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Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" tells the story of a young woman’s gradual descent into psychosis. " The Yellow Wallpaper" is often cited as an early feminist work that predates a woman’s right to vote in the United States. The author was involved in first-wave feminism, and her other works questioned the origins of the subjugation of women, particularly in marriage. "
The Yellow Wallpaper" is a widely read work that asks difficult questions about the role of women, particularly regarding their mental health and right to autonomy and self-identity. We’ll go over The Yellow Wallpaper summary, themes and symbols, The Yellow Wallpaper analysis, and some important information about the author.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" Summary
"The Yellow Wallpaper" details the deterioration of a woman's mental health while she is on a "rest cure" on a rented summer country estate with her family. Her obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom marks her descent into psychosis from her depression throughout the story.
The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" begins the story by discussing her move to a beautiful estate for the summer. Her husband, John, is also her doctor , and the move is meant in part to help the narrator overcome her “illness,” which she explains as nervous depression, or nervousness, following the birth of their baby. John’s sister, Jennie, also lives with them and works as their housekeeper.
Though her husband believes she will get better with rest and by not worrying about anything, the narrator has an active imagination and likes to write . He discourages her wonder about the house, and dismisses her interests. She mentions her baby more than once, though there is a nurse that cares for the baby, and the narrator herself is too nervous to provide care.
The narrator and her husband move into a large room that has ugly, yellow wallpaper that the narrator criticizes. She asks her husband if they can change rooms and move downstairs, and he rejects her. The more she stays in the room, the more the narrator’s fascination with the hideous wallpaper grows.
After hosting family for July 4th, the narrator expresses feeling even worse and more exhausted. She struggles to do daily activities, and her mental state is deteriorating. John encourages her to rest more, and the narrator hides her writing from him because he disapproves.
In the time between July 4th and their departure, the narrator is seemingly driven insane by the yellow wallpaper ; she sleeps all day and stays up all night to stare at it, believing that it comes alive, and the patterns change and move. Then, she begins to believe that there is a woman in the wallpaper who alters the patterns and is watching her.
A few weeks before their departure, John stays overnight in town and the narrator wants to sleep in the room by herself so she can stare at the wallpaper uninterrupted. She locks out Jennie and believes that she can see the woman in the wallpaper . John returns and frantically tries to be let in, and the narrator refuses; John is able to enter the room and finds the narrator crawling on the floor. She claims that the woman in the wallpaper has finally exited, and John faints, much to her surprise.
Background on "The Yellow Wallpaper"
The author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was a lecturer for social reform, and her beliefs and philosophy play an important part in the creation of "The Yellow Wallpaper," as well as the themes and symbolism in the story. "The Yellow Wallpaper" also influenced later feminist writers.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, known as Charlotte Perkins Stetsman while she was married to her first husband, was born in Hartford, CT in 1860. Young Charlotte was observed as being bright, but her mother wasn’t interested in her education, and Charlotte spent lots of time in the library.
Charlotte married Charles Stetsman in 1884, and her daughter was born in 1885. She suffered from serious postpartum depression after giving birth to their daughter, Katharine. Her battle with postpartum depression and the doctors she dealt with during her illness inspired her to write "The Yellow Wallpaper."
The couple separated in 1888, the year that Perkins Gilman wrote her first book, Art Gems for the Home and Fireside. She later wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1890, while she was in a relationship with Adeline Knapp, and living apart from her legal husband. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published in 1892, and in 1893 she published a book of satirical poetry , In This Our World, which gained her fame.
Eventually, Perkins Gilman got officially divorced from Stetsman, and ended her relationship with Knapp. She married her cousin, Houghton Gilman, and claimed to be satisfied in the marriage .
Perkins Gilman made a living as a lecturer on women’s issues, labor issues, and social reform . She toured Europe and the U.S. as a lecturer, and founded her own magazine, The Forerunner.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" was first published in January 1892 in New England Magazine.
During Perkins Gilman's lifetime, the role of women in American society was heavily restricted both socially and legally. At the time of its publication, women were still twenty-six years away from gaining the right to vote .
This viewpoint on women as childish and weak meant that they were discouraged from having any control over their lives. Women were encouraged or forced to defer to their husband’s opinions in all aspects of life , including financially, socially, and medically. Writing itself was revolutionary, since it would create a sense of identity, and was thought to be too much for the naturally fragile women.
Women's health was a particularly misunderstood area of medicine, as women were viewed as nervous, hysterical beings, and were discouraged from doing anything to further “upset” them. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that rest would cure hysteria, when in reality the constant boredom and lack of purpose likely worsened depression .
