Colors in The Road

Teaching Associate: Patrick Mooney
Fall 2015


Black and gray are by far the most common colors mentioned in the post-nuclear-holocaust world McCarthy describes. During the several times I've taught The Road, many students have commented on the rare occurrence of colors in the novel's text and on the particular instances of colors that have stood out for them. This time, as I read the novel and prepare lessons on it, I've attempted to catalog these instances as completely as possible.

This is meant to be a complete list of all colors mentioned in McCarthy's novel, and I've made a strenuous attempt to document them all (and to check them against full-text searches with the Kindle edition, though I'm not happy about how the Kindle performs searches). Still, I'm human, too, and this is a rather hasty project; I have probably missed a few instances. (If you find something that's not documented here, please tweet at me or otherwise let me know so that I can fix this list.)

There are a number of interpretive decisions that get hidden by the data below; no data set is neutral. In particular, I've decided not to list contexts for the colors black, white, and gray, largely because there are just so many and this document is something I've thrown together fairly quickly. My litmus test here has been when representing a normal or median or average instance of the color named by McCarthy as a color that a computer graphics program understands, does the color, when converted to an HSV representation, have a saturation value significantly different from zero? This is a meaningful test that rules out white, black, and gray as not being real colors in the sense that we tend to intuitively understand the word ... but it is not obvious that this is clearly the best answer to the question. Other thoughts or suggestions on this matter are welcome.

I've adopted a rather inclusivist approach to collecting these terms: if it arguably refers to a color, my intent is to include it. So this list includes the use of the word lilac on page 26 of the novel, even though I tend to think this almost certainly refers to the plant. Still, if I can't see a plausible reading that makes the word into a color, I've omitted it; for this reason, for instance, I've omitted 38 occurrences of the word rose. I've also omitted occurrences of colors as part of compound nouns (e.g., blacktop). However, these, too, are interpretive decisions, and I'd be glad to hear if you disagree with any of these procedures.

Color Concordance

Color Instances
black (also blackness, blackened) 81 occurrences (3, 8, 10, 12, 14, 15, 15, 16, 21, 21, 31, 32, 33, 33, 36, 37, 37, 38, 40, 42, 44, 48, 48, 49, 51, 59, 60, 62, 63, 67, 76, 79, 84, 86, 88, 89, 89, 90, 95, 96, 96, 97, 107, 114, 116, 118, 129, 130, 130, 137, 159, 169, 175, 177, 177, 181, 181, 183, 188, 190, 190, 191, 198, 199, 202, 205, 213, 218, 219, 226, 229, 234, 234, 239, 240, 249, 261, 267, 271, 272, 273, 273, 277)
gray 77 occurrences (3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 9, 11, 13, 16, 16, 16, 16, 18, 19, 24, 27, 28, 30, 30, 37, 38, 43, 47, 75, 76, 76, 80, 90, 90, 93, 98, 98, 99, 105, 108, 116, 118, 119, 122, 122, 130, 143, 159, 159, 183, 187, 187, 190, 192, 200, 204, 204, 215, 215, 216, 219, 220, 221, 221, 222, 223, 224, 228, 231, 234, 244, 251, 264, 267, 271, 271, 273, 274, 276, 281, 284)
(Also one occurrence of silver: 106)
(Also one occurrence of ironcolored: 195)
(Also one occurrence of leadcolored: 260)
white 19 occurrences (3, 18, 41, 69, 73, 90, 105, 107, 122, 127, 142, 181, 203, 218, 248, 263, 264, 275, 286)
(Also one occurrence of candlecolored: 129)
(Also one occurrence of bonecolored: 276)
red 11 occurrences:
  • and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. (8)
  • Deep red and salty meat inside. (17)
  • He held aloft the scrawny red body so raw and naked and cut the cord with kitchen shears and wrapped his son in a towel. (59)
  • He sat studying the twisted matrix of routes in red and black with his finger at the junction where he thought that they might be. (86)
  • Dressed in clothing of every description, all wearing red scarves at their necks. (91)
  • Red or orange, (91)
  • as close to red as they could find. (91)
  • A red formica table. (119)
  • The red sparks rose in a shudder and died in the blackness overhead. (169)
  • Slices of red pepper standing among the ordered rows. (206)
  • On the far shore a row of warehouses and the shape of a tanker red with rust. (262)
rose 2 occurrences:
  • A dull rose glow in the windowglass. (52)
  • Memory of her crossing the law toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. (131)

(But note that there is another occurrence of rose that refers to a flower of unspecified color, and 37 occurrences that use the word as the past tense of the verb rise.)

