The Yellow Wallpaper Overview
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper book cover
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The Yellow Wallpaper Themes

The main themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are the oppressive nature of gender roles, appearance versus reality, and the need for self-expression.

  • The oppressive nature of gender roles: Through the narrator’s madness, which seems to result from her inability to assert her full identity, Gilman examines the confining gender roles that were imposed on women of the time.
  • Appearance versus reality: Both major characters are unable to synthesize outward appearances and internal truths, which instigates the story’s primary conflict.
  • The need for self-expression: The narrator’s struggle to be understood mirrors the universal human desire to share experiences and emotions.

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Overview

Gilman’s short story, written in 1892, rose out of relative obscurity during the period of second-wave of feminism in the latter half of the 20th century. Readers identified with the plight of a woman trying to assert her agency in a repressive culture that considered women delicate and incapable of self-governance. Since then, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has most often been examined in the context of feminist theory. However, other themes in the short story are just as relevant: the danger of taking appearances for reality, and the necessity of self-expression to a healthy life.

Appearance vs. Reality

Both of the main characters in “The Yellow Wallpaper” suffer from their inability to differentiate between outward appearances and internal realities. In fact, the story’s conflict can be traced to this flaw in their perceptions: the narrator’s husband is unwilling to believe in an illness without physical symptoms, and... (Read more on Appearance vs. Reality.)

The Need for Self-Expression

The narrative structure of “The Yellow Wallpaper” expresses one of the major tensions in the short story: the conflict between the narrator’s desire to express herself and her inability to actually do so. Her imaginative sensibility and her desire to write expressively (what she describes as “work”) are... (Read more on the Need for Self-Expression.)

The Oppressive Nature of Gender Roles

The narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” is confined as much by her gender as by her illness. Her description of writing as “work” and her inability to engage with her child imply a desire to move outside of the domestic sphere. That desire is reframed as a symptom of her illness by the men surrounding her, and... (Read more on the Oppressive Nature of Gender Roles.)