White Color Symbolism in Literature (Poetry and Prose)

Abstract image of white light emanating from an open book on a dark background

If you’ve studied color theory for any length of time, you already know that — technically speaking — white isn’t a single color. Instead, it’s the presence of all colors, and you can see that fact illustrated by light. Visible light can be split into a series of different wavelengths, each of which has a different color. But when those wavelengths are all together, you get pure white light.

Thanks to its connection with visible light, the color white has a symbolic meaning that’s often connected to purity and new beginnings. However, it has quite a range of other symbolic meanings — in poetry and prose alike, white can also symbolize peace, emptiness, and cleanliness.

It’s good to keep in mind that the exact symbolism of white (just like the symbolism of any color) depends on the culture. The meanings mentioned above are typically associated with Western cultures. However, in Eastern culture, the symbolic meaning is nearly opposite — white is generally connected to death and mourning.

A color with so many symbolic meanings is bound to show up in literature. Below are several examples of white color symbolism adding layers of richness to poetry and prose — both contemporary pieces and those from centuries ago.

White Symbolism in Poetry

Poetry as a genre is filled with figurative language, symbolism, and subtext. Great poems pack a lot of meaning into relatively few words, so when it comes to literary analysis, there’s no shortage of things to analyze.

With that being said, if you don’t already have a good bit of experience with poetry, really digging into a poem and getting a complete understanding of it can be harder than it seems. In the four poems below, we’ll primarily focus on one facet: the color white and how it’s used symbolically.

“White-Eyes” by Mary Oliver (2002)

Realistic illustration of a puffy white and gray bird perched on a snowy conifer branch

Mary Oliver is a poet who is particularly known for her nature-inspired works. But some people harbor a particular misconception of so-called “nature poems.” Because these poems tend to paint a picture of the natural world, readers sometimes think that they’re limited to only description — that there’s little to no subtext beneath the vivid descriptions. However, talented poets can build whole other worlds beneath what at first seems like simple description.

Some of those other worlds are more mysterious than others. “White-Eyes” is a poem that defies interpretation, and the mystery starts right from the title. Although it’s a poem about a bird whose name the speaker doesn’t know, the bird is described as having white eyes. Right at the poem’s start, we know that this isn’t a typical bird.

However, while they’re few and far between, there are some species of birds with white eyes (like the white-eyed vireo) in America. But the titular bird may not be a literal bird after all. It’s described as a “wind-bird,” and in Native American legend, the wind-bird is the spirit of a bird that creates the wind. It’s likely that this is the “bird” the speaker references.

The white eyes of the (mystical or literal) bird in the poem are not the only white things here. As the poem progresses, we see the bird’s white feathers, the clouds, and the falling snow.

I don't know the name of this bird,
    I only imagine his glittering beak
         tucked in a white wing
             while the clouds—

which he has summoned
    from the north—
         which he has taught
             to be mild, and silent—

thicken, and begin to fall
    into the world below
         like stars, or the feathers
               of some unimaginable bird

that loves us,
    that is asleep now, and silent—
         that has turned itself
             into snow.

Perhaps the white-eyed bird is indeed the mythical wind-bird, and he’s summoned the wind and clouds to create a glittering, mesmerizing snowfall. Of all the possible symbolic meanings of white, the color’s connection to peace seems like the most applicable meaning here. If you’ve ever experienced the particular kind of quiet that settles over a snowy forest, you know that kind of peace.

The wind-bird himself also adds to that sense of peace. Early on in the poem, he’s described as being “restless.” But by the poem’s final stanza, he is silently asleep. In an interesting and unexpected twist, we find that the bird has turned himself into snow, too. That sense of snowy, wintry peace becomes all-encompassing, creating the kind of feeling that only comes on a cozy winter night.

“White Notes” by Donald Justice (1972)

An illustration of a dark, empty cityscape with a bright white moon and clouds above

Reading Donald Justice’s poem “White Notes” is a bit like stepping into another person’s dream. It’s a poem divided into four sections. But despite that fact, it still manages to remain cohesive.

When discovering a new poem for the first time, many readers find themselves asking what the poem is about. And in the case of many poems, that’s not an easy question to answer. But if you dive into “White Notes” and think carefully about what you’re reading, it soon becomes clear that this is a poem about loss. The first section introduces the speaker’s beloved, and it also sheds some light on where the poem’s title came from:

Suddenly there was a dress,
Inhabited, in motion.

It contained a forest,
Small birds, rivers.

It contained the ivory
Of piano keys,
White notes.

Across the back of a chair,
Skins of animals
Dried in the moon.

