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Colour your days and your reading: a literary colour quiz

July 24, 2018 by Nora Nagy

Do you ever feel blue? Do you easily see the silver lining? Have you ever felt green with envy? Colours convey so many different feelings and meanings that we could easily dedicate a series of lessons to English phrases and idioms which are built around them. It takes only one step to continue our colour journey with other languages to highlight the cultural and linguistic differences in colour and explore the "different semantic distinctions between hues", an idea that Aneta Pavlenko describes in her paper 'Bilingualism and Thought'. We will discuss language relativity, this exciting research area of linguistics in our next post, so do come back to find out more about it.

In art and literature colours can signify different emotions, moods, places and people. In our post 'Colourful journeys' we looked at colours in general in picture books, novels, poetry and culture. Read this post for more on the basic language and general symbolism of colours.

The middle of January is often said to be the most depressing period of the year in the northern hemisphere, and  the third Monday of January is popularly known as 'Blue Monday'. But we won't let the January blues get to us... Today we are going to study examples of  three colours: green, red and black from six of our favourite novels. Let's add some colour to blue January!

Here's a tip: Remind your students to watch out for colours when they are reading a novel, listening to a story or watching a film. What do the colours in the story stand for? Do they have any special meaning? Do the readers share the same perception of the colours? Share a dictionary of symbols with them where they can check the historical and cultural references of different colours. Here are two of our favourite reference books:

  • Cirlot, Juan E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Philosophical Library, 1962.
  • Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Green is a transitional colour which links dark and light colours. In the colour wheel it is a secondary colour, created by mixing the primary colours blue and yellow. Green is the colour of nature, earth, growth and life. It also stands for progress, think of the term giving a project 'the green light' and is the sacred colour of Islam, representing respect.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

There is a fun research with interesting charts on the blog 'Scientific Gems'. You will see that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is on of the children's novels which has the highest number of references to the colour green. The article mentions that it has plot-related reasons.

What can these be?

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although the novel is packed with important colour references (gold, blue, white and red are some of the most significant ones), the green light at the end of the novel is probably the most memorable example.

What does it symbolise?


Red, like most colours, is a diverse, ambiguous colour. It is associated with passion and love yet also with danger and anger. Red signifies strong emotions and excites our feelings. In China red is associated with luck and joy and is used as a portent of good fortune during New Year celebrations.

Jane Eyre by Emily Brontë

In this novel Jane often talks about being sent to the red room.

How does she feel about this room?

Red Water by Antoinette Moses

This is an original story written for pre-intermediate level language learners. It has an exciting plot, in which two teen hackers Tricia and Daniel discover that a local company could be involved in a sinister plot to trade carbon, they suddenly find that their lives are in danger.

What do you think 'red' means in the title?


Black is a strong colour, often associated with the supernatural, decay and death. For this reason, it is a popular colour in Gothic literature, for example in the stories of Edgar Allan Poe or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Technically black is the total lack of colour and is traditionally the colour worn by people in mourning.

The Masque of the Red Death in the volume 'Tales of Mystery' by Edgar Allan Poe

Although in the title of story you can read the colour 'red', which is also significant, the colour 'black' appears several times in the story.

As you are reading the short story, find objects it describes.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

In this dark story you will find more almost 150 words which signify darkness and the lack of clarity, as we learn from the paper by Michael Stubbs which offers a corpus stylistics analysis of the novel.

As you are reading the novel, find examples of words which mean darkness and the lack of clarity.

More literary colour quiz questions

How many of these colour questions can you answer?

  1. What does 'darkness' mean in the title Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?
  2. Why is the league 'red-headed' in Sherlock Holmes story The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle?
  3. Why does Anne Shirley live in 'Green Gables' in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery?
  4. Can you name three novels in the Helbling Readers series which have a colour and an animal in their titles?
  5. What colour are Peter Pan's clothes?
  6. What does the colour 'green' refer to in the story The Green Room written by Robert Campbell?


  • Kroll, Judith F, and A M. B. Groot. Handbook of Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Stubbs, Michael. "Conrad in the Computer: Examples of Quantitative Stylistic Methods." Language and Literature. 14.1 (2005): 5-24.

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