The Symbolic Meanings of Colors in Literature
Colors in literature, especially if an author emphasizes them, are often rich in symbolic meanings. For instance, the scarlet of Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" symbolizes both sin and the extremes of love. Sometimes the colors in stories are so charged with symbolism that college courses have focused entirely on their meanings, such as a class at the University of Pennsylvania titled The Colors of Literature. Several symbolic colors occur in famous works whose meanings readers can agree upon.
Gold, Gray and Green
F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" makes liberal symbolic use of colors, including the obvious meanings of gold as a symbol of greed and graying ruins as symbols of death and decay. More subtle is his use of green, which Frederick Millet notes as a paradox. Green is first symbolically welcoming and hopeful to Gatsby: A green light at the end of Daisy's dock makes him dream of a life with her. But the color green quickly becomes poisonous. The face of George Wilson, who is jealous over his wife Myrtle's affair with Tom Buchanan, is described as green. "In the sunlight his face was green," writes Fitzgerald.
Shakespeare steeps his plays and poetry in color imagery, from the corrupted red that stains the murderers' hands in "Julius Caesar" to the sickeningly limp yellow cross-garters that Malvolio wears in "Twelfth Night." Shakespeare's "Sonnet 12" uses colors symbolizing life's experiences as it discusses the inevitable decline of men. "Summer's green" gives way to the "violet past prime," while "sable curls [are] silver'd o'er" and all nature wears a "white and bristly beard." Even Hamlet makes himself into a rebel in black, as he wears funeral clothing to his mother's over-hasty second wedding.
Rainbow of Blessings
The Bible, particularly in Genesis, gives symbolic meaning to rainbows, which usually indicate a blessing or promise. The most famous rainbow is given to Noah after the flood. Its fan of colors seems to include all the Earth as Yahweh gives the promise never again to bring universal waters. A second rainbow occurs in the story of Joseph and his multicolored coat. The coat is a symbolic blessing from Jacob to his favorite son. In this case, the blessing backfired: Joseph's brothers, jealous of such favoritism, assaulted Joseph and left him for dead.
Poe's "Masque" of Colors
One of the most highly charged color symbolism works is Edgar Allan Poe's "Masque of the Red Death." A rich prince avoids the Red Death plague by sealing himself and his friends in a castle and partying in seven different-colored rooms. These symbolize the life span, beginning with blue new birth and purple infant-skin shades and moving through green young life, the orange sunset, the white winter, the violet of funeral drapes and finally a black room with blood-red tinges. In this final room, Red Death claims the prince and his guests, a bleak end to all their colors.
- Eldritch Press: The Scarlet Letter: Notes to Ch. 8, The Elf-Child and the Minister
- University of Pennsylvania: The Colors of Literature (syllabus)
- Excellence in Literature: Symbols in The Great Gatsby; Frederick C. Millet
- Shakespeare-online.com: Sonnet 12; William Shakespeare
- Bible Gateway: Genesis 9: Verses 13-17
- Bible Hub: The Story of Joseph and His Coat of Many Colors
- University of Virginia: The Masque of the Red Death; Edgar Allan Poe
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.