Perkins Gilman used her own experience in her first marriage and postpartum depression as inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper, and illustrates how a woman’s lack of autonomy is detrimental to her mental health.
Upon its publication, Perkins Gilman sent a copy of "The Yellow Wallpaper" to the doctor who prescribed her the rest cure for her postpartum depression.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" Characters
Though there are only a few characters in the story, they each have an important role. While the story is about the narrator’s mental deterioration, the relationships in her life are essential for understanding why and how she got to this point.
The narrator of the story is a young, upper-middle-class woman. She is imaginative and a natural writer, though she is discouraged from exploring this part of herself. She is a new mother and is thought to have “hysterical tendencies” or suffer from nervousness. Her name may be Jane but it is unclear.
John is the narrator’s husband and her physician. He restricts her activity as a part of her treatment. John is extremely practical, and belittles the narrator's imagination and feelings . He seems to care about her well-being, but believes he knows what is best for her and doesn't allow her input.
Jennie is John’s sister, who works as a housekeeper for the couple. Jennie seems concerned for the narrator, as indicated by her offer to sleep in the yellow wallpapered room with her. Jennie seems content with her domestic role .
Main Themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
From what we know about the author of this story and from interpreting the text, there are a few themes that are clear from a "Yellow Wallpaper" analysis. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was a serious piece of literature that addressed themes pertinent to women.
Women's Role in Marriage
Women were expected to be subordinate to their husbands and completely obedient, as well as take on strictly domestic roles inside the home . Upper middle class women, like the narrator, may go for long periods of time without even leaving the home. The story reveals that this arrangement had the effect of committing women to a state of naïveté, dependence, and ignorance.
John assumes he has the right to determine what’s best for his wife, and this authority is never questioned. He belittles her concerns, both concrete and the ones that arise as a result of her depression , and is said so brush her off and “laugh at her” when she speaks through, “this is to be expected in marriage” He doesn’t take her concerns seriously, and makes all the decisions about both of their lives.
As such, she has no say in anything in her life, including her own health, and finds herself unable to even protest.
Perkins Gilman, like many others, clearly disagreed with this state of things, and aimed to show the detrimental effects that came to women as a result of their lack of autonomy.
Identity and Self-Expression
Throughout the story, the narrator is discouraged from doing the things she wants to do and the things that come naturally to her, like writing. On more than one occasion, she hurries to put her journal away because John is approaching .
She also forces herself to act as though she’s happy and satisfied, to give the illusion that she is recovering, which is worse. She wants to be a good wife, according to the way the role is laid out for her, but struggles to conform especially with so little to actually do.
The narrator is forced into silence and submission through the rest cure, and desperately needs an intellectual and emotional outlet . However, she is not granted one and it is clear that this arrangement takes a toll.
The Rest Cure
The rest cure was commonly prescribed during this period of history for women who were “nervous.” Perkins Gilman has strong opinions about the merits of the rest cure , having been prescribed it herself. John’s insistence on the narrator getting “air” constantly, and his insistence that she do nothing that requires mental or physical stimulation is clearly detrimental.
The narrator is also discouraged from doing activities, whether they are domestic- like cleaning or caring for her baby- in addition to things like reading, writing, and exploring the grounds of the house. She is stifled and confined both physically and mentally, which only adds to her condition .
Perkins Gilman damns the rest cure in this story, by showing the detrimental effects on women, and posing that women need mental and physical stimulation to be healthy, and need to be free to make their own decisions over health and their lives.
The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis: Symbols and Symbolism
Symbols are a way for the author to give the story meaning, and provide clues as to the themes and characters. There are two major symbols in "The Yellow Wallpaper."
The Yellow Wallpaper
This is of course the most important symbol in the story. The narrator is immediately fascinated and disgusted by the yellow wallpaper, and her understanding and interpretation fluctuates and intensifies throughout the story.
The narrator, because she doesn’t have anything else to think about or other mental stimulation, turns to the yellow wallpaper as something to analyze and interpret. The pattern eventually comes into focus as bars, and then she sees a woman inside the pattern . This represents feeling trapped.
At the end of the story, the narrator believes that the woman has come out of the wallpaper. This indicates that the narrator has finally merged fully into her psychosis , and become one with the house and domesticated discontent.
Though Jennie doesn’t have a major role in the story, she does present a foil to the narrator. Jennie is John’s sister and their housekeeper, and she is content, or so the narrator believes, to live a domestic life. Though she does often express her appreciation for Jennie’s presence in her home, she is clearly made to feel guilty by Jennie’s ability to run the household unencumbered .
