In "The Yellow Wallpaper," what is the narrator's tone?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Initially, the narrator's tone is confident but helpless.  She clearly expresses her disagreement with the treatments that her husband and brother, both physicians, have recommended for her.  She says, 

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.  
Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

Her tone is confident; she feels that she knows what would be best for her in her "nervous condition," and not being listened to by her husband and brother is more than upsetting.  She tells us that John, her husband, doesn't believe that she is sick, "And what can one do?" she asks.  Further, she thinks she knows what treatment would work for her, "But what is one to do?" she asks again.  Her constant asking about what one can do makes it seem as though she feels there is not much she can do; she is powerless to effect change in her situation because her husband prevents her from doing everything she wants.  This explains why she gets "unreasonably angry with [him] sometimes."  She's been made to feel that such anger would be unreasonable, but given her circumstances, it doesn't necessarily feel that way to readers.

As the story progresses, the narrator's disempowered tone turns to one that is much more empowered.  Now, rather than be ruled by John's directions, she only pretends to do what he says, like sleep.  When he makes her lie down after each meal, she says, "It is a very bad habit I am convinced, for you see I don't sleep.  And that cultivates deceit, for I don't tell them I'm awake—O no."  With her wallpaper to study, the narrator says that "Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be."  She hides her hypothesis about the wallpaper making her better from John because she fears he'd want to remove it.  She now says that John "pretends to be very loving," starting to blame him a great deal more for her situation, at least subconsciously.  

Finally, she calls the woman in the wallpaper a "poor thing" because she is trapped, and so the narrator "got up and ran to help her. I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper."  In the end, when the narrator comes to believe that she IS the woman she has freed from the paper, she says, "'I've got out at last [...].  And I've pulled off most of the paper, so you can't put me back!'"  She now feels totally empowered: first, she was the helpless woman; then she became the woman who would save the woman trapped in the wallpaper; finally, she is the woman who has been freed from the paper.  Her disempowerment and imprisonment compelled her to find a way to experience the freedom she lacked, so her mind invented an alternate identity for her to embody: in her own mind, she liberates herself from imprisonment.  Ironically, this means that she's essentially had a complete mental breakdown, but in her own mind (and thus in her tone), she is powerful and free.  

mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," her narrator's tone is passive, disturbed, paranoid, and intimate.

The narrator is torn between sanity and sickness/insanity; masculine and feminine roles; and the freedom of nature and the prison of the domestic bedroom.  So says Enotes:

Since the protagonist is suffering a mental breakdown, she is also considered an unreliable narrator because the reader cannot be certain if she is accurately relating the events of the story. This adds emotional impact to the narrative because the reader is given an intimate account of the protagonist's growing feelings of despair and confusion.

Here's a few quotes as support:


There is a delicious garden! I never saw such a garden large and shady, full of box-bordered paths, and lined with long grape-covered arbors with seats under them.

There were greenhouses, too, but they are all broken now.

There was some legal trouble, I believe, something about the heirs and coheirs; anyhow, the place has been empty for years.


Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly and the pattern just enjoys it! All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!

I am getting angry enough to do something desperate. To jump out of the window would be admirable exercise, but the bars are too strong even to try.


The fact is I am getting a little afraid of John.

He seems very queer sometimes, and even Jennie has an inexplicable look.

It strikes me occasionally, just as a scientific hypothesis, -- that perhaps it is the paper!


There comes John, and I must put this away, -- he hates to have me write a word.

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a story showing the mental breakdown of a female narrator from a first-person perspective. The story is essentially psychological, and the narrator's attitude and tone in describing external events reveals the narrator's state of mind.

The first thing we note is that, especially in comparison with other works written in the same period, the writer tends to use very short disjointed sentences and sentence fragments, often interrupting herself or changing topic quite abruptly. This is intended to show the incoherence of her thought process.

The tone gradually shifts from relative calm to hysteria and from close observation to paranoid suspicion and thence to horror. This is mirrored by language that becomes increasingly hyperbolic. 

Her tone also varies with context. In direct or indirect discourse with her husband, the narrator strives to sound like a conventional wife, namely, calm and reasonable, but her inner thoughts reveal her growing mental disturbances. 

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The Yellow Wallpaper

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