a deeper meaning to the words which, in turn, help transform the written content into a more powerful instrument. Naturally, the reader must also have prior experience with the color in order to interpret the symbolism (that the creator has in mind) correctly. This is the main reason why poems and books mean different things to different readers. Although this is the case, writers and poets have the poetic license to use different colors in a manner that create different meanings in their work.

Let us study different colors and what they mean in different forms of literature across the world.

Color symbolism in French literature

As early as the 12th century, French writers and poets used only 7 colors to depict romance, characters and emotions. These were: White, Red, Yellow, Blue, Green Black and Brown.

Color symbolism in fairy tales

The best places in literature to study color symbolism are the Fairy tales which used colors richly: examples include: As red as blood, as white as snow, as black as the crow etc-all of which evoke emotional responses and help develop a connection to the story.

The tale of Snow White is one of the best examples that depicts color symbolism: it uses Red, White and Black dominantly where White represents Heaven, Red represents spilling of blood and an enticing-yet-poisoned apple while Black shows regeneration as well as sexual desire.

Color symbolism in Gothic literature

Gothic Literature is known for its use of Red and Black as the symbolism associated with these colors really draw the readers in to evoke an emotional response while creating an atmosphere.

  • Red color meaning in Gothic literature- According to a study published in 2004 by psychology majors in Alabama, red is a very dominant color which can have an exciting and stimulating effect. Based on circumstances, Gothic writers use it for drawing both positive and negative emotions. These include, typically, passion and warmth and aggression or intensity. Red is also the color of fire and blood and can symbolize energy, war, danger, strength, determination, passion, as well as love. Red is known to trigger and enhance appetite and metabolism, raise the rate of respiration and also increase blood pressure. It has high visibility and is used to symbolize danger.
  • Black color meaning in Gothic literature– Black, on the other hand, is used in Gothic literature to symbolize evil, death, power, formality, elegance, mystery and fear. Black also has negative connotations especially in poetry, and when combined with red or orange can create a highly aggressive color scheme.

With these emotions attached to red and black, Gothic literature uses these as staple colors for literary needs.

Symbolism of green color in literature and poems

As per the 2004 color study, green in literature and poems is used for symbolizing both a ‘riveting’ and ‘relaxing’ effect. Green represents feelings of refreshment but is also associated with ‘tiredness and guilt’. Green (in poetry) is used for representing nature, harmony, freshness, fertility and also ambition, greed and jealousy.

Symbolism of the color yellow in literature

Yellow is associated with joy, happiness, intellect and energy. It is a stimulating color that represents honor, loyalty, and stimulates mental activity. It is also an unstable color associated with cowardice and mental illness. Avoid using this color if you want to portray stability and safety in your work.

Symbolism of blue color in literature

Blue color in literature is mainly used to draw a positive emotional response and is typically associated with the feeling of calmness, peace, happiness, relaxation, comfort. On the negative side, it may be used to represent depression, sadness and gloominess.

According to the color theory, writers and poets use Blue to depict trust, loyalty, wisdom, faith, confidence, truth and heaven.

Symbolism of the color pink

Pink, which is a shade of red, is used in literature to denote romance, love, friendship, possessiveness as well as feminine or girly qualities.

Other colors in literature

  • White-Innocence, virginity, purity
  • Purple-Royalty, wealth
  • Orange-Fiery or lust
  • Aqua-Coolness, water
  • Brown-Poverty, earth

And finally, we leave you with a few examples to help you better understand color symbolism in poems and literature.

  1. The devil with its fiery eyes emerged from the dark pit, its evil eyes and terrifying red horns enough to scare the living lights of the viewer. Naturally, you must have imagined a black devil with red horns and tongue, since red and black are often used to portray evil and negative characters.
  2. I lay upon the crisp green grass and watched the white wispy clouds as they floated across the serene blue skies. This scene must have naturally brought images of summer, a beautiful meadow or grassy yard, and you were also probably left with a feeling of tranquility and peace.

As is evident, color symbolism in literature does not just serve as character information but is also a way of informing a reader about a scene without going into too many details. With basic understanding of what a color represents, a reader can even create a stronger bond with the characters for a richer reading experience.

Read Next: Color Symbolism in The Great Gatsby