This section characterizes the speaker’s beloved in a strikingly original way. Rather than say something trite like “Suddenly there was a woman full of life,” the speaker builds a character with the liveliness of an entire ecosystem. In the first appearance of white, we see that the dress contains “the ivory/Of piano keys,/White notes.” But what’s interesting about this kind of symbolism is that it goes beyond just the symbolism of color.

If you’re familiar with music theory, you know that the “white notes” on a piano are the natural notes — there are no sharps or flats. One of the few scales to use all “white notes” is the C major scale. Each scale evokes a particular kind of emotion, and the C major scale is often characterized as being pure, simple, and innocent. These are all values that can be connected to the symbolic meaning of white, and they’re all descriptors that can be used for new or young love.

These “white notes” are the primary instance of white color symbolism used here. They reappear (albeit briefly) toward the end of the poem. The speaker’s beloved has gone (it’s possible she has died or simply moved on), and the fourth and final section of the poem is set long after — and more specifically, “Long after the ivory could have been brought back to life/by any touch.” This brief mention reinforces ivory (white) as a symbol of bright, pure love.

There’s one more instance of the color white in this final section: though the name of the color itself is not specifically mentioned: “Then, when not even the moon/Would have the power to bruise you anymore.”

The appearance of the white keys has a relatively clear symbolic meaning. But what about the moon? This passage may be saying that the “you” in the poem is now so far removed from the speaker that not even moonlight — a far-reaching and illuminating source — can reach her. That reading is supported by a stanza in the previous section that suggests the “you” has completely vanished (or at least completely vanished from the speaker’s life:

Darkness saw you, air
Displaced you, words
Erased you.

It’s a somewhat challenging poem to read, but it’s ultimately a rewarding one. Each time you take another look at “White Notes,” you’ll almost certainly spot something you hadn’t noticed the last time around.

“White of Snow or White of Page Is Not” by Rebecca Seiferle (2007)

A photo of an almost-glowing white beluga whale swimming in very dark water

“White of Snow or White of Page Is Not” may seem like an unusual title for a poem. However, if you read the poem itself, you’ll see that the title just ramps up into the first line. This poem is a fast-moving read (there are only two periods in its 53 lines), so it can be hard to catch every image. The color white shows up almost continually, and each instance of it moves seamlessly into the next.

When you make an effort to slow down and really absorb the language, you’ll find that even the briefest images of white are refreshingly vivid. Each one adds a new facet of meaning to the poem. “White of Snow or White of Page Is Not” opens with the mention that white skin “always has some other color/sleeping within it—a hint of red maple leaf,/a touch of the blue ice at the edge of a melting/stream, a richness implied of its many layers,/the deltas of cells and blood.”

It’s the beginning of the speaker’s characterizing of the “you” in the poem as a kind of light or beacon. After all, white light includes each color on the spectrum, including the red and blue the speaker mentions. The light-like nature of the mentioned person’s skin is again highlighted by eye-catching contrast: “the sliver of your shoulder against the black/fabric—reminds me so of the lost realm of beauty.”

That image is a striking one in its own right, but it’s also a kind of foreshadowing for one of the poem’s most critical images:

the beluga
whales came swimming toward me—how white
they were, slipping out of the darkness, radiant
and buoyant as silence and snow, incandescent
as white fire, gliding through the weight of water,
and when they sang in that chamber as small
as the chambers of the human heart, murky
with exhaustion and captivity and the fragments
of what they had consumed, I was almost in love
with them; they seemed the lost children
of the moon, carrying in their milky mammalian skins
a hint of glacial ice and singing to each other
of all the existences they had left behind

In this section of the poem, the belugas are described so vividly that a reader might feel like they’re present in the aquarium, too. There’s a lot going on here, but the description of the whales as being “incandescent/as white fire” echoes the radiant draw of the unnamed person’s skin. The mention of “carrying in their milky mammalian skins/a hint of glacial ice” reminds us of the poem’s start.

But of all things, why connect the image of skin to white? We get the sense that (metaphorical) light draws the speaker in, and that person’s skin is a boundless source of that kind of light. The speaker also seems to feel an abiding sense of peace around this person, so white’s sense of peace gives the reader a glimpse into how the speaker must feel.

“White Egret” by Chris Abani (2022)

A striking photo of a white egret in flight over the marsh in falling light

You might not typically think of poems as being suspenseful. However, Chris Abani’s “White Egret” includes some genuinely surprising elements of suspense. For instance, while the poem’s title is “White Egret,” there’s no mention of the bird until the very end. Given where the poem starts, that’s somewhat surprising. In the first line, we see “a stream in a forest and a boy fishing.” That seems like somewhere you might see a white egret, but there’s no bird in sight.

