What is the significance of the wall paper in "The Yellow Wallpaper"? What does the narrator's reaction and description of it reveal?

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price7781 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ah, the wallpaper with all its twists and turns has a pattern that can't be figured out by the protagonist in the story.  It is constantly changing as she sits and stares at it.  Sometimes it has a face in its patterns; other times it looks like tendrils creeping up the wall.  There is even a description of the wallpaper that describes what looks like a hanging--a face with bulging eyes dangles and spins from a noose.  The way the light comes in the window affects the way it looks as the day goes on.  The wallpaper could symbolize the confusion and frustration of the protagonist who is living in a society (Victorian late 1800's) that feels women are weak and inferior to men.  She is thought to be sick and a danger to herself and is taken to a sanatorium where she can recover from a recent child birth.  It could also symbolize her mental health.  She could be mentally ill, something Charlotte Gilman doesn't openly say and would be taboo to talk about in Victorian society.  The protagonist is surrounded by this ugly wallpaper, much like society surrounds her and dictates how she should act.  She is uncomfortable in the situation and how her fate is defined by simply being a woman.  She even tries to destroy the wallpaper by picking and tearing at it.  She is unsuccessful and is unable to change her position in life.  I think a key to the story is the pattern of a hanging person in the wallpaper.  Does the protagonist hang herself in the end?  Read the story very closely and look for context clues that might lead you to understand this ending.  The shadow on the wall creeping around the room might hold the clue.

*One reason women were considered fragile and weak during this time is due to fainting spells women would often have because their corsets were tied too tight.  Unable to breathe completely, they would faint and have the "vapors." It's a strange thing to think about in this day and age.  Women of all time periods have various demands made on them by society, and this story shows that you grin and bear your status as a woman.

rdb919 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator is at first disgusted by and then later obsessed with the torn, smelly, yellow wallpaper. As the story progresses, she becomes determined to tear it off the wall and release the woman she sees behind the wallpaper, shaking the bars to get out. She notes the "lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide" and the "the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down." Many of her references to the wallpaper show violence and frustration. The wallpaper symbolizes several things. It is significant because it shows the narrator's frustration at being trapped. The woman trapped behind the wallpaper represents the trapped woman recovering from her depression in the room. Another thing the wallpaper symbolizes is paper used to write. The narrator is forbidden to write in her journal by her husband, so by tearing the paper off the wall, she is attempting to have control over the paper since she has no control in any aspect of her life. Therefore, the wallpaper in this story represents the narrator's entrapment and lack of control.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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