As an English teacher, there is one thing I hear my students say more than anything else in the world: “the curtains are blue because they’re blue. That’s all”. Basically, these students want me to understand that I am thinking way too deeply about the word choices of the writers I read. They argue that no one really spends that long thinking about such a small detail in their story. Do the curtains have to symbolise sadness? Can’t they just be blue?
“The curtains are blue” has been a meme for years. I know it was around when I was sitting my GCSEs. I could see first-hand that my peers were sick and tired of going into such deep detail over a word. It didn’t make much sense to them. Heck, lots of people who say this are writers themselves! They didn’t think in that much detail when they wrote, so why would other writers?
Well, that’s just not how English works. The curtains are usually blue for a reason.
Look. I get it. Some teachers go way overboard with their analysis. They spend so much time on a single word that they bore you to death. They might even lose sight of what the text is trying to say as a whole. For them, symbolism is everywhere! However, don’t let that make you think all analysis is over the top. There’s a lot of value to asking why the curtains are blue.
Read on so that I can tell you what that value is and how to look for it.
English Teachers Choose Texts Where Writers Think Deeply About Word Choices
When you are studying English literature, the chances are that someone else is choosing the texts for you. It could be your teacher, the English department or the exam board. Whoever it is, they don’t pick these texts out of a hat.
English teachers have carefully selected texts that we know have a lot of hidden symbols for you to find. When we read these texts for you, we are on the lookout for writers who think deeply about their work. That way, we can be sure you’ll have lots to say in your essays. We’re picking the ripest, juiciest oranges for you to squeeze. It would be dumb of us to expect you to make orange juice with dry oranges.
No good English teacher is going to make you think about the colour of the curtains in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid set. We get that the writer’s intentions weren’t to make you think about all the subtle symbols. That’s not to say that the books you read aren’t good, though! As I’ve said before, it is never a good thing to be a book snob. Any book can be valuable. It’s just about how you use it.
After all, different writers have different purposes for writing and different intentions for how they want their story to be read. Some want you to think in detail about the subtle things. Others are invested in the characters and want you to focus on the relationships they form. Sometimes, it’s about the setting or a political message.
We teachers know that our chosen writers have thought deeply about the colour of the curtains. So, it makes no sense to argue against that. We’re trying to help you get the best marks!
Often, Writers “Make the Curtains Blue” Subconsciously
I love to write myself. When I do, I’d be lying if I said I’m always thinking about every single small detail. In the first draft, I just let my thoughts pour out onto the page.
I can tell you right now: there are times when I will read back over my work and think “wow! That’s a cool symbol I added! I didn’t realise that the blue curtains add to the emotion of the scene!” Lots of writers feel that way. They put the story down on paper and the symbols seem to pop out of nowhere.
That isn’t because the curtains are just blue for no reason, though. It’s because we did it subconsciously.
Most good writers have taken the effort to consume other types of media. They read other people’s books, keep up to date with the news and (if it’s a modern text) watch films. They educate themselves and they sometimes participate in religious celebrations. All these things help them to hone their craft.
Let’s say that a writer has read loads of other books by other writers. They notice that many of these books have scenes where it rains when an important character is sad. They’re not going to say “hey! I should do that in my book, too!” It’s just that their brains will make a connection between rain and sadness without them even realising it. Then, they can use it in their own work.
Then there’s the fact that a piece of writing can just feel right to them. They delete seemingly fine words and add new ones until they feel satisfied. “The green curtains… no… blue…”They might not know why they’re doing it, but the result is an interesting symbol. That’s their subconscious talking, and it comes with practice.
The Football Analogy
When I was in school, I knew an English teacher who explained this idea to me in an interesting way. Let me try to do the same for you.
Football. It’s something lots of people enjoy. Some of them grow up to have a career!
As a kid, these people would have had to put a great deal of effort into learning how to make the ball go where they want it to go. They practice and practice to learn how much power to put in. They get help with figuring out what part of the foot you need to use and where you should kick to get the angle you want. Often, many also spend time watching more experienced footballers and try to copy them. That’s all helping them build their subconscious football skills in the long run.
