Pink Color Symbolism in Literature (Poetry and Prose)

Open book surrounded by pink blooms

When you imagine the color pink, what do you think of? Maybe you picture roses, peonies, and other delicate pink flowers. Maybe you think of pink-frosted cupcakes in a bakery’s pastry case. Or perhaps you think of ballet dancers in pink tutus.

Like any color, pink can mean very different things in different contexts. And while you might not think of this shade when you imagine colors used in literary symbolism, many poets and writers use pink to create meaning in their works. Here’s a look at some examples of pink color symbolism in poems, novels, and short stories.

Pink Symbolism in Poetry

A skilled poet can turn even the smallest detail into a powerful symbol. And because poems generally give writers fewer words to work with than prose, the inclusion of a specific color is almost always intentional. The color pink might not appear in poetry as often as some other colors do, but as we’ll see in a moment, it can introduce powerful images and themes to just about any piece.

“Against Pink” by Dara Yen Elerath (2022)

Abstract illustration of a woman holding pink lungs

“Against Pink” is a poem whose very name might give you pause. After all, pink is a lighthearted and cheerful shade — who could be against it? But if you read it carefully, you can see that the poem has a point. Culturally, we tend to associate pink with flowers, cupcakes, and childlike innocence. However, as we’re reminded in “Against Pink,” it’s also the color of some of life’s unpleasant (and downright sinister) aspects. The poem wastes no time in getting to its bold and unconventional thesis:

Pink is an unhappy hue, not soothing like cerulean, nor calming like lavender or gray. It is the color of fingernails shorn away, blood dripping from the waxen quick. It is the color of a sunburned arm. The color of harm that lingers on cut shins for days. Pink is not the shade of buttercups or daisies. It is the color of poisonous brugmansia blooms, of poppies that bring on sleep.

If you asked most people if pink was a happy or unhappy shade, they’d probably tell you it was happy. Some shades of pink can even be considered soothing. Baker-Miller pink comes to mind — this is the shade that research suggests can actually reduce agitation and aggressive behavior.

However, the common examples of pink shades the poem mentions are decidedly not happy (or soothing). Sunburns, fingernails cut too close, and the shiny pink skin you see on healing wounds aren’t really things that most of us associate with joy.

Ultimately, the goal of “Against Pink” is to inspire you to think of pink in a different light. In it, pink becomes symbolic of many of life’s complexities: seemingly friendly people who commit atrocities, smiles hiding depression, beautiful flowers that turn out to be deadly. It’s not necessarily telling you to forget the color’s positive associations. But just as you can appreciate smiles, friendly neighbors, and lovely flowers, you should keep in mind that things aren’t always as they seem — and that pink isn’t always synonymous with lightness and beauty.

“The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop (1979)

Illustration of a pink armadillo surrounded by smoke

Elizabeth Bishop is a poet known for her strikingly vivid imagery. “The Armadillo” is a poem that paints a picture of an event with tragic consequences for wildlife, including the titular armadillo. The poem is set in Brazil, where people release fire balloons on some saints’ feast days. These balloons can be strangely beautiful — the poem compares them to planets — but as we see, they can wreak havoc on the natural world. Bishop illustrates how they can easily cause fires in the nearby landscape: “Last night another big one fell./It splattered like an egg of fire/against the cliff behind the house./The flame ran down.”

The animals who live in and around the cliff are terrified: owls shriek as their nest is burned, and a baby bunny leaps out like “a handful of intangible ash/with fixed, ignited eyes.” But there’s another animal that makes its way out: an armadillo. Armadillos are animals that seem indestructible, at least compared to the soft, feathery owl and the plush-furred rabbit. But even the tough armadillo is mentally and physically affected:

Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down

The flecks of rose on the armadillo are small burns he sustained during his escape. His lowered head and tail give him an almost human quality. He seems saddened and defeated by the loss of his home, partially because he is confused — the animals can’t comprehend exactly why their home has been lost. This fact is echoed in the poem’s somewhat unusual, italicized final stanza:

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

With his body like armor, the defeated armadillo is clearly the “weak mailed fist/clenched ignorant against the sky.” The pink flecks across his body are a key symbol here: they speak to his vulnerability. Armadillos have both armor and tough, dark skin. The fire has managed to reach through and expose him.

