Literature Color Symbolism: Examples and Meanings

Many writers thoughtfully use color to add depth and insight to their stories. Learn how to use color symbolism to enhance literature, and see examples from notable novels.

What is Symbolism?

Symbolism refers to a literary technique that uses symbolic elements (words, animals, marks, or locations) to represent something more profound than its literal meaning. To communicate a central idea of a fairy tale to children, fairy tales often use literary symbolism. The Brothers Grimm used the forest as a symbol of danger and mystery.

Artists use symbolism in literature, film, and famous paintings. They implicitly communicate ideas, foreshadow future events, create a mood, or grab attention.

What is Color Symbolism?

Literature uses color symbolism to show more profound meanings. Writers can use different colors to draw attention to symbolic objects, convey information about characters, or highlight a theme. Some writers use a color palette to get a mood or highlight themes. For example, pastels suggest dreaminess while darker colors signify mystery or foreboding. Color symbolism is a highly effective tool for identifying meanings in many cultures and human societies.

What do Colors Symbolize in Literature

Intentional use of color is more common than not in literature. Here’s a breakdown of the meanings of specific colors in literature. However, remember that colors can have different meanings depending on where you live.

Black: In Gothic literature from West Africa, black often signifies death, evil, and grief.

Blue: There are positive and negative connotations for the color blue in psychology. Writers may use blue to convey serenity or tranquility. This can create a calm atmosphere. Blue can also be used to signify sadness, melancholy, or isolation.

Brown: The warm, earthy color brown may symbolize stability, comfort, and a feeling of being grounded. Writers can also use brown to signify dullness or predictability.

Green: Green is often associated with growth, rebirth, and peace. Green colors may also represent spring and renewal.

Orange: Orange is often associated with energy, enthusiasm, joy, and creativity. Orange is also known as the color of fire and may be used to symbolize heat.

Pink: Pink is a color that symbolizes love, kindness, and femininity.

Purple: Purple is often associated with royalty. It symbolizes courage, spirituality, and luxury.

Red: This color represents some of the most powerful emotions in human life, such as passion or lust. This warm color, often associated with violence, danger, and anger, can also be found on the opposite side of the spectrum.

White: This primary color traditionally represents innocence, peace, and cleanliness. White is a symbol of purity and virginity in Western cultures. In some East Asian cultures, it can also be used to symbolize mourning.

Yellow: Writers might use yellow to represent creativity, happiness, and optimism. Think of a yellow ray shining through a dark cloud. The common negative connotation for yellow is cowardice. This expression is popularized by “yellow-bellied.”

Three Examples of Color Symbolism In Literature

These are just four examples of books that have color-symbolic meanings.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age novel, The Great Gatsby, features prominent color symbolism. The most famous symbol is the light green on Daisy’s East Egg Dock that Gatsby sees from his West Egg property. To symbolize Gatsby’s obsession with wealth, Fitzgerald uses the color green, which is associated with jealousy and greed.

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter: Hester Pryne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, is punished for infidelity by being marked as an adulterer with the letter “A.” The letter’s fabric color is scarlet, a bright red shade. This symbolizes Hester’s lust and sin and the frustration and anger she feels in the face of public shame.

3. Brothers Grimm’s Snow White: The Brothers Grimm’s version of Snow White tells how the wicked Queen makes a poisoned apple to fool Snow White. Half the apple is white (the harmless part), and the other half is poisoned (the poisoned portion). After seeing the Queen consume the white piece of the apple, Snow White assumes that the whole thing is safe and takes a fatal bite from the poisoned part. The Queen wants to spill blood, and the red color represents evil. The apple’s white side, similar to Snow White, symbolizes all that is pure and good.

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