At aged 5, even the greats like Ronaldo or Messi would have to think about what they’re doing.
Then, they grow up. They start to do these things without a second thought. Harry Kane doesn’t need to calculate the precise angle to get the ball into the goal because he practised so much while he was growing up.
The people on the sidelines, though, might still need to do that. After all, they aren’t professionals. That’s why teaching is so hard. Experts don’t think about what they do anymore. It just feels right.
The same is true of writers. When you say “the curtain is blue because it’s blue”, you’re basically arguing that Ronaldo didn’t intend to kick the ball the way he did. Yeah, he might not put a lot of thought into it. He didn’t need to because he’s so used to doing it. Dickens didn’t need to think about every single word he used, either.
It’s Like Learning to Read, Too!
Let’s say that the football thing I just said went over your head. Not all of us like football. I get that. Let me try to explain it to you like this, then.
Have you ever seen a child learning how to spell out words?
There is so much concentration on their little faces. They spend months and months on the basics. First, they learn that certain squiggly symbols make different sounds. “A” sounds different to “B”, but it is the same as lower-case “a”.
Then, they start to put the sounds together with the help of an adult. C-A-T. Next, they have to learn to blend sounds together. Instead of saying the C, A and T separately, they learn to put the sounds into one. Just to confuse them, we throw in the fact that “SH” sounds completely different to “S” and “H”.
All of this takes so much effort. They spend months and months learning it! However, now, you’re reading this without needing to sound out every single word. You might not even need to say the words out loud, anymore! The squiggles on this screen make sense without needing to explicitly read each letter.
Once you’ve got that down, you can start to spell words for yourself, guess how certain words are spelt and even make up your own. I don’t need to think about how to spell the word “information”. My fingers do that for me without much thought.
It’s the same for great writers. In the beginning, they would need to get help in choosing the colour of the curtains. Then, they would go through a phase where they could do it on their own, but they need to think deeply about it. Finally, it becomes second nature. They do it without too much thought.
The Unimportant Details Get Cut Out of Good Texts
Let’s be realistic, now. It is highly, highly unlikely that you will have to analyse an unedited text for your literature classes. A good writer will have read over their work time and time again before publishing it. They’ll have different drafts. Often, they also have an editor making suggestions, too.
I mean, look at Frankenstein! It even got edited after it was published! There’s an 1818 version and an 1831 version.
If the curtains are blue for no reason in a text that’s full of deep symbols, that detail is a waste of space. Why should it matter to the writer what colour we imagine the curtains being? If they don’t mention the curtains at all, the chances are that we won’t have a detailed image of them in our heads, anyway! We won’t care about them!
Let’s compare a book to a film. If the writer is talking about the curtains, then they would be the thing the camera is zoomed in on. Unless there’s a purpose for zooming in on them, they would be drawing the reader’s attention for absolutely no reason. It would cause the reader to feel like the curtains are important for some reason. If they aren’t, the writer has wasted their time. That’s what Chekhov’s Gun is all about.
So, let’s say that the writer just liked blue curtains and they had no other reason to talk about it in their story. That detail would get removed. It’s a waste of paper and ink. No one cares about the curtains.
If the writer does keep the detail about the curtains in the story, there must be a good reason. It must mean something or matter later on in the story. Otherwise, it’s just a case of bad editing.
The Same is True of Films, TV Shows and Games
So, we’ve established that if you talk about something in a book, you are drawing attention to it. If it doesn’t matter to the story, just don’t talk about it, right?
But what about films, TV shows and games? Surely, things are a little different. After all, there is going to be a lot in shot in a film or TV show. In a game, players can usually look around on their own. Not everything is going to have a deep symbol attached.
In some ways, that’s true. Writers will focus on talking about the details that are important and leave out the other stuff because they can. You can’t just have voids of nothing in a film just because the details aren’t important. You need to pad out a scene to make it look realistic. There will be some small details that don’t matter.
However, don’t underestimate how much thought goes into this kind of art. Films and TV shows have teams of professionals who carefully select things like costume, hair, makeup, lighting and set design. They put a lot of thought and care into what they do. They do it with the messages and tone of the art in mind.
