Symbolisms of Color in Literature
Colors as symbolism have been used in every culture in the world throughout millennia. Colors are used to influence art, politics, the flag of each country, and even uniforms. Colors represent love, happiness, hope, death, envy, and more, depending on the usage. The colors influenced independent individuals and communities from the beginning of life formations on the earth. They have also changed their meaning and symbolism according to the time and new traditions, especially between the 5th century and 17th century. The word ‘color’ comes from the Anglo-French word ‘culur’ or ‘coulour’. Below are a few common colors and their symbolism.
White, a primary color, is one of the most preferred and used colors in every culture. The common symbolism of white is purity or innocence, peace, and faith. In western culture, as the white color also represents simplicity, virginity, and marriage, the brides wear a white gown to their wedding. Wearing a white garment brings clarity of mind and may influence their mood as well. In the Eastern hemisphere, especially in Hindu and Chinese culture, white symbolizes death. Hence the mourners wear white clothes to the funeral ceremonies. Christians also wear white during their baptisms, in the same way the Muslims wear simple white garments to their pilgrim… both symbolize that humans are all equal before God. White flags wear carried during the wars into enemy areas to symbolize truce.
In general, black as a color is a symbol of elegance, mystery as well as mourning. According to ancient Greece, black represented a personal service to the authority or the state. In western culture, people wear black to funerals as a symbol to express grief. However, as time changed, black represents style, anonymity, formality, and even power. So, when wearing a black suit or a gown, a person expresses elegant and minimalist design. During Halloween, black is combined with orange for decorations to represent the veil between the living and the dead.
Grey as a color symbolizes compromise, putting it in a negative light. However, the color grey also represents neutrality, control, and practicality. As the color grey is the shade between black and white, it makes it dull and is known to affect the state of mind as well. Also, as grey represents neutrality, it stands as a symbol of strength and detachment from emotional bonds. Grey also means a symbol of elderly people as the hair starts greying at old age. In western culture, grey is the most loved color of clothing to show smart and modest style. In ancient Chinese culture, grey clothes and walls represent humility. The color grey was connected to Ancient Egyptian Gods, and also a heron with grey wings is known to be the connection to the underworld. Grey color also symbolized poverty, especially in the 700 A.D, as monks and friars chose to wear them to fulfill their vows and live a simple life.
Universally pink as a color is a symbol of care and feminine beauty. The color pink also represents compassion and good health. Pink is also a tertiary color that means sweetness and also love. So, pink flowers are always added to the bouquet for occasions such as valentine’s day and Mother’s day, etc. In North Indian weddings, men wear pink turbans to symbolize the beginning of a new life or relationship. As pink is a combination of red and white, it represents passion, love, and purity. Pink ribbons also symbolize breast cancer awareness and are worn to honor those who fight the disease.
Another primary color in this list is blue. Color Blue as symbolism means peace, trust, loyalty, and stability in general. The ocean and sky are color blue, and the earth is also known as a blue planet. As pink is used for girls, blue is used for boys. According to Catholicism, blue represents Mother Mary or Virgin Mary and also symbolizes grace and divine favor. Blue is also attributed to patience and is worn to soothe one’s mind. Mesopotamians and Assyrians believed that blue had spiritual symbolism and was often used to ward away evil spirits. In Hinduism, gods like Krishna and Shiva are painted in blue. In modern western culture, blue is a dress or suit worn to symbolize authority. Blue talisman was considered protection in ancient Egyptian culture and is still practiced in countries like Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, etc.
Yellow is another primary color that symbolizes happiness, joy, and even fear. As yellow represents energy due to the sun and cheerfulness, it is often used to paint school buses and taxis. On the negative side, yellow also means ego and cowardice. In the United States of America and Canada, the color yellow represents hope if a family member is in the army and has gone to war. In ancient Chinese culture, yellow is a symbol of royalty. Yellow represents both life and death in Mexican culture and ancient Mayan culture. Yellow and gold are interchangeable symbols of the divine in Hindu culture, as they are used extensively during festivals and auspicious occasions. According to Christianity, gold symbolizes heaven, purification, and worship.
Red as a symbol means life, love, passion, and also danger across all cultures. Red roses and knick knacks are often designed in red during valentine’s day to represent love. In Hindu culture, the bride wears a red dress for the wedding ceremony as a symbol of warmth and love. In Christianity, red is the symbol of Jesus’ bloodshed during the crucifixion and is taken as a grape wine or juice form in churches. In art or cartoon, red is used to represent anger. During the middle ages, red was used to symbolize strength, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In Japanese culture, the samurai wore red to represent strength and self-sacrifice. Similar to Indian brides, in Chinese culture, brides wear a red dress to symbolize prosperity and good fortune; also, children receive red envelopes with money for the Chinese New year. As red is visually grabbing, it is used to as the traffic signal to stop the on-coming traffic as well.