In that sense, the armadillo and his pink-flecked skin become symbolic of human vulnerability. Humans are adept at constructing psychological (and sometimes even physical) defenses. But in so many cases, it takes only a relatively minor event to shatter them.

“Fatigue Empire” by Cynthia Cruz (2016)

Pink wheelchair against pink background

Some poems have strange, even dreamlike titles that seem to instantly draw you in. “Fatigue Empire” is one of them. And just like its title, it’s a poem that defies easy interpretation. It looks to be set in the (at least metaphorical) underworld. Colors can often help clarify strange places like this, and there are only a few colors mentioned: a seedy green (worn by the Death King), the silver of a tray (served by the warden of the underworld), gelatinous black (served on the silver tray), and plastic pink (the color of the warden’s wheelchair).

Of those colors, pink stands out:

The warden of the underworld
In her plastic, pink

Serving silver trays of

Shit and death and black

The image is so bizarre that it might just pause your reading entirely. If someone is powerful enough to be the warden of an entire underworld, you probably wouldn’t imagine them in any wheelchair (let alone one made of pink plastic). If you already read a good bit of poetry, you know that if an image this surreal appears in a poem, there’s a reason for it.

But “Fatigue Empire” doesn’t make it easy to understand that image at all. The poem itself is dreamlike enough that you might not be able to expect the images to make perfect sense. However, juxtaposing pink (a color often associated with childlike innocence and sometimes even frivolity) and plastic (a material generally considered to be flimsy, particularly compared to the metal often used to make wheelchairs) with the sinister nature of the underworld makes it seem as though the speaker of the poem might be there by choice. If you’re confined by a warden who is stuck in a flimsy wheelchair that looks like a child’s toy, setting yourself free might be pretty simple.

Alternatively, the pink-wheelchair warden might indicate that while the speaker is not physically trapped in the underworld, she is trapped there mentally. This reading is supported by the stanzas immediately following the image:

...the music
Reminds me and

Will not stop
When I turn it off,

A warped music box
Trapped inside.

I repeat what I cannot bear:
Chronic repetition.

The speaker notes that when she turns off the music and still can hear it, it’s not a pleasant situation — it’s like hearing ” a warped music box.” In a way, the speaker is trapped in her mind with the strange music, just as her mind has trapped her in the strange underworld with the strange warden.

“Pink” by Melody Davis (1991)

A woman in a pink dress walks across a stone patio

Not all poems have titles that give you a hint as to what they’re about. “Pink” is a poem whose title is as ambiguous as they come. However, once you’ve read through it, you can see how the title becomes a kind of unifying force. The poem follows a woman as she walks through the city. The woman draws quite a bit of attention, but notably, the poem doesn’t describe her at all — she is only referred to as “Puerto Rican pink.”

The poem doesn’t focus on the unnamed woman’s actions. Instead, it zeroes in on the behavior of people around her. At times, it’s even comical — it describes her as being “like a walking plate/of habichuelas rosadas over rice.” Habichuelas rosadas are also known as “pink beans,” and when they are prepared with rice, they are sometimes called “Puerto Rican beans and rice” in English.

Pink is commonly used as a symbol of traditional femininity, and it’s used that way here, too. From the beginning, we see that both men and women take note of her appearance (as well as the pink shade of her dress that nobody seems able to name):

Puerto Rican pink walks into Borough Park.
The flounces at the knees of the Hassidic girls
stop. "Fuchsia Flower"! "Coral Reef"!—
the color nobody quite can name,
the color that makes the brims of the hats
turn down and the dark heels of men turn
quickly in under "Glatt Kosher" signs.

In this poem, the color is also a symbol of joy and vivacity. It’s almost as though the unnamed woman is bringing color to the world as she moves through it. We see that “The dogs in the A&P parking lot/whip into howling joy” as she passes, and “The plastic flowers under the Virgin statuette/learn about perfume.” Even a delivery man slows on his bicycle.

As the woman floats through Borough Park, it seems like she isn’t quite of the world she walks through. This is a general sense you may get as you read the poem, but it’s further underscored by the last line of the poem (ostensibly the thoughts of the delivery man on the bicycle): “oh, hothouse lily, oh palace of silk.

Pink Symbolism in Prose

As you saw above, some poems use the color pink as a fairly straightforward symbol. Others prefer to keep things more ambiguous — they create dreamlike worlds where many different interpretations of a color’s meaning can seem plausible.

