Why does the author use wallpaper as a central image in the story rather than a carpet or a mural?  Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A work of psychological fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gillman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is one that is certainly carefully designed with structure and theme in mind. Therefore, there are a number of reasons why Gillman may have chosen wallpaper as the central image:

  • The use of wallpaper, according to Greg Johnson in his essay "Gilman's Gothic Allegory: Rage and Redemption in 'The Yellow Wallpaper,'" closely parallels an anecdote about Emily Dickinson's mother, who in the autumn of 1830 surreptitiously commissioned a paper hanger to redo her bedroom in anticipation of her "confinement" after the birth of her baby, as new motherhood was termed.
  • Wallpaper, as opposed to rugs (carpeting was not yet designed in 1892 when the story was published) does not surround a person.  Since floor coverings are not that visible when one lies in bed, the narrator would hardly notice a large rug.  On the other hand, the wallpaper completely surrounds the narrator, readily symbolizing the familiar Gothic theme of confinement and entrapment.
  • A mural usually only covers one wall, and it has a natural scene or a variety of objects in it, rather than a repeated pattern as does wallpaper.  So, with the themes of repression, mental illness, and rebellion in Gilman's narrative, the hideously yellow, asymmetrical paper that greatly disturbs the aesthetic eye of the narrator serves to effect the breakdown of Gilman's protagonist. In addition, the one color of wallpaper--and it is a color that symbolizes deceit, death, criminality, and quarantine--as opposed to a multi-colored mural of much variety serves also to reflect the obssessions that disturb the narrator. Also, because the narrator is soothed by the lovely garden outside when she can see it with the visions of flowers and nature; a mural would not have the damaging affect that the yellow wallpaper does.

Certainly, as the central image, the yellow wallpaper, the color of doors that once belonged to traitors and criminals in France, aptly symbolizes the confinement of the narrator, and with its hideousness of tone and lack of symmetry, it credibly effects the mental rebellion of Gilman's repressed woman.

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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