Still, we get a sense of why the poem is titled after the white egret (and not the red-tailed hawk, or the bluebird, or the green heron): “The Holy Scripture/is animal not book.” The white egret that will eventually appear will be somehow representative of Holy Scripture. It’s an unusual choice. Typically the bird most associated with scripture (or at least Christian scripture) is the white dove. The dove is a symbol of both peace and the Holy Spirit. So why not just call the poem “White Dove”?

As a genre, poetry is about reinvention and encouraging readers to see old concepts in new ways. The white egret is connected to the dove by color, but it’s a more common (and more accessible, in a sense) animal in much of the world. Great egrets are all-white birds, and their various subspecies can be found across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and southern Europe.

However, the poem’s truest meaning comes to light in the final lines:

All my life, men with blackened insides
have fought to keep
the flutter of a white egret in my chest
from bursting into flight, into glory.

Here, the white egret takes on a new symbolic meaning. It stands in contrast to the spirit of jadedness and despair (symbolized by the color black) that has taken over the souls of so many people. We learn that these jaded people have put considerable time and effort into trying to subdue the speaker’s sense of joy, gratitude, and hope. It’s a highly unique poem, and it’s an inspiring read.

White Symbolism in Prose

Most poems include densely packed symbolism. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find color symbolism in prose as well. However, white color symbolism might sometimes look different in a short story or novel than it does in a poem.

On average, short stories and novels are much longer than poems. That introduces new possibilities for symbolism. For instance, there’s generally enough space in a poem or short story for a single color to become a motif. This is essentially a repeated image or symbol that comes to be representative of a theme. Of course, in some cases, the color white still has symbolic meaning despite the fact that it only shows up once or twice. Below are a few examples of white symbolism in novels and short stories.

“Color and Light” by Sally Rooney (2019)

Image of neatly stacked, clean white sheets against a white background

Some short stories are thematically straightforward, but Sally Rooney’s “Color and Light” isn’t one of them. This unusual tale centers around Aidan, a young man who works at a hotel in a coastal town, and Pauline, a visiting screenwriter. It centers largely on dialogue — and specifically, on the dialogue that happens between Pauline and Aidan over the course of five interactions.

Just as there are only a few interactions between the main characters in the story, the color white only pops up a few times. Still, it has a distinctive symbolic value. In “Color and Light,” white generally symbolizes clarity and simplicity. Aidan finds himself in many moments of uncertainty, and that’s where white tends to appear. This paragraph — set in a car where Aidan, Declan (his brother), and Pauline are riding — is the best example in the piece:

Aidan can’t tell if Declan is still speaking to Pauline now, or to him. It sounded like he meant Pauline, but Aidan is the one receiving the favor of a lift home, not her, unless there’s another favor running concurrently to this one. Everyone falls silent. Aidan thinks about the linen room at work, where all the clean sheets are stored, folded up tight in the wooden slats, bluish-white, smelling of powder and soap.

From the first time Aidan meets Pauline, he’s intrigued and confused. Does Pauline like him? Is she dating his brother? Where did she come from? And like most people, Aidan isn’t altogether comfortable with uncertainty. So he thinks of something simple and familiar: the laundry room. White has many possible symbolic meanings, and simplicity (though it isn’t the most common) is one. Aidan finds something comforting in the order of the laundry room, too. Everything is clean, organized, and tightly folded. It’s a stark contrast to his interactions with Pauline, each of which seems unpredictable, messy, and difficult to decipher.

One of those interactions happens when Pauline and Aidan watch the fireworks together. Aidan is happy that Pauline has asked him to come with her, but the description of the fireworks doesn’t seem entirely joyful: “Aidan can see the tiny missiles flying upward hissing into the sky from the pier, almost invisible, and then shattering outward into fragments of light, glittering like pixels, bright white fading to yellow and then gold to darker gold and then black.” Once the fireworks end, everything goes back to normal: “Then it’s over. The street lights come back up.”

It’s only later on in the story that the fireworks’ symbolic value becomes clear. When Aidan walks with Pauline back to the home where she’s temporarily living, each one finally reveals their interest in the other. But things don’t go the way readers might think. Inexplicably (even to him), Aidan decides to get up and leave. Later, Pauline comes into the hotel with a man asking for a room. Aidan lies and says there’s nothing available.

At first, it seems like Aidan’s lie is one based on jealousy. But if it is, Aidan doesn’t behave like your typical jealous person. Pauline leaves a note and a hundred-euro tip, but Aidan gives the tip to his manager and refuses to read the note. We learn that he doesn’t see Pauline again.