The same is true of prose. In some short stories and novels, pink is clearly associated with a key theme or idea. In others, the association is less obvious. And intriguingly enough, some stories only mention the color once or twice, but pink has a thematic significance beyond what you’d think. Here’s a look at four different prose pieces and how they use pink as a symbol.

“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding (1954)

A pink queen conch shell rests on a Caribbean shore

“Lord of the Flies” might be a decades-old novel, but it’s still read in schools and homes around the world. In a sense, it’s a story of adventure, as it’s about a group of young boys trapped on a deserted island. However, it quickly becomes something closer to a dystopian novel. Much of the novel focuses on the boys’ efforts to govern themselves — and none of those attempts are particularly successful.

Of course, the novel is about more than just the boys’ failure to self-govern. It’s a commentary on some of the universal needs and truths that pop up in every human society. One of those needs is the need for order and governance. There’s a good bit of color symbolism going on in Lord of the Flies, but we’ll focus on pink.

It might seem odd that the color pink is a recurring symbol in a book about little boys stranded on an island. Historically, in Western culture, pink has been associated with young girls. It also can stand for childishness. So it might come as a surprise that in Lord of the Flies, pink stands for goodness and orderliness. It primarily works through two distinct symbols: a granite platform where the boys hold their assembles, and a light, pinkish conch shell used both to call meetings and establish order during those meetings.

From the first time the boys lay eyes on the granite slab, we can get an idea of the symbolic value it will have as the story develops. Ralph and Piggy — two of the book’s main characters — spot the slab while exploring the island:

Here the beach was interrupted abruptly by the square motif of the landscape; a great platform of pink granite thrust up uncompromisingly through forest and terrace and sand and lagoon to make a raised jetty four feet high.

“Uncompromisingly” is one of the key words here. Some of the boys in the book later hold to their uncompromising values: that there should be justice and order on the island despite the lack of adult supervision. The granite platform is also physically raised, hinting at its future importance. It stands out from the forest, just as some of the boys’ commitment to morality and order later stands out against the group’s descent into violence.

Similarly, the sheer detail used to describe the conch when the boys find it makes it clear that it, too will be important. There are actually two types of color symbolism going on here. Pink is a sign of goodness and order in the novel, but so is lightness in general. For instance, the boys who have calmer personalities and don’t become power-hungry tend to have very light hair. Jack, a boy who develops both bloodthirstiness and a thirst for power, has bright, fiery red hair. The conch shell is both light and pink:

In color the shell was deep cream, touched here and there with fading pink. Between the point, worn away into a little hole, and the pink lips of the mouth, lay eighteen inches of shell with a slight spiral twist and covered with a delicate, embossed pattern.

Of course, in the early pages of the book, these symbols seem like good omens. But if you’ve read Lord of the Flies, you know that what starts off as a utopia quickly devolves into chaos. Still, these symbols of goodness stand out.

“Pink Ocean” by Stuart Dybek (2008)

An illustration of a pink-tinted ocean at sunset

Stuart Dybek is a writer whose prose reads like poetry. And if you heard “Pink Ocean” read aloud, you’d probably think it was a poem. It was published in Poetry magazine as “prose from Poetry magazine.” The title refers to one of the piece’s many images. “Pink Ocean” is a story that moves almost like a dream, weaving images together in a way that’s sometimes difficult to keep up with.

The piece is divided into several sections. One of them opens with a striking image:

At the Monet exhibition a little girl reaches out and cries, Look! Pink ocean!

A guard rushes over and says, No one is allowed to touch the paintings and no photographs.

That same pink ocean appears again later on:

Ever notice the eyes that stare from the word look? she asks. Is that an accident or a reminder of how close language once was to pictures. Clay tablets, hieroglyphs, calligraphy—before computers, the act of writing, whether carving with a pen or chiseling with a typewriter, was physical, but now who except the blind touch language. Riding a horse blind is one thing, but reading blind—imagine, running your fingertips across a page like touching the unseen body of a lover, and suddenly: Look! Pink ocean!

The symbolic meaning of the pink ocean can be difficult to decipher, but the way it’s used in both of these instances suggests that it might be a symbol of the fleeting joys that stand out against the constraints and losses we face in day-to-day life. Pink can have many symbolic meanings, but two of the most relevant ones here are playfulness and joy.

