There are many features in the works of literature that seep through from the hardcover of one book to another: a forbidden love; a fatal death; a twist of fate, and as I’ve found, red rooms.
A wonderfully paradoxical colour, red is traditionally associated with passion and love, and then also pain, bloodshed and death. It is no wonder then that most writers jump to use it to personify something as mundane as a simple ‘room’ and characterise it with an adjective such as ‘red’ to induce an idea of a place of love and passion or pain and death. Some may say that the writer’s choice of colour scheme may be merely personal preference and the choice to make a room ‘red’ would be simply a choice of aesthetics , however I beg to differ, although there is an extent to which inference cannot explain, use of colour creates a connection with what the characters are feeling within the text. Also it acts as visual aid to the reader in conjuring an image for the scene at hand.
Red, as inferred as a colour of love and passion can be most famously linked back to the infamous ‘red room’ in Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks wherein the two protagonists Stephen and Isabelle conduct an affair. The ‘red room’ being in the house of Isabelle’s husband, where Stephen is staying, the room is shrouded with an air of sin. Through this an analogy to hell is made, the fiery red walls similar to the crude cavern of the underworld and the audience can understand the intense and almost fearful atmosphere that is created through the simple use of the adjective ‘red’. However Stephen and Isabelle’s ‘red room’ was not just a place of sin and marital betrayal. The two shared, perhaps a fundamentally doomed, but passionate love and although throughout the book the characters drift apart, separated by war and personal strife, the memory of the ‘red room’ remains, a place entirely their own that is held in a place of limbo, in-between heaven and hell, sanity and insanity.
Sebastian Faulks is not the only author who favours the use of a red room in their novel.
Probably the most well-known ‘red room’ resides in the text of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. A different story altogether Jane Eyre follows the life of its eponymous heroine throughout which she finds herself in the house of her cruel morally twisted aunt, the school of the abusive and hypocritical Mr Brocklehurst, the home of her love Mr Rochester in Thornfield manor, on the street, and of course a ‘red room’. Put in it as a punishment by her aunt, to young Jane the room held the ghost of her Uncle Reed. Creating a paradox in comparison to Faulks red room of passion and love, Bronte plays with red as a fearful colour, an implication of death. The room also is a symbol of Jane’s confinement under her tyrant aunt’s rule. This can again create an analogy of hell, being a place both for the dead and the living. The red room is the one thing that Jane can not endear, and after believing to see the ghost of her dead uncle within the four red walls she has such an episode that it is advised to move her away. In the end the red room is a symbol of both her confinement and her release, as in the end it is the thing that sets her free. However the red room can be further inferred to suggest it is a symbol of a ‘womb’, the analogy can be found through the fact of it being a tight red enclosed space, although it goes further than a visual analogy. The fact that Jane’s aunt is forcing her back into the ‘womb’ creates the conception that she is being re conceived. Usually it is symbolic in literature that a character enclosed in a tight space could be seen as reborn after emerging, however this is conception in reverse as through Jane’s banishment and confinement to the room it can imply that her aunt is trying to push her out of existence and into a state where she did not exist in the flesh before her, whether that was intended on being hell or a womb we can only infer.
The significance of red in both books plays a heavy element upon the unravelling plot, influencing the characters decisions and how they act due to their time in each ‘red room’. It is at this point that many will say that it is due to what happened in the rooms and not the colours of their walls that influenced these further events, and with that I would agree. Although the colour may provoke a certain emotion within the room that may contribute to what happened within them, it is by no means the solitary factor of the characters plot.
So no, I do not think that because of the red colours of the walls Jane thought she saw her dead uncle’s ghost manifest before her, or that Stephen and Isobelle fell in love.
No, it is not for the characters these emotive colours are used; it is for us, the readers. As authors their main objective is to engage the reader and this is what’s done by adding ‘red’ before the mundane four letter word ‘room’. Although most may say that this does not engage them anymore than any other room would do, and maybe not, but I personally feel that by using colours to describe certain quintessential things it allows the reader to identify with what is going to happen in the room, not of course due to the actual colour, but because of what the colour suggests.
Red as a colour is one of the most emotive ones we as humans have found, we connect to it on various levels, whether it being love, hatred, anger, pain, death, bloodshed. Red is a colour that surrounds our life, and we in turn have grown to use it for our own purposes, authors merely using it to shape the lives of those in their novels, and thus those reading them: us.
The power of red is a mighty one, and never so much so than in literature. I have merely skimmed the surface of the books I have come across, solely by chance, that have red rooms in them, and there are still more being added, and from what I have read, entering them does not often end so well.
So I will leave you with a little parting advice: STAY AWAY FROM THE RED ROOMS!