What is a detailed description of the wallpaper in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Expert Answers

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

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper ," the first-person narrator becomes fascinated by the wallpaper in her bedroom. She has post-partum depression and is being treated with the "rest cure," meaning she has limited social interaction and is not allowed to work. She spends most of her...

See
This Answer Now

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

Start your Subscription

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," the first-person narrator becomes fascinated by the wallpaper in her bedroom. She has post-partum depression and is being treated with the "rest cure," meaning she has limited social interaction and is not allowed to work. She spends most of her time in the room and is not supposed to be writing (even though she's a writer) or overexerting herself. The wallpaper is, at first, repellent to the narrator, but she soon becomes obsessed with it, likely due to her lack of another creative outlet.

Early in the story, the narrator conveys her strong distaste for the wallpaper's pattern and color:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin. ...

The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

The narrator's strong choice of words indicates her utter disgust with this wallpaper. The wallpaper becomes a sort of symbol for her feelings toward her position in general. She is upset and angry about being basically locked up in the room and having her freedom taken from her, but she projects those feelings onto the wallpaper.

Over time, the narrator becomes increasingly interested in the wallpaper. The more she studies the patterns, the more obsessed she becomes. She starts to imbue the paper with its own agency when she says, "This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!" She notices what she thinks looks like "a broken neck and two bulbous eyes star[ing] at you upside down." This evocative image seems like a person who has been hanged or hanged him or herself. What the narrator sees in this example indicates her mental instability and foreshadows later suicidal thoughts.

The wallpaper's effect on the narrator reaches a crescendo when she begins to see a woman in the wallpaper's patterns. This descent into madness, however, also gives the narrator special insight into her oppression. When she first notices the "woman," she says, "...it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don't like it a bit." This makes the narrator want to leave the house altogether, but not much later, she becomes so obsessed with the "woman" that she doesn't want to be torn away from observing her for even a moment. The pattern on the paper defies her understanding, as she "think[s] [she] ha[s] mastered it," but "It slaps [her] in the face, knocks [her] down, and tramples on [her]." The wallpaper presents a challenge for her; she has no useful creative or intellectual outlet, so she invests all of her energy in figuring out this mysterious, defiant paper.

The narrator's understanding of the paper and her situation occurs near the end, but this is where Gilman most clearly establishes what we might consider the thesis of her story. The narrator exclaims,

The front pattern does move --- and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!

Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. ...

And she is all the time trying to crawl through. But nobody could climb through that pattern -- it strangles so...

The narrator has "discovered" that a woman or many women are trapped behind the paper, like she is trapped in this room, and like women are trapped in a patriarchal society where men are their husbands and their doctors, where their freedom is taken from them "for their own good." At the end of the story, the narrator rips the paper off the wall in an attempt to free the woman, in an attempt to free herself. She has gone insane, but she also realizes that she and other women are oppressed in her society, so she has gained insight, as well.

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

The narrator first describes the wallpaper as irritating and provoking, "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."  In other words, then, the loops and swirls of the wallpaper, probably slightly textured as wallpaper often was during the Victorian era (which would also explain the yellow dust that seems to come off on the narrator's clothes while she "creeps" around the room) do not seem to possess any sort of discernible design; they simply swirl up and drop down crazily, and it really bothers the narrator for quite a while. 

Further, the narrator describes the color as "repellent" and "revolting"; it seems "unclean" as though it is associated with decay.  She goes on to call it a "lurid orange" in some places and a "sickly sulfur" yellow in others.  So, she is repelled and revolted by the color because it seems dirty, disgusting, and diseased.  Moreover, orange and yellow are colors that we seem to associate with chemicals and even toxicity. 

As the narrator continues to spend time with the paper, she begins to attribute a life to it, as though it can think and feel.  She says that the "paper looks to [her] as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!"  She notices one place "where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down."  Her descriptions of the paper, especially when she describes it as "committing suicide" or lolling "like a broken neck" really affect the mood of the story and foreshadow the increasing mental instability of the narrator.  She is very unwell, and our first clues to this come during her descriptions of the wallpaper.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team