Color Symbolism in Literature: Meaning & Examples

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  • 0:04 Transforming to Technicolor
  • 0:54 What Is Color Symbolism?
  • 2:39 Color in Literature
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Have you ever thought about how color is used to convey deeper meaning in a story? In this lesson, we'll study how color is used symbolically in literature to create a richer reading experience.

Transforming to Technicolor

Do you remember the scene from The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy emerges from her gray farmhouse into the brightly colored world of Munchkinland? It was a telling scene of the difference between her routine, even boring, farm life and the magical journey through interesting lands with unique characters she was about to embark on.

The use of color in that movie, as well as literature, is a way to add symbolism to any work. Symbolism in literature is when a writer uses one object to represent something outside of its literal sense. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy's slippers represent her own power to change her life. At the end of the movie, she finds out she's had the power all along in the soles of her shoes.

In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at what color symbolism in literature is all about, and explore some examples of color symbolism in practice.

What Is Color Symbolism?

For years, authors have used the concept of color as a symbol to help readers get a better understanding of characters, places, events, and ideas. If you want to infuse deeper meaning into something, you can use color symbolism to create something more memorable for readers by attaching an emotional state or event or even character to a color.

Think of the basic assumptions you make about colors. Someone who's angry 'sees red.' If you're sad, you might tell someone you're 'feeling blue.' In many ways, we already associate colors with concepts or feelings. It only makes sense that authors would use the same to convey their own ideas.

Here are some colors used throughout literature, along with what they might symbolize:

Color Common symbolism
Red Anger, evil, desire
Green Peace, relaxation, growth, jealousy
Yellow Happiness, energy, hope
Blue Calmness, comfort, depression, melancholy
Pink Femininity, romance, love
White Innocence, purity, youth
Purple Royalty, wisdom, transformation
Black Despair, mourning, death

Do these colors remind you of any favorite books? You can probably remember scenes from literature where a particular color, such as the color red in The Scarlet Letter, which represents lust and shame, was used to add extra meaning to a character or the story.

Let's examine other examples of color symbolism in literature.

Color in Literature

Let's first take a look at the The Great Gatsby and its use of color. There are many instances of color symbolism in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby. It's easy to imagine what Fitzgerald was trying to convey in his use of the color gold. Gold is representative of wealth, money, or a lavish lifestyle. More so than green, like the color of paper money, gold speaks to excessive wealth. Think of King Midas and his 'golden touch.'

In fact, the color gold is mentioned before the book even begins, on the title page, with a quote from Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, a pseudonym of Fitzgerald's in fact, about a 'gold hat.' There are numerous other references to the color as well, including 'Jordan's slender golden arm,' and Gatsby's 'gold-colored tie' when he's meeting Daisy.

Some versions of the book feature an almost entirely blue cover, along with shades of gold, and Fitzgerald himself alludes to the color blue throughout: his 'blue gardens,' or a 'chauffeur in a uniform of robin's-egg blue.' Blue is used to represent loneliness, tranquility and even fantasy in this book. Perhaps the gold that represents Gatsby's outward persona masks his internal 'blue' struggles.

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