So how do the fireworks come into play here? Fireworks are often used to symbolize the metaphorical sparks flying between two people. The fireworks in the story start with a burst of white light, and again, white represents simplicity — for a brief moment, it seems clear that there’s a genuine connection between Aidan and Pauline.

However, just like Aidan abruptly severs that connection by getting up and leaving Pauline’s rental home, the fireworks fade back to the black of night almost as quickly as they appear. And just as Aidan returns to the simplicity of his daily life as Pauline leaves the hotel for the last time, the white streetlights come back on once the last of the fireworks have disappeared.

“White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1848)

Photo of white nights phenomenon in St. Petersburg, Russia including a waterfront cathedral

In many prose pieces using white as a color symbol, white isn’t part of the setting (or otherwise ubiquitous from the start). But in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic story “White Nights,” you’re missing a critical symbol if you don’t know what the title refers to.

Because “White Nights” is set in chilly St. Petersburg, Russia, you might think that the title refers to snow. However, it refers to something that’s almost the opposite. St. Petersburg is very close to the Arctic Circle, so there’s a portion of the year (usually from mid-April to mid-August) when the sun does not completely set. Instead, the sky appears to be stuck in twilight all night until the sun rises again. These “White Nights” are also called “midnight twilight.”

With that context, the symbolism of the rest of the story becomes much clearer. The word “white” appears very few times in the text — the color symbolism here works primarily with the idea of the titular White Nights. At the story’s outset, we meet the narrator, an unnamed young man who seems extraordinarily alone. He’s deeply familiar with St. Petersburg, and he feels like he knows the people he sees when out walking. He even imagines he’s friends with the houses and that they talk to him.

The story opens with the narrator on one of his many walks through the city. it’s a typical night, but he’s feeling even more alone than ever: “It suddenly seemed to me that I was lonely, that every one was forsaking me and going away from me.” But that changes when he meets a young woman named Nastenka. Just as the White Nights of St. Petersburg bring a temporary light to an often-dark city, the narrator’s brief but sincere connection with Nastenka creates a burst of happiness in his lonesome existence. The narrator says as much in the last line of the story, after Nastenka has left and is preparing to get married: “My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”

Much like the fleeting fireworks in “Color and Light” come one by one, the speaker’s visits with Nastenka happen over the course of four nights. We get a sense of just how joyful the speaker is on the first night after the two agree to meet the next day: “And we parted. I walked about all night; I could not make up my mind to go home. I was so happy…. To-morrow!”

At one point, Nastenka tells the narrator she loves him more than her fiance. But despite that confession, she still leaves with her fiance and sends the narrator a letter of apology. He is devastated.

At this point, Dostoevsky could end the story with something expected: the White Nights fading back to the typical black. Instead, the darkness of the speaker’s loneliness returns in a surprising way:

I looked at Matrona. She was still a hearty, youngish old woman, but I don’t know why all at once I suddenly pictured her with lustreless eyes, a wrinkled face, bent, decrepit…. I don’t know why I suddenly pictured my room grown old like Matrona. The walls and the floors looked discoloured, everything seemed dingy; the spiders’ webs were thicker than ever. I don’t know why, but when I looked out of the window it seemed to me that the house opposite had grown old and dingy too, that the stucco on the columns was peeling off and crumbling, that the cornices were cracked and blackened, and that the walls, of a vivid deep yellow, were patchy.

Either the sunbeams suddenly peeping out from the clouds for a moment were hidden again behind a veil of rain, and everything had grown dingy again before my eyes; or perhaps the whole vista of my future flashed before me so sad and forbidding, and I saw myself just as I was now, fifteen years hence, older, in the same room, just as solitary, with the same Matrona grown no cleverer for those fifteen years.

If you’ve read Dostoevsky before, the return to dreariness isn’t a surprise. But what is a surprise is the speaker’s charitable attitude toward Nastenka. Even his thoughts toward her are a nod to the contrast between the bright White Nights and the typical darkness of night: “But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness… May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart!”

“A White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett (1886)

Close-up of the white variant of the great blue heron as it hunts in a wetland

“A White Heron” is a story that combines a child’s love for nature and animals with the regional charm of rural Maine. And as you might have guessed, the white bird mentioned in the title is the primary symbol. The story centers around nine-year-old Sylvia, a little girl who lives with her grandmother. They live a simple life in the country, and they’re fairly poor.

Sylvia loves spending time in nature, and she has ample time to do so — each day, she’s tasked with finding her cow, Mistress Moolly, and driving her home. Sylvia doesn’t have any human friends (except for her grandmother), so Mistress Moolly is like a friend she plays hide-and-seek with. This kind of ability to connect with animals becomes important later in the story.