brown 3 occurrences:
  • Overhead the ironwork brown with rust (75)
  • Hard and brown and shriveled. (121)
  • a piece of browned ham (145)
mahogany There was a mahogany table in the middle of the saloon (224)
orange 7 occurrences:
  • There were fires still burning high in the mountains and at night they could see the light from them deep orange in the sootfall. (30)
  • The snow orange and quivering. (31)
  • The shapes of the small treelimbs burning incandescent orange in the coals. (74)
  • Red or orange, as close to read as they could find. (91)
  • He looked at the boy's face sleeping in the orange light. (96)
  • gazed one more time at this tiny paradise trembling in the orange light from the heater and then he fell asleep. (150)
  • The salt wood burned orange and blue in the fire's heart (237)
amber You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. (286)
yellow (also yellowed) 12 occurrences:
  • Yellow leaves. (13)
  • Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. (24)
  • the firebrick in the hearth was as yellow as the day it was laid because his mother could not bear to see it blackened. (26)
  • He kept out a yellow truck and they went on with it sitting on top of the tarp. (35)
  • The plaster ceiling was bellied in great swags and the yellowed dentil molding was bowed and sprung from the upper walls. (107)
  • His long and yellowed claws scrabbled at the metal. (164)
  • He found a pair of yellow rubber seaboots (225)
  • pulled on the stiff yellow breeches (225)
  • pushing himself off the bulkheads against the tilt, the yellow slicker pants rattling in the cold. (226)
  • Inside was a yellow plastic flashlight (240)
  • A yellow plastic EPRIB. (240)
  • The man that hove into view and stood there looking at him was dressed in a gray and yellow ski parka. (281)
gold (also golden) 6 occurrences:
  • gold scrollwork (18)
  • golden chalice, good to house a god. (75)
  • They wore gold rings in their leather ears (90)
  • he found a double handful of gold krugerrands (142)
  • krugerrands in a gold sack. (142)
  • and he scooped the golden hair from the floor and wiped the boy's face (152)
green 10 occurrences:
  • his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. (18)
  • In the floor was a green brass ringpull. (122)
  • he ducked under a lantern with a green metal shade hanging from a hook. (139)
  • Ham and green beans and mashed potatoes with biscuits and gravy. (152)
  • his feet were wrapped in rags and carboard tied with green twine and any number of layers of vile clothing showed through the tears and holes in it. (162)
  • green beans. (206)
  • He carried a jar of green beans and one of potatoes to the front door (208)
  • The dull green antique coppers spilled from out the tills of their eyesockets (214)
  • all the brasswork a dull green. (224)
  • The brass was dull and there were patches of green on it (228)
blue 19 occurrences:
  • He pulled the blue plastic tarp off of him and folded it and carried it out (5)
  • He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue (18)
  • In that long ago somewhere very near this place he'd watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain (20)
  • Peering out from under the blue gloom beneath the plastic (44)
  • When he rose and turned to go back the tarp was lit from within where the boy had wakened. Sited there in the darkness the frail blue shape of it looked like the pitch of some last venture at the edge of the world. (48)
  • Dressed in a pair of filthy blue coveralls and a black billcap (63)
  • He used gasoline in the lighter and it burned with a frail blue flame (72)
  • He went back to the mudroom and returned with two of the jars and an old blue enameled pan. (123)
  • The only light was from the ring of blue teeth in the burner of the stove. (146)
  • Is it blue? / The sea? I dont know. It used to be. (182)
  • the boy was wearing blue tennis shoes with rags stuffed into the toes (213)
  • I'm sorry it's not blue, he said. That's okay, said the boy. (215)
  • By the time he came out he was blue with cold and his teeth were chattering. (218)
  • he held it in his hand and then he fitted it back into the blue baize lining of the case and closed the lid and snapped the latches shut (228)
  • He kept asking him about his shoulder, blue and discolored from where he'd slammed it against the hatch door. (231)
  • The salt wood burned orange and blue in the fire's hear and he sat watching it (237)
  • They'd wrapped their feet in sailcloth and bound them up in blue plastic (242)
  • watching the blue flames through the plastic. (250)
  • The man tried to see his face in the blue light from the burner. (260)
grayblue Grayblue eyes half buried in the thin and sooty creases of his skin. (163)
lilac 2 occurrences:
  • A tangle of dead lilac. (26)
  • The pitted iron hardware deep lilac in color (271)

Quick Visualizations

Here are two quick hacks representing the color-occurrence data in The Road. The problems outlined relating to collecting and making judgments about the data apply here, as well; too, there are additional problems that I haven't solved particularly well because I did this hurriedly (none of the greens in McCarthy's novel is particularly likely to match the default green chosen here, for instance). Still, these visualizations provide a quick view of the use of color names in the novel in ways that the dataset above doesn't. Maybe I'll get some time to clean these up in the future. Maybe.

The scripts generating these graphics are available if you find them helpful. They do contain some documentation and discussions of some of the interpretive problems, as well as a massaged version of the data above that's more amenable to machine processing.

First visualization: one stripe per page

some stripey data

This visualization has one colored vertical stripe for each page of the novel. Pages with no mentions of colors are transparent. Pages on which more than one color is mentioned divide the vertical bar evenly (regardless of how close together on the page the mentions occur), with the first color mentioned at the top of the stripe, the second below it, etc.

Second visualization: one stripe per color mention

some stripey data

This visualization has one colored vertical stripe for each color name that appears in the data set above, in the order in which they're mentioned in the novel's text. Pages with multiple colors mentioned generate multiple vertical stripes. Pages that don't mention any colors generate no stripes at all (so there is no transparency here). This visualization is thinner than the other because there are fewer color-name occurrences in the novel than there are pages (by about 10%).


McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Vintage, 2006. Print.