How is setting used in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Quick answer:

The setting of "The Yellow Wallpaper" plays a large part in the story. The mood created by the yellow wallpaper is sinister and oppressive, as if it is imprisoning the narrator. Since she has no other stimulation, she fixates on the wallpaper, creating a mental illness that eventually drives her insane.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The setting in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper ” is so vivid and so central to the plot that it is almost another character. The narrator and her husband are staying at a country estate for a time so that the narrator can get over her nervous...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

condition. The house, however, is a bit rundown, isolated, and even a little spooky, and the bedroom the narrator's husband chooses is the spookiest location of all.

The room is on the top floor. It is large and airy with plenty of windows, but it is also mysterious. It has bars on the windows and chains attached to the walls. The narrator tells herself that perhaps it was some kind of gymnasium or playroom for children, but readers detect something far more sinister (and perhaps deep down the narrator does, too). The room is also symbolic of the narrator's own feelings of being trapped in her life and by her condition.

The worst thing about the room, though, is the hideous yellow wallpaper that covers all the walls (except where it is torn away). It features an intricate, flamboyant, swirling pattern in a revolting, “smouldering unclean yellow.” The narrator hates this wallpaper worse than anything.

We can see, then, that the setting provides the story with a vivid, creepy atmosphere that sets up for the main conflict of the plot. As time passes, the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper. She cannot stop thinking about it, and eventually she begins to see motion in the wallpaper. Soon she also sees a woman behind the paper, struggling to get out. That woman symbolizes the narrator herself, for she is trapped in her life and by her husband's patronizing “treatment.” She longs to get out, just like the woman behind the wallpaper. By the end of the tale, the narrator rips the paper from the wall, declaring that she is free and that no one will ever put her back in. She believes that she has conquered her setting.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does setting effect perspective in the story "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The setting is the primary influence on the narrator's deteriorating state of mind in the story. This nameless narrator has been shut up in a room to take the "rest cure" for depression, and has little to occupy her mind. As a result, she begins to view the room with a skewed perspective of reality and to project all of her fears and anxiety on the yellow-patterned wallpaper in the room. She becomes convinced that a woman is trapped behind the paper and is struggling to free herself. The vision she sees in the paper mirrors her own entrapment, of course.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

From a Realist perspective, what influence does setting have on "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Written at the end of the 19th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a classic and influential feminist work.

The Realist perspective focuses on setting and story as a reflection of "realistic" conventions; stories should represent the norms of their era. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Gilman wrote to express her feelings on the cultural subjugation of women, especially when it came to medical practices. The setting of the story is a summer mansion occupied by a doctor and his wife; she has just given birth and is suffering postpartum depression. He thinks she needs to relax without outside stimulation, but she is slowly becoming unstable because of the isolation. The huge summer mansion is too large to be confined, but she is not allowed to leave the premises, and so even in a large space she feels trapped. The mansion also contains old and peeling yellow wallpaper with a strange pattern; the wife fixates on this because she has no other stimulation. Because of the age of the mansion, she ascribes a haunting to the wallpaper, and also mentions a strange smell:

It is not bad--at first, and very gentle, but quite the subtlest, most enduring odor I ever met.In this damp weather it is awful, I wake up in the night and find it hanging over me.It used to disturb me at first. I thought seriously of burning the house--to reach the smell.But now I am used to it. The only thing I can think of that it is like is the color of the paper! A yellow smell.(Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper,"

This smell, if it is real, is probably mold and mildew, coming from the old paste and wallpaper as it decays in the summer heat. Mold infestations are common in old homes, and aside from affecting her with the smell, certain mold spores can cause hallucinations and infection, which might also play a part in her continuing mental deterioration.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What influence does setting have on relations between characters in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Setting plays a crucial role in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” as even the title of the story suggests. The title alludes to the annoying wallpaper covering the room in which the narrator mostly resides. She eventually becomes obsessed with the paper and ultimately loses her sanity as a result of this obsession. Thus setting is one of the most important factors in this fascinating story. Its significance could hardly be more obviously emphasized.

The wallpaper, however, is just one of many symbolic aspects of the setting in this story. Others include the following:

  • The story takes place in the “ancestral halls” of a “colonial mansion” – a fact that already implies that the narrator and her husband are wealthy.
  • The narrator describes the mansion as a “most beautiful place” – an ironic description in light of the psychological deterioration she suffers while living there.
  • The narrator says that the mansion

is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles from the village.

Symbolically, the house is as isolated as the narrator herself will come to feel.

  • The narrator mentions that the house is surrounded by “walls and gates that lock” – phrasing that foreshadows the kind of symbolic imprisonment she will later feel.
  • The narrator describes the gardens surrounding the house, but she doesn’t visit them. Thus the pastoral language, associated with freedom, seems ironic in light of her own confinement.
  • The narrator mentions that the greenhouses on the estate “are all broken now” – language that foreshadows her own mental breakdown.
  • The narrator mentions that “the place has been empty for years” – language that foreshadows the sense of isolation and emptiness she will increasingly come to feel there.
  • The narrator likes to think of the house as ghostly, which is ironic since she will soon feel haunted there.
  • The narrator wanted to live in a downstairs room

that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window, . . . but John [the narrator’s husband] would not hear of it.

Instead the narrator is symbolically distanced from contact with life and nature, and this happens to her precisely because of her husband’s power.

  • John mentions the possibility that he may take a room separate from the narrator – another way in which details of setting emphasize her isolation.
  • John suggests that his wife live in the “nursery at the top of the house” – a detail symbolizing the ways in which he treats her like an infant or child.
  • The nursery has bars on the windows, symbolizing the ways in which John has in a sense imprisoned his wife.
  • The dilapidated condition of the room foreshadows the steady deterioration of the narrator’s mind.
  • The wallpaper – which seems chaotic in design – symbolizes the mental chaos into which the narrator will descend.

One could easily extend this list, but by now the point is clear: the setting of this story is crucially important to the symbolism of the story, especially to the symbolic relations among the characters. John has done everything possible to isolate and confine his wife.

Something extra: This story obviously lends itself to interpretation from both feminist and psychoanalytic points of view. In a sense, by the end of the story the narrator has lost her sense of reason and reality (associated with the Freudian "ego") and has succumbed to her subconscious emotions (associated with the Freudian "id").

Last Updated on