The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis

  • In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which was first published in 1892, Gilman extends the rigid gender roles of the time period to create an uncanny horror story of “temporary nervous depression” and its treatment.
  • Gothic elements of the story include first-person narration, madness, and suspense.
  • Various literary devices—such as personification, simile, and dramatic irony—emphasize the horror of the narrator’s shifting understanding of reality.
  • Gilman includes various symbols to highlight the story’s themes. The wallpaper, for example, serves as a physical reminder of the narrator’s imprisonment by her husband, her illness, and her womanhood.

Overview

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Last Updated on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is the semi-autobiographical story of Gilman’s experience with depression, told through the narrator’s journal entries. The first-person perspective and shifting tenses allow readers to intimately experience the narrator’s mental deterioration. Through the setting, Gilman creates a foreboding tone to establish one of the story’s dark themes: the narrator’s only path to freedom from her oppression is an escape into insanity. Using a variety of literary devices, the story touches not only on the narrator’s life under her husband’s control but also on larger themes of the treatment of women in late 19th-century society. 

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Historical Context

Charlotte Perkins Gilman first published "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1892. To get the most out of reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is important to grasp the historical context of Gilman’s story. During the late 19th century, women were considered weaker than men, both physically and... (Read more on Historical Context in "The Yellow Wallpaper.")

Tone

Early readers considered “The Yellow Wallpaper” a work of gothic fiction, a popular literary genre in the 19th century defined by its attention to horror, madness, death, decay, suspense, and romance. The tone of the short story reflects this genre. Gothic elements are... (Read more on Tone in "The Yellow Wallpaper.")

Literary Devices

Gilman employs multiple literary devices throughout "The Yellow Wallpaper," including personification, simile, and dramatic irony, to touch on various themes and highlight the torment the wallpaper imposes on the narrator... (Read more on Literary Devices in "The Yellow Wallpaper.")

Symbols

Through the use of symbols, Gilman crafts a complex exploration of individuality, self-expression, and sexuality during the late 19th century. Because of the multiple themes “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses, many of these symbols can be interpreted in more than one way... (Read more on Symbols in "The Yellow Wallpaper.")

Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

Charlotte Perkins Gilman first published "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1892. To get the most out of reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it is important to grasp the historical context of Gilman’s story. During the late 19th century, women were considered weaker than men, both physically and mentally, and were allowed very little personal agency. Though the narrator of the short story realizes she has an illness, her husband’s feelings of expertise and superiority prevent her from obtaining treatment. Even her diagnosis of “hysteria” is rooted in her society’s understanding of women’s health and anatomy. Late 19th-century expectations regarding marital roles and mental health laid the groundwork for this story.

Hysteria

In modern contexts, “hysteria” refers to an uncontrollable experience or display of strong emotion. Although it was discounted as a medical disorder in the late 20th century, historically hysteria was a common diagnosis for women who displayed a range of physiological and psychological symptoms, such as faintness, nervousness, high libidio, irritability, and loss of appetite. Ancient Greeks believed the disorder was caused by a “wandering womb” and could be cured by marital intercourse. This diagnosis of hysteria as an expression of misplaced sexual impulses continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The perception of the uterus—and by extension, female sexuality—as fragile and easily damaged contributed to the pervasively sexist attitudes of the time. Medical treatments often included genital massages, performed by doctors and, eventually, by vibrators. In extreme cases, women with hysteria were sent to insane asylums or received hysterectomies. By the 20th century, diagnoses of hysteria had been extended to male patients suffering from battlefield trauma, but its cultural legacy remains tied to femininity. 

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell

The “Weir Mitchell” mentioned in the story is a reference to Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, one of the leading neurologists of the time. He is best known today—in large part because of Gilman’s story—as the developer and proponent of the “rest cure.” His interest in psychiatry began in the late 1800s, working with veterans of the Civil War, and expanded to address nervous disorders more generally. The rest cure he created was designed to minimize distressing stimulation and promote physical health. The most extreme forms of rest cure involved a solitary rest period lasting between six and eight weeks. Patients were cared for by nurses who bathed them and fed them a milk-based diet. In addition, female patients were forbidden from talking, reading, writing, or sewing—behaviors which were believed to contribute to unruliness.

Gilman contacted Mitchell in 1887, suffering from depression after the birth of her child. His instructions upon her discharge from his treatment, according to Gilman’s autobiography, were to “live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time. . . . Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.” The resulting boredom and lack of direction exacerbated Gilman’s condition to the point of a nervous breakdown. Her essay “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” explains that she wrote the story explicitly to warn Mitchell and other doctors of the potential danger of the rest cure. She sent him a copy of the story after its publication, but he never responded. Her story was received as a gothic thriller at the time of its initial publication, but some of its sociological ideas were fairly radical. Notably, Gilman’s subtle assertion that meaningful work is as important to women’s psychological health as to men’s was a departure from the common wisdom of the time, which held that women should be fulfilled by their domestic roles as wives and mothers.