Orange as a symbolism among colors, means optimism, vibrancy, demanding attention, and youth. Saffron is one of the prominent shades of orange that is used by Hindu monks as well as Buddhists as per their traditions. Here, orange or saffron symbolizes fire and purity or purifying fire. Orange also represents safety in the United States and most places. Hence it is used in detour signs, life jackets, and rafts. This trend is used also used by most countries’ industrial and security workforce. In Western culture, Orange also represents autumn and harvest season. It is combined with black to represent life’s vibrant shade and death’s blackness.
One of the primary colors, Green as a symbolism means nature, new life, and harmony in general. It is a dominant color worldwide and is used in hospitals to symbolize healing and peace. The color green also has negative connotations, such as greed and envy. In Shakespeare’s literature Othello, the green-eyed monster represents jealousy. On the positive side, green is used to represent the balance between head and heart, healthy relationships, and peace. The military uniform has dark or similar shades of green in them to blend into the environment and to represent combat. According to English and Irish culture, green is a symbol of magic, and most people celebrate St. Patrick’s day wearing green. In Irish mythology, leprechauns are known to ‘pinch’ the person for not wearing green during the celebration. Also, green is a prominent symbol in Islam and is a symbol of paradise, as it was Prophet Mohammed’s favorite color.
In general, the color purple symbolizes mystery, royalty or nobility, and wealth. For Christians, purple is a color of the Advent and Lent seasons. Also, purple is a combination of red and blue it signifies Jesus in heaven and death on the cross. A lighter shade of purple represents love or peace, while a darker shade of purple signifies sadness. In Thai and Brazilian cultures, purple represents death and mourning. In ancient roman, Persian, and Egyptian cultures, purple clothing was only accessible to the royal family to symbolize nobility, as they were expensive and rare to find.
The color brown is one of the autumn colors alongside orange, red, and yellow. Brown is a symbol of honesty, comfort, and stability due to its earthy color. Brown also symbolizes simplicity. Similar to green-brown is a common color observed everywhere in nature. Franciscan order monks specifically wore brown robes in the middle ages to symbolize humility and poverty, and it also was a chosen color by the lower class for the same reasons. Also, in current times, brown represents simplicity, hence is used in making paper bags and similar products. In Chinese culture, brown symbolizes the earth and also represents the imperial color of the Song Dynasty.
Examples of Colors As Symbolism in Literature
Color by Christina Rossetti
What is pink? a rose is pink
By a fountain’s brink.
What is red? a poppy’s red
In its barley bed.
What is blue? the sky is blue
Where the clouds float thro’.
What is white? a swan is white
Sailing in the light.
What is yellow? pears are yellow,
Rich and ripe and mellow.
What is green? the grass is green,
With small flowers between.
What is violet? clouds are violet
In the summer twilight.
What is orange? Why, an orange,
Just an orange!
Into My Heart an Air That Kills by A. E. Housman
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
Here the color blue symbolizes sadness as the poet recalls his childhood.
Color in the Wheat by Hamlin Garland
Like liquid gold the wheat field lies,
A marvel of yellow and russet and green,
That ripples and runs, that floats and flies,
With the subtle shadows, the change, the sheen,
That play in the golden hair of a girl,—
A ripple of amber—a flare
Of light sweeping after—a curl
In the hollows like swirling feet
Of fairy waltzers, the colors run
To the western sun
Through the deeps of the ripening wheat.
Here the poet uses more than one color to describe the wheat field. For example, green and yellow represent joy and amber, one of the shades of yellow, is a symbol of beauty with its transparency. Also, the ripe wheat is compared to the setting sun, which changes from yellow to orange and then red, symbolizing perfection and mystery.
Blue by Annette Wynne
When God made everything
I’m glad he had a lot of blue-
A great big sky for all the world
And eyes like yours for you.
In this example, the poet uses the color blue to describe God’s best creation, such as sky, and also the listener with blue eyes, which is compared to the earth. Here the color blue symbolizes grandeur and beauty.
The Sick Rose By William Blake
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Here the color red and crimson, a shade of red, symbolizes ailment or sickness. It can also represent passion or corruption of the soul.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
In the above example, the blue represents melancholy feelings or sadness.
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
Here the color purple is a symbol of purity and royalty, which is impossible to ignore. Hence the author reiterates that the purple color is impossible to dislike or ignore.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
People observe the colors of a day only at its beginnings and its ends, but to me it’s quite clear that a day merges through a multitude of shades and intonations with each passing moment. A single hour can consist of thousands of different colors. Waxy yellows, cloud-spat blues. Murky darknesses. In my line of work, I make it a point to notice them.”
One of the most read fiction on the holocaust, the author describes the lives of the people during that time using the shades of yellow and blue, which are darkened or worn out to symbolize pain and suffering.