To understand that symbolism, you need to have a sense of some of the other images in the story. The narrator comes back to an image (likely an image from a dream) where he is a child being stalked by a psychopath in the dark:

In a hidden room, a room expelled from a children’s story, the child who was myself wakes sweaty, needing to pee. A psychopath stalks the flat. His bare feet creak unevenly beneath the heft of the axe on his shoulder as he pads down the long hallway toward my room. Some nights his rolling eyes can see in the dark. On others he gropes along the walls, more terrifying still as he’ll have to find me by touch.

The narrator has a friend who is also a poet, and her poems keep coming back to another image of darkness. She writes about abandoned and decaying barns with “unhinged doors gaping shadow and must, recurring hints about divorce and childlessness.” Even from a purely aesthetic perspective, the imagined pink ocean stands in sharp contrast to these images.

But both times we see the pink ocean appear, the context of the image also underscores its symbolic meaning. The art museum is a place of quiet and restraint, but the little girl is so overjoyed by the Monet painting that, forgetting or disregarding the rules, she reaches toward it.

The second mention imagines a person reading blind. The narrator imagines the blind person reading in Braille. Even though blindness leaves someone cast in literal darkness, the story captures the (imagined) moment the blind reader is overjoyed by the words they find. Because of the image of the little girl we’ve already seen, the phrase “Look! Pink ocean!” captures this fleeting moment of joy better than any description ever could.

“Sorrow Rides a Fast Horse” by Dorothy Gilman Butters (1962)

Photo of the Taj Mahal glowing pink in the sunset

“Sorrow Rides a Fast Horse” by Dorothy Gilman is a story that first appeared in the 1962 issue of Ladies Home Journal. As it opens, you might think the story is going to be an ordinary reminiscence:

When my mother died everyone in Green Valley said what a selfless and patient woman she had been, and how wonderfully she had managed to raise two sons alone. “A modest, uncomplaining woman,” the minister said at her funeral. “A woman who was born in this town and who died in this town and never went beyond it, but cultivated wisdom in her own small garden.”

However, as we soon learn from John — the narrator and one of the two sons the woman raised — his mother did actually go beyond the town. She traveled continents away. We get a hint when John remembers a time in the ninth grade when he told a teacher he had seen the Taj Mahal. The teacher insisted he was lying until John’s mother came in, told the teacher “Miss Larkin, John was not lying; he has seen the Taj Mahal,” and left.

We learn that the boys’ father died suddenly when John was nine and his brother, Rufus, was seven. Their mother received a check for $15,000 — money that her late husband had set aside for a trip around the world. She also receives the itinerary that her husband had planned. Suddenly, she decides that she and the boys will make the trip.

From that moment, “Sorrow Rides a Fast Horse” becomes a gripping read — at every turn, it’s impossible to say what will happen next. The three travel through many countries in Europe before making it to Asia. We learn that they plan to cross the mountains in Persia to get to the Taj Mahal.

On the way, the boys, the mother, and their driver are stopped by bandits. The bandits insist on taking the boys, their mother, and all their food and money. The driver seems resigned, saying it must be their qismat (or fate) to stop there. He suggests they simply go with the bandits.

The boys’ mother reacts in a way they didn’t expect — and in a way that makes her seem like a completely different person than the minister described at the funeral:

Mother gave a bitter, half-strangled laugh. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair undone; she looked wild and strange. “My qismat?” she said harshly. “Tell this man I must travel like the wind—that is my qismat. Tell him,” she went on fiercely, “that Sorrow rides behind me on a fast horse—if he listens closely he may hear the hoof beats. Tell him that if he captures me he will capture Sorrow as well—because where I go Sorrow follows and where I stop Sorrow will stop.”

Ultimately, the strange speech saves their lives. The bandits say their village has already been plagued by sorrow, and that they don’t want more. They say the boys and their mother must leave the mountains immediately.

When they return home, the boys’ mother doesn’t speak of the trip again. John says that “after a while it seemed to Rufus and me like a dream that we happened to dream at the same time.”

So how does pink symbolism come into play here? The inclusion of pink is pretty subtle, but its symbolism is powerful. You might notice that the word “pink” appears only once (when describing the color of the check). But if you’re familiar at all with the Taj Mahal, you know that it sometimes appears pink.