Tone

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

Early readers considered “The Yellow Wallpaper” a work of gothic fiction, a popular literary genre in the 19th century defined by its attention to horror, madness, death, decay, suspense, and romance. The tone of the short story reflects this genre. Gothic elements are introduced immediately in the narrator’s description of the setting—the “ancestral halls” of a “hereditary estate”—and in the first-person narration by a troubled woman.

The Setting

The secluded old mansion, set among shadowy, walled gardens, is reminiscent of the settings of many gothic tales. Initially, the narrator describes the estate and its garden as spacious and airy, though she insists that she can feel “something strange about the house.” She and her husband are renting it out cheaply because of “legal trouble . . . about the heirs and co-heirs,” a fact that contributes to a sense of fallen grandeur and gothic mystery that the narrator wishes to indulge. There is a large “delicious” garden, but the shattered greenhouses and the abandoned gardeners’ cottages suggest ruin and decay, familiar motifs in gothic literature. The room shared by the narrator and her husband is referred to as a former nursery, but it has unusual features: barred windows, a gate at the top of the stairs, a “gouged and splintered” floor, a bed nailed to the floor, and wallpaper peeled off in very specific places. These elements of physical confinement are a motif of gothic literature, as is the mysterious way in which they appear throughout the narrative.  

The Characters and the Narration

In addition to the setting, other conventions of gothic literature contribute to the story’s gothic tone. A troubled heroine trapped in a strange setting tells her own story as it develops. Her domineering husband traps her and abandons her for long periods of time; a housekeeper watches her intently and reports her behavior to him. Her husband professes love and concern for her, but he denies her perception of reality and systematically and harmfully imposes his will. Although not a gothic tale in the classic sense—the narrator, for example, isn’t seized with terror and compelled to run from the mansion into a violent storm—these conventions create a foreboding tone. Locked away in the nursery of a crumbling house, the narrator comes to embody the gothic archetype of the madwoman in the attic.

The story’s point of view creates a sense of entrapment and isolation, tonal elements found in gothic literature. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written as a series of first-person, present-tense entries from the narrator’s diary. The entries are undated, and their division is marked only by visual breaks in the text. Some dialogue is included, but the narrator mostly relates her stream of consciousness, revealing her spiraling mental health and her growing interest in the yellow wallpaper. This limited point of view gives readers a first-hand sense of her confinement and prevents them from obtaining an objective view of her condition or surroundings. As the story progresses, her prose style becomes more erratic and disjointed, marked by paragraphs with fewer and fewer sentences. Through these stylistic features, readers can trace the narrator’s mental deterioration.

Literary Devices

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

Gilman employs multiple literary devices throughout "The Yellow Wallpaper," including personification, simile, and dramatic irony, to touch on various themes and highlight the torment the wallpaper imposes on the narrator.

Personification

Personification is used to describe the wallpaper as if it were a living entity. The curves of the wallpaper “suddenly commit suicide—plunge off in outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” and the grotesque pattern “slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you.” 

Simile

Through simile, the narrator describes how the pattern of the yellow wallpaper twists and convulses like a string of “toadstools” and how her hallucinations paralyze her like a “bad dream.” The evocative language provides readers with clear insight into the narrator’s imaginary experience of the wallpaper as a moving, malevolent object.

Dramatic Irony

Gilman uses dramatic irony in describing the narrator’s relationship with her husband. Although John seems to care about his wife’s well-being, he actively hampers her treatment by placing her on a rest cure. While he insists that she needs to stop “working” until she recovers, the narrator suffers from boredom and becomes easily exhausted by having to keep her writing a secret. Her lack of agency exacerbates her condition, driving her to tears and hopelessness. Over time, as the narrator’s independence grows through her solitary struggles with the wallpaper, she seems to become aware of the irony of her situation: that her husband, the medical expert, is completely unaware of his own wife’s true state. 

Symbols

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

Through the use of symbols, Gilman crafts a complex exploration of individuality, self-expression, and sexuality during the late 19th century. Because of the multiple themes “The Yellow Wallpaper” addresses, many of these symbols can be interpreted in more than one way, often simultaneously.

The House | The Nursery | The Wallpaper | The Woman Trapped in the Wallpaper

The House

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

The house in which the narrator and her husband stay symbolizes the society that confines the narrator. It is a grand estate with a presumably lofty past, but the longer she stays there, the more disrepair and discomfort the narrator notices. Similarly, the narrator has lived her entire life inhabiting a specific gender role, but over time it has become more and more uncomfortable for her, eventually resulting in her illness.

On another level, the house can be read as a physical representation of the relationship between the narrator’s body and mind. Initially, the narrator wants a room on the ground floor of the house with roses by the window. She also wishes to engage with the world outside herself: she wants to see friends and work on her writing. Instead, the narrator is forced to stay on the second floor of the house in a large, disordered room with visible damage and distractingly ugly wallpaper. Similarly, the narrator is denied creative stimulation and driven to fixate on her mental state.