Irony in The Yellow Wallpaper
"The Yellow Wallpaper" makes good use of dramatic and situational irony. Dramatic literary device in which the reader knows or understands things that the characters do not. Situational irony is when the character’s actions are meant to do one thing, but actually do another. Here are a few examples.
For example, when the narrator first enters the room with the yellow wallpaper, she believes it to be a nursery . However, the reader can clearly see that the room could have just as easily been used to contain a mentally unstable person.
The best example of situational irony is the way that John continues to prescribe the rest-cure, which worsens the narrator's state significantly. He encourages her to lie down after meals and sleep more, which causes her to be awake and alert at night, when she has time to sit and evaluate the wallpaper.
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is one of the defining works of feminist literature. Writing about a woman’s health, mental or physical, was considered a radical act at the time that Perkins Gilman wrote this short story. Writing at all about the lives of women was considered at best, frivolous, and at worst dangerous. When you take a look at The Yellow Wallpaper analysis, the story is an important look into the role of women in marriage and society, and it will likely be a mainstay in the feminist literary canon.
Looking for more expert guides on literary classics? Read our guides on The Cask of Amontillado and The Great Gatsby .
Need important and interesting quotes? Check out these 18 To Kill a Mockingbird Quotes and 9 Great Mark Twain Quotes .
For help analyzing literature and writing essays , read our expert guide on imagery , literary elements , and writing an argumentative essay .
Need more help with this topic? Check out Tutorbase!
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Carrie holds a Bachelors in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, and is currently pursuing an MFA. She worked in book publishing for several years, and believes that books can open up new worlds. She loves reading, the outdoors, and learning about new things.
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Literary Analysis of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Charlotte Perkins Gilman once said, “There is no female mind. The brain is not an organ of sex. Might as well speak of a female liver” (Brainyquote). Gilman’s belief that there really was no difference in means of mentality between men or women is strongly demonstrated through “The Yellow Wallpaper”. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a short story about a woman who has a mental illness but cannot heal due to her husband’s lack of belief. The story appears to take place during a time period where women were oppressed. Women were treated as second rate people in society during this time period. Charlotte Perkins Gilman very accurately portrays the thought process of the society during the time period in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” is written. Using the aspects of Feminist criticism, one can analyze “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman through the dialogue through both the male and female perspective, and through the symbol found in the story. To begin with, one can analyze “The Yellow Wallpaper” by examining the aspect of dialogue through the male perspective. Gilman makes a strong statement about males in society during her time period. The men are portrayed to really see women as children more than as individuals. This is made clear when the Narrator says, “If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- - slight hysterical tendency- - what is one to do?” (Gilman). Gilman shows the male perspective through dialogue because the Narrator explains that no matter what she says her husband shrugs away her illness. He strongly believes that his wife is being overly dramatic and that nothing is wrong. The typical male makes his wife a conformist by enforcing his beliefs on her. The husband truly believes that nothing is wrong with his wife so he ignores the problem and adds to his wife’s illness. The Narrator also falls victim to oppression through derogatory names on behalf of her husband. This is made clear when the husband interacts with the Narrator, “The he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished , and have it Whitewashed into the bargain” (Gilman). The key phrase in the quote is “little goose”, the husband treats his wife like a child and speaks to her as such. This shows how much intelligence the husband thinks his wife has. He degrades his wife by using terms that one would typically use to speak to little children. Gilman clearly demonstrates how oppressed women were during this specific time period through dialogue from the perspective of men. Next, one can gain a better understanding of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by examining dialogue from the perspective of women. Gilman shows two very different sides of women during the time period in which “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written in. The first side Gilman demonstrates is the conformist side that women seemed to take. The conformist female essentially goes along with the belief that women are subservient to men, this is made clear when the Narrator says, “I meant to be such a help to John, such a real rest and comfort, and here I am a comparative burden already!” (Gilman). The Narrator feels that she is a burden to her husband because she dislikes the wallpaper and keeps complaining about it even after he says that he won’t change it. She blames herself for not being able to cope with the room her husband has made her live in even though she was able to find solutions to the problem. These solutions included changing rooms or changing the wallpaper, but her husband said no. Gilman is also able to demonstrate the other side of women through dialogue. The Narrator finally overcomes her conformist ways towards the end of the story when she says, “I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back” (Gilman). This example demonstrates that the Narrator felt trapped with her family and that she finally managed to speak up and act on behalf of herself. The Narrator finally becomes the strong female hero of the story after she speaks up for herself. Gilman demonstrated both sides