The Yellow Wallpaper Questions and Answers
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper book cover
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What symbolism is represented in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Symbolism in "The Yellow Wallpaper" includes the wallpaper's ugliness, which represents her difficult situation, oppression, and emotional state, the barred windows, which represent the restrictions placed on women in gender roles, and the narrator's search for the "woman" in the wallpaper, which represents her attempt to maintain or recover her sanity.

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Of course, the woman trapped behind the yellow wallpaper is the narrator herself.  By pulling down this wallpaper, the narrator feels that she is tearing away the malevolent forces that restrict her [yellow is the color of evil], or "wall" her in.

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I might also add, the ugliness with which the wallpaper is described could be compared to the ugliness of her situation. She is being oppressed by the men in her life and by her inability to break the chains of their dominance in order to escape.

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Kristy Wooten eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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As for symbolic actions, the narrator's tearing down the wallpaper in an attempt to find the "woman" in the wallpaper represents her...

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aycoble | Student

There’s quite a lot of symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper.

First, and most obviously, is the wallpaper itself. At first, the wallpaper is simply ugly and unpleasant: the narrator describes the tone of the color as “strang[e]” and “old, foul, [and] bad.” (p. 654) It has a peculiar smell that permeates the house, though no one but her seems to notice but her. However, as time goes on, she starts to see that there are women crawling around behind the cage-like pattern, imprisoned in the paper.

It’s clear that the wallpaper is a symbol of how trapped the narrator feels by her domestic obligations. At the time of publication (1892) women were expected to have children and tend to the home, even if they wanted something different for themselves. The narrator feels trapped by the societally defined role for women of the time period, similarly to how the women are trapped in the prison of the wallpaper.

The second symbol in the story is John, the narrator’s husband. Describing him, the narrator writes, “John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.” (p. 647) He is the narrator’s physician, as well, and is clearly meant to be a counterpoint to his “hysterical” wife (p. 658).

John’s character is meant to represent the influence of the patriarchy in women’s lives. He doesn’t try to understand her perspective and her difficulty in caring for her newborn son. His word trumps hers, even when she “disagree[s] with [his] ideas” and his treatment plan (p. 648). He is, with his expertise, able to confine her to a single room for recovery, even though that is exactly the opposite of what the narrator would prefer. John and the narrator’s interactions throughout the text consistently work to highlight the power dynamics at play between men and women in society at large.

melissa1106 | Student

The yellow wallpaper in the short story “ The Yellow Wallpaper” is a symbol for whom the narrator actually is and how she truly feels. When the wallpaper starts to reveal bars, it shows that she truly feels trapped and secluded. Also as the wallpaper becomes more intricate, she starts to see women behind it which shows that she has become more mentally unstable. “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 (Gilman 9).” The women crawling behind the wallpaper also show how she feels confined to the walls of her room. The narrator tears up the wallpaper at the end, which shows that she does not want to accept how crazy she has become.

relativedistance | Student

As for symbolic actions, the narrator's tearing down the wallpaper in an attempt to find the "woman" in the wallpaper represents her struggle to retain or regain her sanity.  The wallpaper has been part of her confinement and by her tearing it down, she is freeing herself from that confinement.

Another symbol is the narrator's writings in her notebook and the notebook itself.  Both represent the narrator's attempt to have normalcy and sanity during this horrible ordeal of being locked in her room.  Despite being told by her husband that he wants to limit the amount of time she uses to write, she continues to write more behind his back and this is her tie to her own sanity and sense of reality (whatever her reality is at this time).  

I have been told by my interpretation of fiction professor that the "notebook" that she was writing in wasn't really a notebook, it was the wallpaper itself. this can be inferred because several times in the story she explains that the husbands sister and her husband were caught staring at the wallpaper almost as if reading it. It's just some food for thought, everything can be interpreted in different ways.