In games, you have character designers. They spend their lives making characters that speak to us. They use colour, costume, props, body language and much, much more to give us information about a character’s personality and story. That way, we learn about them without them having to spell out their whole life story.
The Matrix is a good example of putting thought into these small details. They chose to make the lighting green to make us uncomfortable! For games, check out T B Skyen on YouTube. He’s got lots to say on character design.
The Reader’s Interpretations Matter, Too!
I think it’s very easy for students to feel like they should just read books passively. You look at the words and try to understand them. Then, you just absorb the message the writer intended and that’s it… right? Not quite.
The reader matters just as much as the writer – if not, more.
Art is collaborative. It’s like a conversation! How the reader feels about a piece of art matters just as much as what the reader wanted. The writer says things and the reader uses that to come to their own conclusions. Most of the time, we can’t ask the writers what they meant to say. Loads of them are dead or not available to speak.
When you read a text, there are two things that you should think about first:
- How it is making you feel.
- What it is making you think.
Then, you can use that information to figure out how the writer is making you think and feel that way. Is it a word? Maybe it’s the structure.
You should always think of the messages and the symbols of the text first. Then, you can bring in the writer and what their intentions were. After all, it doesn’t matter what the writer wanted to do with a text. If they failed at it, they failed. They might want us to love a character we actually hate. We can’t pretend we actually love them just because the writer said so. Think about their intentions after you draw your own conclusions. See if they match.
The same should be true of messages they didn’t realise they added. Sure, their thoughts are important, but so are yours. If they made you think and feel a certain way, talk about it.
Thinking About Why the Curtains Are Blue Makes You a Critical Consumer
Too many people are completely uncritical about what they read. In fact, they actually get angry when they see a YouTube video talking about the politics of their favourite games or films. Well, they’ll actually only get angry if the politics go against their own views, but that’s a different story.
These people are underestimating their favourite creators. The writer, filmmaker or game designer has spent so long making a great piece of art. Why is it such a hard stretch to imagine that they’ve thought about how the small details will convey a message? Just because you don’t notice it (or you don’t want to notice it), it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Everyone has political, cultural, moral and/or spiritual views. We all look at the world in our own special ways. Whether we like it or not, these things will seep into our work. The thing that highlights the best writers is whether they are aware of this or not. If you realise what you’re doing, you can use it to your advantage.
Being a critical consumer is a great thing. It means that you can understand how a story works and what it is trying to say to us. Then, you can use this information to make great art of your own. Plus, you can use it to think about how certain ideas are portrayed. If you don’t like the messages, you know exactly what bothers you and what you need to look for in art that would suit you better. Or, you can be the change you want to see.
Critical consumption helps you to appreciate the hard work and genius that goes into your favourite media. If you’re an activist for a certain cause, you can understand how to write about it in interesting ways.
But Yes: Sometimes the Writer Just Liked Blue Curtains
Most of the time, the writers in literature did make the curtains blue for a symbolic reason. That’s what makes them thoughtful writers that you can say a lot about in your essays. That’s the point.
However, it would be a lie if I said that every single writer’s symbols make sense. Sometimes, there would just be no reason at all for the curtains to symbolise sadness. If you tried to make up a reason, that would be shoehorning in something random.
Other times, the writer just didn’t have an editor (or a good one) to realise they were drawing attention to random things. Maybe their editor pointed it out and they were super stubborn about it! Maybe they just looked around their room and typed in the first thing they saw.
Your best bet is to think about the tone and message of the scene you’re reading. Don’t be hard-headed and insist that the writer must have just liked blue. Instead, ask yourself “what do I know about what the colour blue symbolises? Would it make sense for the curtains to be symbolic based on what I know?” Use all the obvious things in the text to help you come to that conclusion.
Make sure you think about the rest of the writer’s language, too. Do they like to use symbols and metaphors in other places? If so, the colour of the curtains probably matters, too.
Finally, remember that there are always multiple right answers in English. You can only have a wrong answer if you didn’t understand that part of the text at all. Words change over time!
Your teacher isn’t going to make you read a text where the curtains are just blue for no reason. So, embrace the deep analysis and keep learning!