Thursday, March 18, 2010

Varian: The Symbolism of Color in The Great Gilly Hopkins

Last week, my YA novel Saving Maddie was released. The novel has a very striking cover—the juxtaposition of Madeline’s purple lipstick with the cross around her neck points to one of the main themes of the novel: the balance between the spiritual and the seductive.

While Madeline has sported purple lipstick since the first draft of the novel, I didn’t think much about the use of color in a symbolic way until my first semester at Vermont College, when I was reintroduced to Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins. In the novel, Paterson uses color to symbolically hint at Gilly’s true desire—something Gilly herself doesn’t even realize.

The novel opens with Gilly being taken to the home of her new foster parent, Maime Trotter. The outside of Trotter’s house is “old and brown”, and the furniture inside of the house includes a brown couch, brown chair, and a brown piano bench. In addition, the brown couch is topped with a “pile of cushions covered in graying lace”. A black table supports the television, and a black upright piano stands between the door and the chair. Lastly, Trotter’s other foster child, William Earnest Teague, is a young boy with thick glasses and “muddy brown hair.” (4-6)

Paterson’s use of brown and other dark colors at first seems like a quirky character trait associated with Maime Trotter. However, we soon begin to see other instances of color. In Chapter 2, as Gilly unpacks her brown suitcase in the brown house, she reflects back on her time spent with past foster parents. “The Nevinses’ house had been square and white and dustless, just like every other square, white, dustless house in the treeless development where they had lived. She had been the only thing out of place” (10).

Then Gilly unpacks her most prized possession—a photograph of a woman with brown eyes that “laughed up at her as they always had”, and glossy black hair that “hung in gentle waves without one hair astray.” Gilly was looking at a picture of her mother (Paterson, 10-11).

We quickly realize that Gilly has been waiting for her mother to show up and rescue her from the Nevinses, Richmonds, Newmans, and all the other foster families that have abandoned her. Gilly believes that everything will be okay once this beautiful, brown eyed, black haired woman reappears and takes her back home.

Of course, what Gilly doesn’t realize is that she can find everything she’s ever wanted at the brown house in Thompson Park. This is solidified throughout the novel, as we are introduced to Mr. Randolph, the blind Black man that lives in the grey house next door (Paterson 13), and her teacher, Miss Harris, a “tall, tea-colored woman, crowned with a bush of black hair” (Paterson 24).

Gilly eventually comes to love and trust her make-shift family, and is alarmed when her maternal grandmother arrives to take custody of her. However, Paterson lets the reader know that Gilly doesn’t need to worry; Paterson describes Gilly’s grandmother as “…a small, plump woman whose grey hair peaked out from under a close-fitting black felt hat. She wore black gloves and a black-and-tweed overcoat, which was a little too long to be fashionable, and carried a slightly worn black alligator bag over one arm” (129).

Through her use of dark colors, Paterson tells the reader that while Gilly is upset she is being forced to live with a woman she’s never met, her grandmother will provide Gilly with the love and attention she has been so desperately searching for.

One point worth noting is that Paterson goes against the traditional stereotypes associated with colors. Dark colors such as black and brown are associated with good, kind characters. Likewise, characters with questionable morals and agendas are painted with light colors. Miss Ellis, the social worker that wants to take Gilly away from Trotter after Gilly steals, had blonde hair and blue eyes. The red-headed Agnes Stokes helps Gilly steal from Mr. Randolph (72-78) and scoffs at the idea of Gilly considering Trotter and William Earnest as family (142-143). The Great Gilly Hopkins herself had straw colored hair (10), and when we are first introduced to her, she is chewing pink bubble gum (1). Gilly’s given name, Galadriel, evokes images of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elf queen of the same name, whom when she is first introduced in The Lord of the Rings is “clad wholly in white” and whose hair “was of deep gold” (398).

Most interesting is Gilly’s perception of her mother when she finally meets her face-to-face. Gilly travels to the airport with her grandmother, and is horrified at the sight of Courtney Rutherford Hopkins. She isn’t “tall and willowy and gorgeous” as Gilly had imagined (Paterson 174). And her hair is not the glossy black that Gilly had expected; instead it is “dull and stringy—a darker version of Agnes Stokes’s [red hair], which had always needed washing” (Paterson 174). Of course, Paterson had hinted at this earlier in the novel: Gilly had already spurned her mother’s pink room for her deceased Uncle Chadwell’s room, with is corduroy brown bed (Paterson 158).

Paterson leaves the reader to wonder if Gilly’s mother had once been good but had transformed into a more dislikeable character over the years since the photo had been taken. Or perhaps, being that it was just a photograph—a vision—Gilly’s perception of her mother was never accurate to begin with. Either way, the reader (and Gilly at this point) knows that Gilly has found a place where she will be cared for and loved. Paterson’s use of color reinforces this revelation—making the novel that much more layered.

Works Cited

Paterson, Katherine. The Great Gilly Hopkins. 1987. New York: Harper Trophy-Harper, 2004.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. 1954. New York: Ballantine, 1965.


  1. Thanks, Varian, for sharing this. I know, in writing my Gothics, I was already on the "dark" master, "dark" other playing field, well established by the late 1800s works.

    So I countered by making black and blue the colors of heaven, the colors of the angels.

    The only people who've remarked upon it were a couple of African American teens at a library event, but I could tell it meant something to them, if only because they cared enough to bring it up.

  2. Varian, that is quite fascinating! I never noticed that about Gilly Hopkins. Congrats on your release of Saving Maddie - the juxtaposition of sacred/profane is a theme in my writing, too - I look forward to reading it!