of women during her time period through means of dialogue. The final observation that can be made in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is symbolism. There is a clear sense of symbolism that one can obtain from the yellow wallpaper itself. The wallpaper in the Narrator’s room represents imprisonment and this is made clear when the Narrator says, “The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (Gilman). The imprisonment representation is created from the yellow wallpaper because the Narrator repeatedly asks to remove the wallpaper but isn’t allowed so and she is ultimately confined to the room she despises due to the stubbornness seen from her husband. The quote shows that the Narrator is finally realizing that her husband’s treatment towards her is questionable and that she wants to escape her prison-like life. Gilman also shows how obsessive the Narrator has become with the wallpaper and why she is so obsessed. The symbolism is clearly seen when the narrator describes the wallpaper, “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (Gilman). The Narrator’s obsession with the wallpaper increases because she wanted to change it but wasn’t allowed to do so. She has become the woman in the wallpaper trapped behind the bars. The Narrator was finally able to see how she had little say about anything in her life. This feeling was able to manifest itself on to the wallpaper thus leading to an increase in the symbolism and importance of the wallpaper. The symbolism was made clear in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. In Conclusion, one can clearly see that Charlotte Perkins Gilman felt strongly about women suffrage. Gilman made clear in “The Yellow Wallpaper” that gender plays no role in the mental abilities of men and women. “The Yellow Wallpaper” also demonstrates the struggle that women had to go through in order to be heard. By using the aspects of Female criticism one analyze the “Yellow Wallpaper” by examining dialogue from both the perspective of males and the perspective of females, and through symbolism. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is an important short story in terms of history due to the positive implications it helped bring about for women. This story was written during a time where women suffrage was hardly spoken of and women were treated inferior to men. This story demonstrates the struggle women everywhere had in terms of being heard and respected. It is important to remember how far women have come since “The Yellow Wallpaper” was written. Since this paper was written women have gained many of the rights that men have had for decades prior to the writing of “The Yellow Wallpaper” but there are still many more miles to go before women and men are completely equal. Works Cited Famous Quotes at BrainyQuote. Web. 07 Apr. 2011. <http://www.brainyquote.com/>. Gilman, Charlotte Perkins, and Dale M. Bauer. The Yellow Wallpaper. Boston: Bedford, 1998. Print.
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The Yellow Wallpaper: Summary and Analysis
July 16, 2023
Reading this “The Yellow Wallpaper” summary and analysis will help students gain a solid understanding of a canonical short story. In this article, we’ll analyze the historical and biographical relevance, characters, symbols, themes, and more. We’ll also consider the story from several critical lenses. By the end, readers will be peeling back layers of meaning as if stripping away sheets of wallpaper to reveal multiple, even paradoxical interpretations.
But first, if you haven’t already done so, read “The Yellow Wallpaper.” It’s just over 6,000 words and can be read in one afternoon. Once you’re finished, step back into 19th-century New England for a little historical context.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: The Author
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, born in Connecticut a year before the Civil War, had an unusual upbringing. Her father abandoned her family in her infancy, and her mother relied on the help of her husband’s sisters. These women made a pretty incredible lineup. They included suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and educationalist Catharine Beecher. Gilman’s impressive aunts influenced her understanding of what a woman could accomplish. Her mother, on the other hand, forbade reading fiction. Despite receiving only four years of formal schooling, Gilman enrolled in classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. In this era, most women didn’t attend college at all, and settled instead for marriage.
Around this time, Gilman met Martha Luther, and the two became extremely close. Their friendship evolved into a romance, one constrained by society’s codes and anti-gay laws. Yet she married Charles Walter Stetson at 24. A year later, she suffered postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter. As this depression deepened, her doctor, Silas Weir Mitchell, prescribed a “rest cure.” The treatment involved long, frequent naps, a focus on childcare, and a particular caveat: Charlotte should “never touch pen, brush or pencil” for as long as she lived. For someone passionate about poetry, this rest cure was a death sentence.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary (Continued)
Luckily for Gilman, her depression subsided after she and Stetson divorced—another unusual choice for a woman at this time. We find echoes of these autobiographical events in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” New England Magazine published Gilman’s story in 1892. While Gilman went on to publish books of poetry and give lectures on topics including suffrage and social reform, “The Yellow Wallpaper” remains her chef d’oeuvre, and has been anthologized in various collections.
Progressive or Problematic Feminist?
Unfortunately, we can’t revisit Gilman without acknowledging her unsavory beliefs. Yes, she championed social reform, and yes, she was related to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Yet Gilman’s views on race appear convoluted and misguided at best. A deeper look into her writing reveals blatant racism. Though not a supporter of slavery, Gilman adopted a eugenicist stance, claiming that Anglo-Saxons belonged to a purer class of people. These dangerous and abhorrent views complicate the history of women’s rights in America—a movement that owes much of its success to black suffragists .
