The Use of Color in Literature and Film, Continued.

Note: this is a continuation of an earlier post about the use of color in literature (to read it first, click here).

Okay, so last time I was on about color in literature and film as a symbol, I wrote of the meaning behind green and red. Today I would like to explain a bit about yellow and purple–what they symbolize, and what importance they might denote to the story.

Yellow: When we think of yellow, the first thing to come to our minds is likely something happy or pleasurable: a spring day, the sun being out, a smiley face sticker and so on. Yellow though is another color that, like green, has a dual nature. While it might suggest something pleasant at first, it also suggests all manner of unpleasantness. For example, think of teeth. Most people spend a large amount of time, energy and cash keeping their teeth clean. Doesn’t this seem somewhat inordinate when you compare it to how little time people spend caring for their feet? The practical answer would be that we need our teeth for eating and so we must keep them clean. I would say this is in some way sa lie. In our subconscious minds, we are hardly practical. The reason we go to such extremes to keep our teeth white, is because the shading of our teeth sends a message when we open our mouths. Any yellowness suggests a vice. In television, when a vagabond or drunkard is shown on the screen, doesn’t the camera frequently zoom in on their yellow teeth? If a child has yellow teeth, it means they’ve been over-indulging in candy and soda. If an adult has yellow teeth, it means they’ve been drinking a lot of coffee or have been smoking cigarettes (similarly, if someone is described as having yellow fingertips or fingernails, it also means they smoke a lot). While it doesn’t happen so much anymore, having yellow complexion or yellow skin would suggest jaundice, brought on by drinking a lot. So yellow means vice–the pleasures and the punishment.

To give two examples of literature, think of The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Goethe and Daisy Miller by Henry James (spoilers). In The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther is described as wearing a yellow vest, which would take on significance as Werther essentially becomes love-sick over Charlotte, leading to tragedy. In Daisy Miller, yellow is in her name, as daisy’s have yellow centers and sometimes yellow petals. Wouldn’t this then act as a prelude to the climax of the novel? If she had not sought the pleasure of the Italian gentleman, would she not have contracted her illness?

So yellow is an ominous color, and one to be wary of.

Purple: Purple is interesting because it’s not a color that appears a lot–in literature or, more importantly, in nature. That it doesn’t often naturally occur in nature is what gives it its significance–purple is the symbol for significance. At its worst, purple suggests showiness or self-absorption, and at its best it is there to emphasis on important event.

To better understand this, let me go back into history. For a large part of human history, in aristocratic or republic-based cultures, not only did the manner of clothing one wore suggest wealth, but the color of the clotes did as well. Dyes were very expensive, especially in England, where they often had to be imported, oftentimes from as far away as India. If someone wanted to be seen as powerful, they would show it by wearing bold colors. Red was one of the hardest colors to come by, so public officials were usually the only ones who wore it. Purple though was one step above red as it also required the purchase of blue dye, which is how purple came to be associated with royalty. If you think of many aristocracies in history, the cardinal was often second only to the royal family in terms of power, which is why the highest order of religious officials would wear red (i.e. the pope) while the royal family would often wear purple. For an example of how purple suggests the importance of a character, think of Cleopatra, who, according to Shakespeare, had her ships arrayed with “purple sails.”

Purple calls attention to itself: wouldn’t this explain the phrase “purplish prose?” If prose is full of lush sentiments or overly long words, it is purplish, in part because it is showy, and in part because it’s as if the writer is trying to convey their own social standing through the use of uncommon words and phrasings.

In the world of fantasy literature or cults, magic is often depicted as purple. There’s purple energy beams or purple mists or purple centers of crystal balls. For one, this suggests, again, showiness (for magic is always part performance–no one conjures up magic when alone). I think on another level, this goes back to the aristocratic tradition. We think of Merlin, for example, who was the right-hand man to King Arthur–isn’t it fitting that his powers often resemble the color of royalty? Alchemists too were frequently patronized by kings and queens.

In pop culture, think of Prince’s film “Purple Rain.” Is there anyone showier than Prince? Plus, doesn’t he dress like some updated version of a prince from the Baroque era? “Purple Haze” by Hendrix doesn’t use purple as a symbol for aristocracy, but instead uses purple because of its unnaturalness (hazes of every other color do occur naturally, which is why I believe when Hendrix proclaims the song to be about a dream instead of the popular belief that it’s based on a drug experience, he is telling the truth).

Anyways, that’s it for now. Hope you found this insightful. Sometime in the future I’ll finish going through the whole color wheel.

–I’ve written a book titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories available on Amazon and through Barnes and Noble. Please check it out by clicking on the image below.

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