The Nursery

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403

At the start of the story, the narrator asks for a room on the ground floor with roses by the window. However, her husband John refuses, citing the smallness of the room and his inability to stay near her, and insists that they both share a larger room on the upper floor. John treats his wife like a child by rejecting her identity as an independent adult with needs and desires of her own; this infantilization finds its symbolic gesture in John’s insistence on the nursery. The presence of roses and hangings in the ground-floor room and the absence of any decoration in the nursery suggests a sexual element to the narrator’s repression: she is denied sensuality in the context she wishes to experience it and is instead forced to act as a wife in a room devoid of pleasure.

The room the narrator and her husband share, presumed to be a former nursery, is filled with objects reminiscent of a prison or mental hospital: a bed nailed to the floor, a gate at the top of the stairs, and windows covered in bars. By combining the elements of a nursery and a prison, Gilman invokes a number of figurative prisons entrapping her narrator: marriage, motherhood, domicility, infantilization, mental illness, and the social expectations which prevent women from experiencing intellectually or creatively fulfilling lives.

Initially, the only furniture in the nursery is a bed, which serves as another symbol. John shares a bedroom with the narrator, given his previous objection to a smaller room. The repeated references to the bed’s great size and the lack of other beds in the room imply that John and the narrator share a bed throughout the narrator’s recovery. In this respect, it symbolizes the obligatory nature of their marital relationship. The bed looks “as if it had been through the wars,” and after some time the narrator discovers that it is nailed to the floor. It slowly accrues physical damage, becoming “fairly gnawed” by the end of the story, at which point the narrator describes biting the bed frame in frustration at its immobility. She is still unable to move it and is forced to creep around it as she crawls in circuits around the room, demonstrating that while the narrator may have found some relief for the time being, she has not impacted the systems that oppressed her in any lasting way.

The Wallpaper

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

Readers may interpret the wallpaper as a symbol of the narrator’s confinement, both on a personal level as a wife with a controlling husband and on a systemic level as a woman in a controlling society. The paper’s pattern is described as hideous and chaotic, full of contradictions. Previous occupants have torn off swaths of paper in specific patches, but it remains the overwhelming feature of the room, and no attempts have been made to repair it. Symbolically, this reflects the values of the society in which the narrator lives: a complicated and irrational set of rules that survive despite their lack of true order or purpose. The violent imagery used to describe the wallpaper, which includes depictions of broken necks and suicides, hints at the destructive effects of those rules.  

The wallpaper can also be seen to symbolize the narrator’s mind. Arriving at the house in a state of obvious depression and denied any sort of distraction, the narrator has nothing with which to alleviate her suffering. Like her mind, the pattern of the yellow wallpaper is disordered and suffers from damage caused by external forces. Since the narrator lacks any sort of helpful guidance in confronting her thoughts, she is forced to find her own logic in their pattern. She uses morbid language to describe the wallpaper, hinting at the nature of her depression, and eventually finds peace by destroying it altogether, just as she has abandoned the attempt to order her thoughts.

The Woman Trapped in the Wallpaper

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

After some time, the narrator sees the pattern of her bedroom’s yellow wallpaper as a series of bars, imprisoning the shape of a woman behind them. The narrator and the trapped woman can be interpreted as one and the same entity: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled, and before morning we had peeled off yards of that paper.” When the narrator pulls at the yellow wallpaper, the trapped woman shakes it. Conversely, when the narrator shakes it, the trapped woman pulls. The woman trapped behind the wallpaper’s pattern mirrors the repressed female self trapped in a patriarchal society. Although the narrator may not realize it, her act of pulling down the wallpaper serves as an act of defiance. By trying to free this woman, she is trying to free herself. On a larger thematic scale, her act demonstrates how she wants to break free of the societal restrictions holding her back. The narrator’s eventual assumption of the trapped woman’s identity can be read as symbolic of the narrator's reclamation of her independence, grim as it may be.

An alternate reading frames the woman in the wallpaper as one particular aspect of the narrator's personality: her desire to leave her domestic responsibilities or to assert her desires above those of her husband, whom she now crawls over. The narrator's freeing her from the wallpaper symbolizes the narrator's allowing herself to accept a portion of her personality that has been suppressed by participation in a restrictive society. This is a more optimistic reading because it implies that the narrator may not end the story in a state of complete delusion.

The “creeping” done by the woman in the wallpaper is a physical display of the childlike helplessness the narrator has been pushed into by her husband and her illness. When it is later revealed that the narrator herself has been creeping around her room, it becomes ambiguous whether the narrator is consistently seeing the shape of a woman in the wallpaper or is in fact reacting to her own shadow. John’s frequent absences and the eventual revelation that he is aware of the narrator’s nighttime wakefulness allow for the possibility that her delusions have been brought on by interacting with her own shadow. If this is true, the ultimate truth of the story—that the narrator is the woman in the wallpaper—carries a physical as well as psychological dimension.

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