Though we may study Gilman’s work through a feminist lens, we certainly should not mistake her for a hero. She’s a complex figure, a champion of women’s rights, and an ignorant member of the white elite, blinded by privilege. In fact, the paradoxes in her biography point to a bigger entanglement of class, power, gender, and race in America. Thus, we shouldn’t ignore her problematic views when reading her work. Rather, we ought to incorporate and critique them as part of our analysis of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Characters
A slim cast of characters appears in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” We first encounter the narrator, an unnamed woman, and her husband John, a physician. They appear as “people like John and myself.” This immediate coupling of the two main characters creates a false sense of companionship. Yet as the story progresses, the reader will notice a strange dichotomy. John’s opinions on his wife’s health, and his power to impose his opinions, are at odds with her real mental and physical needs.
The narrator could be called “unreliable.” As her mental health deteriorates, the reader becomes less capable of differentiating between what the narrator sees and reality. This distorted point of view allows for an interesting ambiguity and multiple interpretations. For example, among our list of characters we must consider those that don’t exist. The narrator writes, “I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths,” though John claims they don’t exist.
Jennie, John’s sister, lingers at the story’s periphery, taking care of household chores and the baby. This baby remains offstage, for the narrator feels too nervous to care for him. (“Jennie” is a nickname for “Jane,” which also appears in the story.) Other offstage characters include Gilman’s real-life physician, Weir Mitchell, and a brother, also a physician. While their roles seem minimal, these authority figures work to further dissolve the narrator’s credibility. We also hear of cousins Henry and Julia, whom the narrator isn’t allowed to visit. She does briefly see her mother and Nellie (perhaps a sister), and Nellie’s children. Lastly, the narrator mentions someone named “Mary,” who may be a servant. (From a critical race lens, we might ask if Mary is black. This would explain why her presence appears inconsequential to a white, upper-class narrator.)
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary
Much of what occurs in “The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in the narrator’s mind. The story begins with the narrator’s first secret journal entry. She describes a summer house they’ve rented, which she finds “queer,” and “haunted.” John dismisses these impressions. He prefers rational ideas. He forbids the narrator from daydreaming, as well as writing, or performing any stimulating work. In fact, because of her condition, which John calls a “temporary nervous depression,” the narrator cannot have “society and stimulus.” Rather than pick a pretty room, she must sleep in an eerie nursery covered in garish strips of yellow wallpaper.
The stifling atmosphere of “The Yellow Wallpaper” only worsens. Work takes John away most days. The narrator’s strength has weakened, so she cannot write in her journal for two weeks, nor care for her baby. Describing the room in greater detail, we learn that the floor is “scratched and gouged and splintered.” The wallpaper’s pattern appears to crawl with “absurd, unblinking eyes.” Occasionally, the narrator spots “a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure” there.
Next, Jennie takes on more housekeeping responsibilities. The narrator writes infrequently, recounting her exhaustion, despite enforced naps. John refuses to leave early, though his wife feels worse and cries all the time. Nevertheless, John insists she’s improving. She investigates the figure in the wallpaper and determines she’s a woman. This woman crawls about and shakes the bars that form a pattern on the wallpaper. Determined to discover the wallpaper’s secret, the narrator waits until John is out. Then she locks herself in the nursery and strips off large swaths of paper. When John finds her, she’s creeping about the room, just like the women who creep in the paper and along the hedges. John faints—and the narrator continues to creep right over his prone body!
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Symbols
The wallpaper serves as the story’s title and primary symbol. The wallpaper becomes the narrator’s obsession, and thus reflects and represents her mental instability. Yet this symbol has layers. Not only does it represent an impenetrable wall where rational thought ends and madness begins. It also offers up a surface on which the narrator can project her own fantasies. In this way, the yellow wallpaper becomes a multi-layered symbol of creative freedom, repression of that freedom, and the madness that ensues.
