As the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" descends into madness, her descriptions of the wallpaper change. The color and the appearance of the wallpaper intensifies, and eventually, the wallpaper takes on a life of its own as the narrator's grip on reality loosens completely.
At the start of the short story, the wallpaper is unappealing to the narrator. It appears to her a sickly sort of color, and the jaundiced look of the walls in her bedroom disgusts her. The pattern on the wallpaper appears frenzied and chaotic, annoying the narrator. John, the narrator's husband, ignores her discomfort and her preference to be elsewhere in the house they have rented for the summer, and his dismissal of her request to move is the first gesture of many that expedites the narrator's decline.
As the narrator's mental state breaks down, her perception of the wallpaper changes. The pattern animates and her language describing the pattern take on a violent quality. The lines and curves "strangle" against the backdrop of rotten yellow. Eventually, as the condition of the narrator worsens, the narrator describes the wallpaper as it begins to move and change shape; soon the narrator sees something moving around underneath the wallpaper. When she begins to rip apart the wallpaper, her madness emerges, in the form of an imagined woman, once trapped and now freed by the narrator. At the end of the story, the wallpaper is described as being in bits on the floor, evidence of the narrator's loss.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" details, in first-person voice, the gradual mental deterioration of a young woman, and its description of the wallpaper itself mirrors her worsening mental state. Even so, if we look across the entire span of the short story, from beginning to end, we'll find a near continuous fixation on that piece of wallpaper (though the nature of that fixation will evolve over time).
The topic of the wallpaper comes up from the very earliest journal entries as a critical theme in her account. She voices a detestation of the wallpaper, and even in that very first journal entry, she puts significant effort into describing it. She speaks about its color (which she finds odious), as well as its shape and pattern, noting that:
It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
From the very beginning, this wallpaper exerts a hold on her imagination, but in those early entries, it's not entirely all-consuming. She writes about her day, her complaints and frustrations, her interactions with her husband, and while the wallpaper is a critical component in those recollections, it does not dominate the entries as it will later. Eventually, there will be entire entries where the wallpaper is all that she seems to think about (the wallpaper and/or the woman associated with it). Thus, as the story proceeds, we see a growing obsession with and fixation on the wallpaper, alongside her conviction that there is a woman on the other side of it. Thus, these descriptions of the wallpaper (and the degree to which they dominate these entries) will mirror her own deteriorating mental state.
As the main character in “The Yellow Wallpaper” transforms mentally, so does her description of the wallpaper in the room. As the story is clearly about her deteriorating mental and emotional state, the symbolism of the wallpaper directly correlates to the main character’s break with reality. From the beginning, the wallpaper is seen as undesirable, hideous, and grotesquely unattractive to the woman. At every moment, she is fixated on the wallpaper, finding new and more complex elements occurring within the pattern. This analysis will follow the progression of her description of the wallpaper as it directly relates to her own psychosis.
She begins by describing the paper as dead (1). She purports having never seen a “worse paper in my life” (3) and asserts that the paper is horrid (5). But as she deteriorates, so does her interpretation of the wallpaper. She asserts that "there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will” (9). It is here that she begins to elaborate on the patterns and designs, further revealing her psychological state. She explains that "dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous . . . it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern" (9). The narrator begins to describe in more detail the imprisoned woman that is trapped in the wallpaper. Obviously, this description parallels her own condition, as she too is locked in a room with bars on the windows. She explains how at night the pattern "becomes bars . . . and the woman behind it is as plain as can be" (12). As her condition continues to worsen, she begins to state that the wallpaper has “a yellow smell” (14). Totally disgusted by the paper, the woman begins to tear off the wallpaper with her nails and teeth. The story ends with the main character having worked to shake and pull the wallpaper from the wall to free the imprisoned woman on the other side. She gives a most chilling final description that is as disturbing as the woman’s psychological state. She decries that “the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision” (17).
The final lines of the story have the main character hysterically telling her husband, “I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!” (18). It is in this final statement that the reader comes to understand that the main character is the woman in the wallpaper and “setting her free” represents the pinnacle of her psychotic break.
Gilman, Charlotte P. The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings. Bantam Classic, 2006.