The Symbolism of Colors in the poem, The Century Quilt
“The Century Quilt” by Marilyn Waniek is a poem that expresses the importance of a quilt she remembers from her life growing up. It describes the memories and feelings that the speaker has towards Meema’s blanket and what the quilt may do for her. By using specific colors, memories of family, and a narrative style, Waniek conveys the deeper meaning of the quilt.
The way that the poem is written represents a story more than a poem, mainly because it doesn’t rhyme and simply goes through the speaker’s thoughts. It also ends each line at specific parts of sentences that encourage thought from the reader. For example, “Each square holds a sweet gum leaf whose fingers I imagine would caress me into silence,”(18-20) has lines that end in the words “imagine” and “silence,” which allow the reader to notice the specific feelings the speaker attributes to the quilt, which are likely peace and bliss. The author likely intended for this to happen because near the end of the poem, she writes, “I’d dream of myself, of my childhood miracles, of my father’s burnt umber pride, my mother’s ochre gentleness.”(37-40) Ending these lines with “myself,” “miracles,” “pride,” and “gentleness” convey the speaker’s feelings towards not just her experiences and family, but also the quilt. The speaker imagines herself experiencing miracles, having pride in her future family, and feeling gentleness while using the quilt.
Waniek also expresses specific feelings by using multiple colors that are commonly known as dark, but warm and comforting shades. She first states the blanket they fell asleep under was “army green” (3), and because that color isn’t known to evoke emotion, it emphasizes how much they loved the blanket even though it didn’t look appealing. Those childhood memories are important to her, which pushes her to get a quilt that she can make newer memories with. “Six Van Dyke brown squares, two white ones, and one square the yellowbrown of Mama’s cheeks,” (15-17) describe those colors of the quilt to continue to think about her warm feelings and love for her family. She then continues these feelings, saying the quilt would eventually make her remember her “father’s burnt umber pride” (39) and her “mother’s ochre gentleness,” with burnt umber and ochre being warm, autumn colors.
Importantly, the quilt not only represents her memories and feelings, but different parts of her family. The speaker’s ethnicity is likely mixed with white and Indian, because of the combination of the descriptions of Meema’s “yellow sisters” (25), “their grandfather’s white family” (26), and most importantly Meema’s “Indian blanket.” (2). This is perfectly symbolized by the quilt, which has “Six Van Dyke brown squares, two white ones, and one square… yellowbrown,” (15-17) so all the different races are included. Furthermore, since the speaker claimed the family was “nodding at them when they met,” (27) we can assume that the family was comfortable together. Like the quilt, the family has multiple parts that come together to comfort the speaker.
By having a quilt in her life meant to become as influential and memory filled as Meema’s blanket, the speaker accepts it as a crucial part of her and her family’s lives. She is so emotionally connected to it that she wants it for the rest of her life and is thinks of it as something she’d “like to die under.” (14) Waniek’s narrative style, vivid color descriptions, and memories of family complement each other to build the significance of “The Century Quilt.”
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