Within the wallpaper, the narrator finds various images. These images, too, serve as symbols. For example, we might interpret the eyes in the pattern as a sort of watchfulness. They could represent the gaze of society, keeping an eye on the narrator. Reversely, we could interpret these eyes as belonging to the woman, or women, trapped below the paper. In this sense, their eyes reflect an inability to speak. They can look, but they cannot express their imprisonment. Likewise, the bars in the wallpaper point to the repression of women. The narrator describes these bars as an outside pattern, which a woman beneath shakes to no avail.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Irony
Besides symbolism, “The Yellow Wallpaper” employs an array of literary devices. Irony pervades the entire story and allows for double interpretations. For example, the narrator writes, “John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.” The reader can read this at face value. In this case, the narrator suggests that marriage simply involves harmless laughter. Read ironically, the reader will see that the narrator is stating that a wife is not expected to be taken seriously. Irony reveals that John patronizes his wife (or “little girl”). He “cares” for her through a combination of absence and prohibition, denying her any liberty. He contradicts himself, telling his wife she’s fine one moment, then convincing her she’s sick when it suits him.
The nursery room carries an allusion to a very different sort of room. The more the narrator describes this room, the more it sounds like it may have been used to restrain someone. (The bed is nailed to the floor.) Here Gilman invites her readers to recollect Charlotte Brontë’s famous madwoman in the attic, the character Bertha from Jane Eyre . Readers who make this connection may wonder if John insisted on keeping his wife here for the same reason Mr. Rochester hid Bertha. Through allusion, the nursery takes on an even more sinister appearance.
The couple’s baby acts as another allusion, this time to postpartum depression, which Gilman herself suffered from. Doctors at the turn of the century understood very little about postpartum depression. They dismissed it as hysteria, a catch-all phrase to explain away female ailments.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Summary: Foreshadowing
*Trigger warning: this subsection discusses mental health in relation to suicide, and may be distressing to readers.
Foreshadowing appears in the story as well. When describing the wallpaper, the narrator talks of curving lines that “suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles…” Later, she describes “a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside-down.” A third reference to suicide appears when the narrator states that “to jump out of the window would be admirable exercise.”
Yet Gilman’s narrator remains alive at the end of the story. These planted hints of coming death have a different end goal. They ask the reader to take women, and women’s artistic endeavors, seriously. Gilman herself spoke of suicide during her “rest cure,” when she wasn’t allowed to produce art. The sculptor Camille Claudel and, decades later, writer Virginia Woolf both attempted suicide by jumping from a window. Through this foreshadowing, “The Yellow Wallpaper” warns against a greater societal tragedy taking place across the centuries.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis: Theme 1
Taken together, these literary devices allow readers to better understand several underlying themes. The first involves the suffering and subordination of women in society. This larger social commentary becomes particularly evident when the narrator begins to see “a great many women” behind the bars of the wallpaper. Through a critical feminist perspective, we might say that the narrator seems to intuit the past repression of other women just like her. She senses that she’s part of a larger, systemic problem. Other details in the story point to this system. Jennie, presumably well-educated and belonging to the upper class, has no prospects other than serving her brother as a housekeeper.
The second theme involves the danger of rest cures. While “resting” sounds innocuous enough, being forced to do nothing can turn into torture. In fact, this lifestyle resembles prison life—no wonder the wallpaper appears to have bars. In the late 19th century, rest cures were prescribed to women who suffered real ailments, including depression. These rest cures backfired, enhancing symptoms of depression. They corralled women into a position of uselessness, just like the narrator state in this story. Deprived of friends, work, hobbies, and exercise, and unable to speak of this deprivation, women were reduced to the role of mother, or worse: a birthing instrument.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis: Theme 3
The third theme involves creative power as emancipation. While writing wearies the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it also offers her rare moments of autonomy and agency. The narrator states, “I must say what I feel and think in some way—it is such a relief!” In Gilman’s time, society and medicine reinforced the theory that education would overstimulate women’s brains and lead to hysteria. Today we know that women’s and men’s brains function the same way. Women are equally capable of creative output. In fact, studies show that creative outlets allow people to heal faster. Gilman and many others knew of the benefits of working. In fact, many men in her time did too. Yet those who wished to uphold a strictly patriarchal system forbid women from expressing their opinions. They feared that these opinions would undermine men’s superior positions.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” Analysis and Conclusions
As we’ve seen from “The Yellow Wallpaper” summary, this short story must be read at multiple levels. Various perspectives, from a biographical standpoint to a feminist lens to a critical race lens allow readers to peel back layers of meaning. So what can we make of the ending?
The story ends with the narrator believing she herself has emerged from the wallpaper. Most analyses commonly state that this ending depicts her descent into a full-fledged psychosis. And yet, readers may also come to an inverse conclusion. If the women behind the wallpaper’s bars represent female suppression, we can interpret the narrator’s final act as one of defiance and emancipation.
Rather than throw herself out the window, as a tragic female heroine might, the narrator disobeys her oppressive husband and locks the door. Just as divorce allowed Gilman to overcome her depression, Gilman’s narrator breaks the bonds of her condition by defying her husband. In doing so, she gains autonomy. Merging with the woman in the wallpaper, she frees the woman trapped behind it. In this interpretation, we can conclude that by harnessing her imagination, the narrator finally sets herself free.
