It seems that every time a discussion about literary criticism comes up, some loser says this:
Literary Critics: The blue curtains show the characters internal struggle with the … sadness … etc.
What the Author Meant: The curtains were EFFING BLUE!
And yes, the example is always blue curtains. I don’t know why. Honestly I can’t remember a single good discussion on blue curtains in my entire reading history. I don’t know if everyone read a book in school that I didn’t, or if perhaps they’re quoting someone else. I don’t know, but this is the example I have to go with.
Perhaps literary criticism does go a bit far. Ernest Hemingway was know for prickling under accusations of allegory writing. Though what he wrote and what his readers understood don’t have to line up. It’s unlikely that they ever would perfectly. The only reader that thinks exactly like Hemingway was Hemingway.
Here’s what gets me about those blue curtains everyone is talking about: there are no curtains. No, seriously. I’m not pulling a Matrix on you. The curtains aren’t real. They don’t exist. You’ve been told to imagine a set of blue curtains hanging over (presumably) windows that you’re also imagining. These imaginary windows are themselves in an imaginary room where some imaginary action is taking place involving at least one imaginary person. An author has recorded, along with the actions and flow of the story, that there were blue curtains in this imaginary room.
It’s a rather silly thing to record. In the course of my life I have told one thousand stories about my day to coworkers, friends, bosses, family, etc., and not once have I mentioned the color of the curtains. Do you mention the curtains? Try it next time you tell a joke.
So a priest, a rabbi, and methodist holding a banjo walk into a bar. The bar has blue curtains. Anyway, they walk into the bar and the bartender says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”
If you tell a joke like I do, people will start laughing around the moment you mention the curtains. They’re just so out-of-place.
They weren’t out of place in the book, were they? If you’re reading a book by a good writer, that writer has thought of exactly what he will say and likely cut thousands of unnecessary details. There are writers out there, of course, that don’t think things out, but — and trust me on this — analyzing the inner workings of idiots isn’t worth the time. In high school you were probably never asked to read a book by a bad author, so you can assume that the writer thought about each detail he or she passed on to you.
If you don’t believe me, consider the scene. What color would you make the curtains? Does the scene change if there are no curtains? The room probably becomes brighter, which says something about its occupants. If the curtains are polka-dotted pink and yellow, that says something about the occupants too.
Curtains say something about the occupants of a room in real life — I for instance, don’t have curtains, instead I have blinds. That are closed. All the time.
Maybe the author didn’t mean for the blue curtains to be some kind of thematic reflection, but that isn’t a guarantee. Some writers are careful enough about the minutia that they frequently use tiny symbols to express larger themes. Other writers do it unintentionally. These writers are only subconsciously aware of the symbolism implied. Think of the author like a cinematographer or a director, carefully lining up shots and framing them in such a way as to provoke an emotional response from the audience. Authors just use words instead of images, picking and choosing which parts of a scene will be explicit (the blue curtains) and which parts will be up to the reader.
So, yes, the curtains are blue and that means that the room is probably dark and the occupants have good (or bad) design sense. Maybe it even means that our intrepid protagonist is feeling a little down in the dumps. Don’t be an unobservant reader.