The Uses of Color

by Jaya Spier
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The ways in which an author uses color can communicate much about a story. In Jean Rhys’s “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” as the place itself becomes a character, standing between Rochester and Antoinette, the color palette brings place life: the colors hold Antoinette close while alienating Rochester—in the same scene. It is color that portrays the message of distance between them.

The island of Dominica provided much of the inspiration for the lush, rich, evocative language of "The Wide Sargasso Sea"
The island of Dominica provided much of the inspiration for the lush, rich, evocative language of “The Wide Sargasso Sea”

In Annie Proulx’s “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water,” the colors create an important contrast between people and place. The green of the grass, the yellow morning light, the black of the gangrene, the crimson of Ras’s face, the story would be empty without them.

“The Wide Sargasso Sea” famously reimagines the life of the “mad” wife in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre.”

The story centers on the experiences of young Antoinette, as she later likes to be called, and her life growing up in the Caribbean. Her father has passed away, he was a slaveholder and her mother is a rather eccentric woman.

Her family is not well looked upon by the surrounding community, as a result Antoinette often hears people call her “white nigger” and “white cockroach.”

When she is still young, her house is burned to the ground in an attempt to kill her family. Her younger brother, who was already unwell, dies and it drives her mother mad.

Antoinette is sent to live with the nuns and later, after her mother’s death, she is married off to Rochester. The book switches back and forth, broken into sections from Antoinette and Rochester’s points of view but the novel is particularly interesting because of the ways Rhys uses color.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 1.53.26 PMIn the beginning of the novel, Antoinette is still young. This is before her house is burned down and her family falls apart.

She goes to the bathing pool with her playmate, Tia. There, she observes the water. “I wasn’t quite awake as I lay in the shade looking at the pool–deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun. The water was so clear that you could see the pebbles at the bottom of the shallow part. Blue and white and striped red.”

The colors make the bathing pool so vivid it feels like a character within the scene.

Antoinette observes her surroundings much more eloquently than she does the people in her life. She is ignored by her mother and has little interaction with her brother. The one person in her life who seems to care about her is their black servant, Christophine. Antoinette puts her love into that which loves her: the place in which she lives.

When the locals end up burning down Antoinette’s home. Antoinette and her family escape the house and as she watches it burn she observes: “The house was burning, the yellow-red sky was like sunset and I knew that I would never see Coulibri again. Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa…When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone”

The fire kills all the color in her home; the blackened walls symbolize the finality of her loss.

Later in the story when Antoinette’s aunt is informing her she will leaving for England, she works on a patchwork counterpane, which mesmerizes Antoinette.

“The diamond-shaped pieces of silk melted one into the other, red, blue, purple, green,

Rochester finds himself overwhelmed by color as much as Antoninette finds herself at home in it
Rochester finds himself overwhelmed by color as much as Antoninette finds herself at home in it

yellow, all one shimmering colour…Would I be lonely? She asked and I said ‘No’, looking at the colours.”

Like the nature surrounding her house, once she is sent to the nuns, the convent becomes Antoinette’s refuge. Again, it is not people that comfort her but places and colors.

In the second part of the novel, color is used in a contrasting way for Rochester. Rather than finding comfort in it, it is foreign to him.

“The road climbed upward. On one side the wall of green, on the other a steep drop to the ravine below. We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft warm wind blowing but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place. Not only wild but menacing… ‘What an extreme green,’ was all I could say.”

Rochester is intimidated by the “extreme” colors. The wildness is a complete opposite from what he is familiar with back in England.

He explicitly tells us this as he begins his journey to settle in to his life with Antoinette. “Everything is too much, I felt as I rode wearily after her. Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near. And the woman is a stranger.”

As they travel further into the wildness, Antoinette comes to a stop at a river. Rochester watches her dismount and drink from the river. She then picks a leaf and folds it to hold liquid, bringing him some water:

“I drank. It was cold, pure and sweet, a beautiful colour against the thick green leaf…Next time she spoke she said, ‘The earth is red here, did you notice?’ ‘It’s red in parts of England too.’ ‘Oh England, England,’ she called back mockingly.”

The use of color helps signify that this marriage will not be a comfortable one. These opposite reactions to the colors surrounding them almost seem to foreshadow everything about what is to come.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 1.53.43 PMIn her collection of short stories “Close Range,” Annie Proulx treats the use of color in a different way than Rhys.

Proulx uses color sparingly, for her stories are often filled with a sense of barrenness that is reinforced by the landscape. The occasional use of color serves to draw the reader into place.

In the short story “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” Proulx writes of two families.

One, the Dunmires, a family of sons, brought up by their father to work hard after their mother abandoned them. They’re successful and willing to do whatever needs to be done, their way being the only way. Another, the Tinsleys, a family of misfortune. Proulx’s use of color in this story surrounds the Tinsley’s son, Ras who is injured after he has been gone from home for 5 years and must return into their care.

When his parents pick him up from the train station “The afternoon light was the sour color of lemon juice” and they are horrified to see his condition. “He was a monster. The left side of his face and head had been damaged and torn, had healed in a mass of crimson scars.”

Unable to speak or help around the ranch, the only pleasure Ras has is riding his horse. “They could see him on the prairie against the sharp green, a distant sullen cloud dispensing lean bolts.” However, in his addled state he starts to harass women in town. The Tinsleys begin to hear what their son has been up to and they try to convince him to stay home more but Ras starts leaving for days at a time.

Finally, one day “the sheriff came by in a new black Chevrolet with a star painted white on the side and said Ras had showed himself to a rancher’s wife way the hell down in Tie Siding, forty miles away,” and Ras’s father has no choice but to take the horses saddle and tell Ras he can’t ride anymore. Ras disobeys and rides bareback, doing whatever he pleases.

The Dunmire sons hear about what Ras has been doing and Jaxon goes to warn Mr. Tinsley, if Ras isn’t controlled soon, someone will control Ras for him. Horm Tinsley orders Jaxon to leave and tells himself he will talk with Ras soon and “make him understand” but life gets in the way. “The well was almost out. The first melons were ready to slip the vine when the coyotes came after the fruit and he had to sleep in the patch. At last the melons–bitter and small–were picked, the tomatoes began to ripen and the need for water slacked. It was late summer, sere, sun-scalded yellow.”

Horm sits down to warn Ras “Ras sat hunched over in the rocking chair on the porch. For once he was home. The boy looked wretched, hair matted, hands and arms dirty.”

Ras listens and then laughs in Horm’s face. The next morning, Horm is relieved to see Ras seems more subdued but Mrs. Tinsley discovers Ras has a fever. Thinking he’s caught a cold she puts him to bed but he’s sick and dirty and the smell is too much. She tells her husband to bathe him. Horm returns from giving Ras a bath and cries:

“The morning light flooded the rim of the world, poured through the window glass, colored the wall and floor, laid its yellow blanket on the reeking bed, the kitchen table and the cups of cold coffee. There was no cloud in the sky. Grasshoppers hit against the east wall in their black and yellow thousands.”
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image2Jaya Spier holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest but likes to spend her time traveling.