What's an example of direct characterization and indirect characterization in the yellow wallpaper?

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Jane Ames eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Direct and indirect characterization of the story's narrator can be found throughout "The Yellow Wallpaper." Direct characterization is description of a character explicitly told to the reader, while indirect characterization comes in the form of "hints," or context clues.

Examples of direct characterization:

  • "Personally, I disagree with their ideas. Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good." Here the narrator overtly expresses her conflict with the men around her. This informs the reader early on that the narrator is an independent thinker who feels her most crucial social and mental needs are not being met.

  • "I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus—but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad." This admission of uncertainty shows us the narrator is reasonable and amenable to weighing other opinions against her own. She expresses her own thoughts about her condition, but also gives momentary credence to John's opinion.

  • "It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby. Such a dear baby! And yet I CANNOT be with him, it makes me so nervous." The narrator identifies her new role as a mother as a source of stress and discord, perhaps even the root cause of her current "nervous condition." In a more accurate medical sense, the author is indicating to the reader this may be a significant factor in the narrator's current state of mind, because she is unknowingly suffering from postpartum depression. This is a form of depression that specifically impacts women who have recently given birth.

As the narrator's mental health declines due to her virtual incarceration in the room with the yellow wallpaper, we learn about her through what she sees and does rather than direct descriptions.

Examples of indirect characterization:

  • "You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream." Literally, the narrator is talking about the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in her room, but the imagery indicates a more sinister force at work here. She essentially describes her situation, and indirectly reveals her feelings of entrapment. Just like the chaotic pattern on the wall, the narrator's situation seems to be isolation without end, "like a bad dream." We know now that the narrator feels absolutely "trampled" by her husband and brother, who are micro-managing and constricting every aspect of her life. 

  • "The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John. He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look." As her wellbeing continues to unravel under the yoke of her confinement, her behavior is, ostensibly, becoming more erratic. It stands to reason that John and Jennie are looking at her in a "queer" and "inexplicable" way because they are suspicious of her. They expect the narrator to really lose it, so to speak. And in a roundabout way, we know the narrator's mental wellbeing is in serious jeopardy and deteriorating more by the day.

  • "Through watching so much at night, when it changes so, I have finally found out. The front pattern DOES move—and no wonder! The woman behind shakes it!" Just as the narrator feels trapped, the woman is trapped behind the pattern of the wallpaper. We know the narrator has insomnia and is not sleeping at night, which could only exacerbate her poor health. As the story reaches its tense height and abruptly concludes, we know without a doubt that the narrator uses the wallpaper as a canvas to project her own debilitating situation under the oppression of the men in her life. She does not explicitly characterize herself, and yet, what she chooses to say helps us understand her.
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The Yellow Wallpaper

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