Even though the Taj Mahal is made of white marble, pink sunrises often make the structure itself appear pink (you can see this effect in the picture above). However, this color change is a fleeting one, and the building returns to the usual white after the sun has risen.

In “Sorrow Rides a Fast Horse,” the color pink symbolizes a very specific idea: the idea that most people are more multifaceted than they seem, and often mysteriously so. At the story’s close, Rufus notes that “we learned from her how perverse, how unpredictable, how astonishing and how courageous a human being can be.”

One instance of pink — the $15,000 check — underscores the fact that the boys and their mother knew less about their father than they had thought. Their father had set aside a considerable amount of money ($15,000 in 1962 is equal to about $155,000 in today’s dollars) so the family could travel the world. On one hand, it seems thoughtful and adventurous. On the other hand, we can see from the mother’s reaction that that sum of money could have made the family’s life much easier when used for practical things.

The other instance of pink — the Taj Mahal — is more mysterious. Just like the Taj Mahal can momentarily appear to change its color to pink, the boys’ mother momentarily seemed to become a different person when standing up to the outlaws (and when she suddenly decided to take the trip in the first place). And just as so many people find the Taj Mahal’s color change mesmerizing, the boys continued to marvel at their mother’s fleeting transformation even well into their adult years.

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1835)

Picture of a woman wearing a pink ribbon in her hair

Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of America’s most respected writers. And while the short story “Young Goodman Brown” might not be his most famous work, it’s still a compelling story with more subtext than meets the eye. The story follows Goodman Brown, a Puritan who is married to a woman named Faith. As you might guess, Faith is portrayed as being both pious and innocent, and she wears a cap with pink ribbons.

On the night the story takes place (some scholars believe it’s set on Halloween night, when the “veil” between humans and the spirit world is thought to be especially thin), Goodman decides he must venture into the woods. Faith begs him to stay, but he insists on leaving.

As he walks through the dark woods, Goodman Brown comes upon a demonic ritual led by the devil. He sees that the minister of his church and other members of the congregation are there. Although the devil tells Goodman that his ancestors weren’t as pious as he had thought, Goodman is determined to resist. But he reaches a turning point when he thinks he hears Faith’s voice and sees one of her pink ribbons float through the air. Believing that the most faithful person he knows has given in, Goodman decides to join the ceremony:

There was a scream, drowned immediately in a louder murmur of voices, fading into far-off laughter, as the dark cloud swept away, leaving the clear and silent sky above Goodman Brown. But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.

“My Faith is gone!” cried he, after one stupefied moment. “There is no good on earth; and sin is but a name. Come, Devil; for to thee is this world given.”

Once at the devil’s ceremony, Goodman learns that there is another person there who has “converted” to the side of the devil. That other person is revealed to be Faith:

By the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.

“Lo, there ye stand, my children,” said the figure, in a deep and solemn tone, almost sad with its despairing awfulness, as if his once angelic nature could yet mourn for our miserable race. “Depending upon one another’s hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived. Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness. Welcome again, my children, to the communion of your race.”

Goodman urges Faith to resist the devil’s temptation, but he then finds himself all alone in the forest. It’s unclear whether the communion with the devil actually happened, but Goodman’s worldview is forever changed.

The symbolism in this story is pretty straightforward. Some people might even characterize it as heavy-handed. As you can see from Goodman’s wife’s name, “Young Goodman Brown” works as an allegory for humanity’s inner struggle between good and evil. The name “Faith” makes it clear that Goodman’s wife is also working as a symbol of his religious faith.

However, her name isn’t the only symbol here. When Faith is introduced in the story’s first paragraph, the only detail given about her (aside from the fact that she’s pretty) is that she wears a cap with pink ribbons: “And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap while she called to Goodman Brown.”

Pink is a color commonly associated with purity and innocence, and Goodman Brown sees his wife as someone who is pure, innocent, and dedicated to God. That’s why the image of one of Faith’s ribbons floating through the dark forest is so important: it suggests Goodman’s wife has abandoned her religious faith. When Goodman sees Faith at the ceremony, that suggestion is confirmed.

Take a Deep Dive Into Your Favorite Literary Works

One of the best things about well-written poems, short stories, and novels is that no matter how many times you revisit a piece, you’ll always seem to discover something new. And sometimes, examining a favorite piece of literature through a new lens — like the lens of color symbolism — will uncover details you never noticed before. The next time you jump into a great read, keep an eye out for pink!

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