Sylvia’s quiet life gets shaken up a bit when she meets an ornithologist one day. Even before we see the ornithologist himself, we get a subtle sign that he’s going to be a sinister influence:

Suddenly this little woods-girl is horror-stricken to hear a clear whistle not very far away. Not a bird’s whistle, which would have a sort of friendliness, but a boy’s whistle, determined and somewhat aggressive. Sylvia left the cow to whatever sad fate might await her, and stepped discreetly aside into the bushes, but she was just too late. The enemy had discovered her, and called out in a very cheerful and persuasive tone, “Halloa, little girl, how far is it to the road?” and trembling Sylvia answered almost inaudibly, “A good ways.”

The ornithologist stays the night with Sylvia and her grandmother. They learn that he doesn’t just study birds — he shoots, preserves, and displays them. He’s tracking a white heron, and he makes an offer: if Sylvia can find the bird’s nest, he will pay $10. (Keep in mind that the story was published in 1886, and $10 in 1886 would be worth more than $300 in today’s dollars).

That night, when her grandmother and the ornithologist are both sound asleep, Sylvia sneaks out to find the heron. Throughout her journey, we see more instances of white: we see pale moonlight, the white sails of ships, and Sylvia’s face, which is described as being “like a pale star.”

White is often used as a symbol of purity, and these recurring white images capture the purity of Sylvia’s connection to nature. Unlike the ornithologist, Sylvia doesn’t venture into the natural world in hopes of taking something from it — she just feels a sense of incredible wonder:

Sylvia felt as if she too could go flying away among the clouds. Westward, the woodlands and farms reached miles and miles into the distance; here and there were church steeples, and white villages; truly it was a vast and awesome world!

If these subtle symbols don’t communicate the innocence and pureness of spirit at the heart of the story, Sylvia’s decision to protect the heron from death does:

No, she must keep silence! What is it that suddenly forbids her and makes her dumb? Has she been nine years growing and now, when the great world for the first time puts out a hand to her, must she thrust it aside for a bird’s sake? The murmur of the pine’s green branches is in her ears, she remembers how the white heron came flying through the golden air and how they watched the sea and the morning together, and Sylvia cannot speak; she cannot tell the heron’s secret and give its life away.

“The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

Surreal illustration of opaque white water under grayish white sky and clouds

Many people know Edgar Allan Poe for his poems and short stories, but his writing crossed into other genres as well. He only wrote one complete novel: “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” (He started The Journal of Julius Rodman, a novel published in serial installments, but it was never finished.) The novel is strange for a few reasons. It starts off like your usual story of an adventure at sea. However, it eventually becomes bizarre.

The adventurers find an island whose inhabitants are all black (including their teeth) and who are actually afraid of the color white. The island also has a warm climate despite being close to the South Pole (and despite the fact that the adventurers had to cross an ice barrier to get there). The ending is even stranger — as Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu (a native from the island) sail away, the water becomes an opaque, milky white color, and a massive, all-white figure appears, seemingly out of nowhere:

March 21. A sullen darkness now hovered above us—but from out the milky depths of the ocean a luminous glare arose, and stole up along the bulwarks of the boat. We were nearly overwhelmed by the white ashy shower which settled upon us and upon the canoe, but melted into the water as it fell. The summit of the cataract was utterly lost in the dimness and the distance. Yet we were evidently approaching it with a hideous velocity. At intervals there were visible in it wide, yawning, but momentary rents, and from out these rents, within which was a chaos of flitting and indistinct images, there came rushing and mighty, but soundless winds, tearing up the enkindled ocean in their course.

March 22. The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but, upon touching him, we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

This strange, white-filled ending isn’t one that can be easily explained. Some scholars believe that the white water, white birds, and white towering figure are symbolic of the end of Pym’s spiritual journey (and the surreal images at the book’s close indicate he’s reached some kind of nirvana). Others believe that Pym dies in this scene, although the “Note” (written as though it comes from the editors) at the end of the book says that he later wrote several other entries that were subsequently lost. Still others believe that the color white (and the towering, mysterious white figure in particular) has racial implications.

It’s entirely possible — and likely — that Poe left the end of the novel intentionally ambiguous. In the three possible scenarios above, white could be a symbol of either one of these things. You might have another interpretation — and that’s likely something Poe would encourage.

See Your Favorite Literary Works in a New Light

Whether you’re reading a poem, a novel, or a short story, a color is rarely just a color. And when you come across a color with as many possible meanings as white, you’ll have an opportunity to discover facets of beloved literature you may not have noticed before. The next time you dive into a new literary work or pick up an old favorite, keep an eye out for the many layers of meaning you’re likely to find.

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