The Yellow Wallpaper Setting

What is the significance of the setting in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" takes place in a colonial mansion in the countryside. The narrator describes it as beautiful but isolated. Thus, she states,

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

This detail is important, given just how critical the...

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"The Yellow Wallpaper" takes place in a colonial mansion in the countryside. The narrator describes it as beautiful but isolated. Thus, she states,

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

This detail is important, given just how critical the theme of isolation is within the story, with its main character, who is already depressed, finding herself further isolated within the house. However, even within the isolation of the house, it is important to note that most of the story is set within an even more confined space: the nursery, which contains the yellow wallpaper that the main character both detests and fixates on.

These details of physical setting are critical in shaping the themes and plot of the story, given its deeply psychological undertones (undertones that are tied closely with its feminist criticisms). One can observe a sense of chauvinism in the husband's treatment of his wife. He neither listens to nor respects her own subjective experiences concerning her own psychological state; he confines her to this house, appealing to his medical expertise when stating that it is for her own good. Thus, while the husband spends much of his time at his profession as a doctor, his wife finds herself stewing in her isolation and depression, deteriorating further and further over time. With that in mind, this sense of physical space (represented within the house and the room) is a critical component to the story, given these themes of isolation and confinement and their effect on one's psychological state.

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Interestingly, the unnamed narrator of Gilman's "The Yellow Wallppaper" begins her narrative with this description of the house that is her medical retreat,

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house....


Further, she describes,

It is quite alone, quite three miles from the village, standing well back from the road, ...there are hedges and walls and gates that lock, and lots of separate little houses for gardeners and people.

Clearly, the setting holds much significance as it indicates the isolation to which the woman will soon be subjected, as well as a sense of imprisonment. The narrator herself is prescient as she feels "something strange" about the place in addition to her dislike for her room.  She prefers one downstairs that has lovely chintz curtains with roses all over the window and a door that opens onto the piazza; however, her husband John confines her to an upstairs room that has bars on the windows and a "repellent" and "smouldering unclean yellow" wallpaper which she claims is the worst she has ever seen.  It is, she observes ,


One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin....[It] commit[s] every artistic sin....

At first repulsed aesthetically by the design and color of the wallpaper, the unnerved narrator, left to "rest" by herself, finds little else to focus upon than this paper that is hideous to her. And, with the narrator's internalizations upon her mental and physical state, she begins significantly to project her inner feelings onto the paper.  In an eerie foreshadowing of the final crisis, the narrator describes the paper with continuing prescience,

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.

This hideous paper becomes for the narrator symbolic as she envisions a woman who, like herself, must hide and creep behind the "patterns" of the Victorian femme covert laws that suppress wives. In her effort to free herself from her repression and depression, the narrator tries to free the envisioned woman who is in need of rescue.  But, in this effort, the narrator sacrifices her own identity.  For, while she has unraveled the pattern of her life in unraveling the paper, she has sacrificed her own personal identity. For, after her husband retrieves the key and opens the room, he sees his wife continuing her "creeping" on the floor:

"I've got out at last," said I, "in spite of you and Jane. And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!"

Now, the narrator perceives herself as the woman trapped behind the paper and her former being is "Jane."  As in her prescient remark, the woman has committed a suicide of her personality [Jane, which is her name] "plunging off at outrageous angles," and
destroyed her own identity in the "unheard of contradiction" of becoming the woman freed from the repressive patterns of Victorian womanhood.

The yellow wallpaper is, indeed, significant in the narrator's journey from repression to independence.  But, the cost has been "uncertain" and "at outrageous angles," so much so that the narrator is disassociated from her true self in a suicide of her mind that leaves her, like the house, "quite alone" and in "a separate house" from her husband and others.

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