Not Just Pigment or Rays of Light: What Colors Mean in Literature

It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a pulp sci-fi novel or a Victorian classic or a crime thriller: the usage of color in literature always has a meaning.  Inevitably, writers chooose colors, and those colors are loaded with symbolic significance.  You might be thinking, ‘what about writers who aren’t very good?’  I would stress the point that colors take on a significance, no matter what the writer intended or didn’t.

For example, in the film Lust For Life, Vincent Van Gogh (played by Kirk Douglas) is shown painting outdoors with Paul Gauguin (played by Anthony Quinn).  They are both in the process of painting the same landscape when Guaguin reproaches Van Gogh by asking why he’s using so many different colors when the sky is simply blue, to which Van Gogh replies that he sees so much more than one shade of blue in the sky.  They bicker.  I bring up this scene to suggest that artists see the world differently and that by saying the sky is blue isn’t merely realism, it’s a perspective, while saying the sky is blue with touches of yellow and white is also a perspective, and both come with different meanings.  Realism is debatable.  Every instance of color in a book adds to and changes the story, often in subtle but important ways.  Here’s a very brief synopsis to the general significances of colors.

Green:

When you hear the word ‘green,’ what immediately comes to mind?  Most likely, you’re thinking of flowers, grass, trees or just the great outdoors in general.  If I were to ask you to think of the literary significance of green, you might think of being ‘green with envy’ or Shakespeare’s ‘green-eyed monster’ jealousy.  That green can represent both nature and emotions like envy and jealousy though is not an internal contradiction.  What is something everything green in nature has in common?  Impermanence.  Seasons inevitably affect flora in all of its forms, wilting the flowers, yellowing the grasses, and shorning trees of their leaves.  So green, as we mentally associate it with nature, is also a symbol for that which is ephemeral (short lasting) in human nature, such as strong emotions like jealousy and envy.  Or think of Shakespeare’s phrase “salad days.”  Salad (green) days explains the wayward period in Cleopatra’s youth, and at the same time suggests those days are long gone, like seasonal plants.

Red:

Red is very similar to green in terms of significance.  We also associate red with the ephemeral, but for different reasons.  Red takes its significance from something very important to us, our blood.  Red reminds us of the impermanence of our own lives, not necessarily because we bleed, but because long after death we cease to bleed.  Red then is a symbol not only of impermanence but of our own vitality, which is why red so frequently symbolizes things which are strongly felt.  Also, there’s visceral connotations, or physical connotations of the color.  For example, red is associated with anger because when we’re really upset, it can feel as if blood is flowing faster through our veins, which also explains red’s erotic significance.  Red can also be thought of as happiness or having an optimistic manner.  For instance, think of the way in which blood rushes to our face when we blush.  In the end, red is not a passive color.  Passivity is expressed through pale colors.  Red shows conviction or conveys a strong emotion.  For instance, think of communists with red armbands, or the red stripes on the American flag.  Compare this with the red of Superman’s cape or the red of Spiderman’s costume.  Red isn’t always good, but it’s always strong, and at the same time reminds us that strength is fleeting.

Red and Green:

Red and green are often paired together and the combination is usually quite striking together.  The most potent example would be the rose.  The green of the stem suggests to us the shortness of life, while the red is the vitality of life, making the rose a symbol of human life.  Interestingly, during the years of the bubonic plague, the “black death,” roses were often carried or worn to mask the smell of death when passing through decimated areas.  If roses suggest life, that might explain why we find roses romantic.  Giving a rose to a person is a symbolic exchange: it’s a commitment.

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Okay, I’ll write more on the topic of colors in the future and cover the rest of the spectrum.

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