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With a BA in Literary Studies from Middlebury College, an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, and a Master’s in Translation from Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Kaylen has been working with students on their writing for over five years. Previously, Kaylen taught a fiction course for high school students as part of Columbia Artists/Teachers, and served as an English Language Assistant for the French National Department of Education. Kaylen is an experienced writer/translator whose work has been featured in Los Angeles Review, Hybrid, San Francisco Bay Guardian, France Today, and Honolulu Weekly, among others.
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Literary Theory and Criticism
Home › Literature › Analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper
Analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wall-Paper
By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on April 28, 2022
First published in New England Magazine in January 1892, and reprinted by Small, Maynard and Company as a chapbook (1899), “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most famous work. Depicting the nervous breakdown of a young wife and mother, the story is a potent example of psychological realism. Based loosely on Gilman’s own experiences in undergoing the rest cure for neurasthenia, the story documents the psychological torment of her fictional first-person narrator.
The narrator’s husband, John, a physician, prescribes isolation and inactivity as treatment for her illness, a “temporary nervous depression—a slight hysterical tendency” (10). John forbids her to engage in any kind of labor, including writing. Despite his admonitions, however, the narrator records her impressions in a secret diary.
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These diary entries compose the text of the story; they reveal the narrator’s emotional descent. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that she is suffering an acute form of postpartum depression, a condition acknowledged neither by John nor by the late-19th-century medical community. So severe is the narrator’s depression that a nursemaid has assumed care of the new baby. Deprived of the freedom to write openly, which she believes would be therapeutic, the narrator gradually shifts her attention to the yellow wallpaper in the attic nursery where she spends her time. The paper both intrigues and repels her; it becomes the medium on which she symbolically inscribes her “text.” Soon she detects a subpattern in the wallpaper that crystallizes into the image of an imprisoned woman attempting to escape. In the penultimate scene, the narrator’s identity merges with that of the entrapped woman, and together they frantically tear the paper from the walls. In an ironic reversal in the final scene, John breaks into the room and, after witnessing the full measure of his wife’s insanity, faints. Significantly, however, he is still blocking his wife, literally and symbolically obstructing her path so that she has to “creep over him every time!” (36).
Critics disagree over the meaning of the story, variously arguing the significance of everything from linguistic cues, to psychoanalytic interpretations, to historiographical readings. While some critics have hailed the narrator as a feminist heroine, others have seen in her a maternal failure coupled with a morbid fear of female sexuality. Some have viewed the story, with its yellow paper, as an exemplar of the silencing of women writers in 19th-century America; others have focused on its gothic elements.
Since the Feminist Press reissued the story in 1973, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” has been widely anthologized and is now firmly assimilated in the American literary body of work.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-paper. Boston: Small, Maynard, & Co., 1899. Reprint, Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1973. Lanser, Susan A. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 415–441. Shumaker, Conrad. “ ‘Too Terribly Good to Be Printed’: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’ ” American Literature 57, no. 4 (1985): 588–599. Veeder, William. “Who Is Jane? The Intricate Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.” Arizona Quarterly 44, no. 3 (1988): 40–79.
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Analysis of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' by C. Perkins Gilman
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Like Kate Chopin's " The Story of an Hour ," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's " The Yellow Wallpaper " is a mainstay of feminist literary study. First published in 1892, the story takes the form of secret journal entries written by a woman who is supposed to be recovering from what her husband, a physician, calls a nervous condition.
This haunting psychological horror story chronicles the narrator's descent into madness, or perhaps into the paranormal, or perhaps—depending on your interpretation—into freedom. The result is a story as chilling as anything by Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King .
Recovery Through Infantilization
The protagonist's husband, John, does not take her illness seriously. Nor does he take her seriously. He prescribes, among other things, a "rest cure," in which she is confined to their summer home, mostly to her bedroom.
The woman is discouraged from doing anything intellectual, even though she believes some "excitement and change" would do her good. She is allowed very little company—certainly not from the "stimulating" people she most wishes to see. Even her writing must happen in secret.
In short, John treats her like a child. He calls her diminutive names like "blessed little goose" and "little girl." He makes all decisions for her and isolates her from the things she cares about.
Even her bedroom is not the one she wanted; instead, it's a room that appears to have once been a nursery, emphasizing her return to infancy. Its "windows are barred for little children," showing again that she is being treated as a child—as well as a prisoner.
