The Color Red: Sex and Symbols in a Literary Reading of Olive Kitteridge

The color red has long been used across cultures and time to symbolize love, lust, sexuality and intimacy. Author Elizabeth Strout delicately, almost imperceptively weaves the color red throughout her novel called Olive Kitteridge.

That Olive is a retired teacher and her story embraces love, betrayal, loss, death and (hints of) sex should come as no surprise. Just as teachers are not above visits to the grocery store or reading racy literature, so is Olive’s story threaded with reality.


-photo courtesy Wikipedia

About Olive

The acerbic and opinionated, post-mid age, New Englander Olive Kitteridge is an unlikely heroine for a novel. But Elizabeth Strout has managed to pull off something fairly unique in today’s popular market, besides jacket swag from Oprah.

Olive Kitteridge’s character and point of view dominate the book titled for her. Olive is a stoic and insightful retired schoolteacher who doesn’t take well to change in her community or family.  Yet change permeates. It swirls around Olive and Crosby Maine like love and lust and death and the Nor’ Easterners they can neither prevent nor protect themselves from.

Unique Character Approach

Unlike books around whereby the story focuses on one character, this book focuses around many. Olive is probably the main character. But, the book has other characters whose stories are told from their point of view.  In those chapters, Olive makes various other types of appearances–from that of a cameo, to a mere mention, to being the former teacher who happens to stop and chat with a former student she sees in town, inadvertently prompting him to abort his secret suicide mission, which readers know about, since the story is largely told from his point of view.

About Sex and Red Gloves

So now that you have some backstory and structure, let’s get to the sex. Well not sex directly, but its intimations. The first chapters focus largely on Olive’s husband Henry and his days as a small town pharmacist. Henry develops and infatuation for his assistant, Denise, who is warm, generous of spirit and delicate. All things Olive is not.

After Denise’s young husband is killed, she comes to rely emotionally on Henry. In one scene, the assistant has dropped her glove on the snowy parking lot. Henry picks it up and holds it for the assistant to place her hand inside of it. This simple act would be merely a simple act if Henry weren’t so pained for his attractive assistant’s situation and lost in a sense of longing all balled up with this pain. His internal monologue reads:  I talk to you all the time in my head. The glove represents both, protection from the cold and symbolic harsh realities of life, and—the mutual act of dressing Denise’s hand can be seen as symbolic of a wish for further more intimate acts.



-photo courtesy Jackie, via Wikimedia Commons

Stockholm Syndrome and the Color Red

In one chapter Olive, her husband, and some hospital staff are held hostage by a young man who takes his hat off to reveal a shock of red hair. In the harrowing scene where the youth continues to threaten them, Henry soils himself. Olive finds herself trying to identify with the youth and distance herself from Henry. It’s typical Stockholm Syndrome survival stuff. But still by the end, this reader was not prepared for the school girl crush Olive displays in her internal thoughts of fantasizing about the youth in prison. Again, the color red could not have been an authorial accident for his hair color. And, neither the fact that the youth kept turning red in the hostage scene.

On Cars   

Cars represent so much in this story. Change. Passage of time.  It cannot be a mistake that the cars of greatest importance are—you guessed it—red. Of special note after Henry passes away and Olive later begins a stilted, hesitant relationship with an unlikely man—he drives a “shiny red car.” What else could this shiny red car represent but Olive’s new love and lust for life—or at least for not dying yet as the narrator points out.

In another scene, which I cannot find, but was cause for this rumination on red, one couple ascends the stairs bound for an afternoon of intimacy. Readers know this since the couple passes by a red vase on a windowsill on a stair landing. Warmed by the light from outside, the vase both in shape, function and color represent the physical and symbolic aspects of intimacy.  And in the way of great literature, the rest is left to the readers’ imagination.

Literary folks like to maintain that nothing is unintentional in great literature and art. What repeated motifs have you noticed in literary or art works that came to delicately symbolize love, lust or intimacy?

Happy Valentines’ Week!


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