John's actions are couched in concern for the woman, a position that she initially seems to believe herself. "He is very careful and loving," she writes in her journal, "and hardly lets me stir without special direction." Her words also sound as if she is merely parroting what she's been told, though phrases like "hardly lets me stir" seem to harbor a veiled complaint.
Fact Versus Fancy
John dismisses anything that hints of emotion or irrationality—what he calls "fancy." For instance, when the narrator says that the wallpaper in her bedroom disturbs her, he informs her that she is letting the wallpaper "get the better of her" and refuses to remove it.
John doesn't simply dismiss things he finds fanciful though; he also uses the charge of "fancy" to dismiss anything he doesn't like. In other words, if he doesn't want to accept something, he simply declares that it is irrational.
When the narrator tries to have a "reasonable talk" with him about her situation, she is so distraught that she is reduced to tears. Instead of interpreting her tears as evidence of her suffering, he takes them as evidence that she is irrational and can't be trusted to make decisions for herself.
As part of his infantilization of her, he speaks to her as if she is a whimsical child, imagining her own illness. "Bless her little heart!" he says. "She shall be as sick as she pleases!" He does not want to acknowledge that her problems are real, so he silences her.
The only way the narrator could appear rational to John would be to become satisfied with her situation, which means there is no way for her to express concerns or ask for changes.
In her journal, the narrator writes:
"John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him."
John can't imagine anything outside his own judgment. So when he determines that the narrator's life is satisfactory, he imagines that the fault lies with her perception. It never occurs to him that her situation might really need improvement.
The nursery walls are covered in putrid yellow wallpaper with a confused, eerie pattern. The narrator is horrified by it.
She studies the incomprehensible pattern in the wallpaper, determined to make sense of it. But rather than making sense of it, she begins to identify a second pattern—that of a woman creeping furtively behind the first pattern, which acts as a prison for her.
The first pattern of the wallpaper can be seen as the societal expectations that hold women, like the narrator, captive. Her recovery will be measured by how cheerfully she resumes her domestic duties as wife and mother, and her desire to do anything else—like write—is something that would interfere with that recovery.
Though the narrator studies and studies the pattern in the wallpaper, it never makes any sense to her. Similarly, no matter how hard she tries to recover, the terms of her recovery—embracing her domestic role—never make sense to her, either.
The creeping woman can represent both victimization by the societal norms and resistance to them.
This creeping woman also gives a clue about why the first pattern is so troubling and ugly. It seems to be peppered with distorted heads with bulging eyes—the heads of other creeping women who were strangled by the pattern when they tried to escape it. That is, women who couldn't survive when they tried to resist cultural norms. Gilman writes that "nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so."
Becoming a Creeping Woman
Eventually, the narrator becomes a creeping woman herself. The first indication is when she says, rather startlingly, "I always lock the door when I creep by daylight." Later, the narrator and the creeping woman work together to pull off the wallpaper.
The narrator also writes, "[T]here are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast," implying that the narrator is only one of many.
That her shoulder "just fits" into the groove on the wall is sometimes interpreted to mean that she has been the one ripping the paper and creeping around the room all along. But it could also be interpreted as an assertion that her situation is no different from that of many other women. In this interpretation, "The Yellow Wallpaper" becomes not just a story about one woman's madness, but a maddening system.
At one point, the narrator observes the creeping women from her window and asks, "I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?"
Her coming out of the wallpaper—her freedom—coincides with a descent into mad behavior: ripping off the paper, locking herself in her room, even biting the immovable bed. That is, her freedom comes when she finally reveals her beliefs and behavior to those around her and stops hiding.
The final scene—in which John faints and the narrator continues to creep around the room, stepping over him every time—is disturbing but also triumphant. Now John is the one who is weak and sickly, and the narrator is the one who finally gets to determine the rules of her own existence. She is finally convinced that he only "pretended to be loving and kind." After being consistently infantilized by his comments, she turns the tables on him by addressing him condescendingly, if only in her mind, as "young man."
John refused to remove the wallpaper, and in the end, the narrator used it as her escape.
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The Yellow Wallpaper
Table of contents, charlotte gilman.
Set in the late 19th century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper consists of diary entries written by an unnamed female protagonist. The narrator has been taken to a country home by her husband, John, who is a doctor and has prescribed enforced rest so that she can recuperate from what appears to be postpartum depression. The room in which the narrator is isolated has yellow wallpaper, which the narrator becomes obsessed with. The narrator begins to believe that there is a woman trapped in the wallpaper—an obsession linked to both the deterioration of her own mental health and her simultaneous growing resistance to the patriarchal society that has oppressed her.