Symbolism, Characterization, and Themes in “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Below is my detailed literary analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for my students and for me … and for you. I used to review and analyze every story that I studied in graduate school, and later, every story I taught. I’ve decided that I want to do that again to help me with my own teaching. My thoughts from 2003 on this story can be found on the blog here, but I thought it was worth updating. My teaching materials for this story – which are extensive – will be available at some time, too, hopefully in the near future.

History

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (originally the title appeared as “The Yellow Wall-paper”) was first published in 1892 and is based largely on the author’s own experiences. Like many women of her time, including Virginia Woolf (who address this in Mrs. Dalloway), Gilman (then Stetson) was subjected to the “rest cure” a treatment for (generally postpartum) depression. Pioneered by Silas Weir Mitchell – who is called out by name in Gilman’s story – it involved keeping the woman’s mind unstimulated by forbidding reading and writing (aka thinking), and prescribing bed rest that generally included no exercise or socializing. Added to this was a diet heavy in often raw meat, and high fat foods such as butter and milk; this was due to Mitchell’s belief that women’s depression was caused by a lack of “blood and fat,” which the rest cure was meant to remedy. The treatment was worse than the disease for many women, and Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was considered an indictment of the treatment, and which directly contributed to its discontinuation. Gilman also explained this in her brief essay, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,which you can read online here.

Characters

Unnamed Narrator: As tempted as everyone is to call her “Charlotte,” the narrator of the story has no name. She is taken to a house and subjected to the “rest cure,” which gradually drives her insane. She writes the story as a diary or series of letters over the period of her confinement. At the end of the story she has descended completely into madness.

John: The husband of the narrator and a doctor who is supervising his wife’s ‘treatment’ in the rented house. He is described by the narrator as caring, but also condescending, controlling, and dismissive. John is likely an intentionally generic name.

The Baby: The nameless baby boy in the story, he is referenced at several points to develop the other characters and establish that the narrator most likely has postpartum depression.

Mary: The baby’s nurse; only mentioned once. Like renting a mansion, the brief mention of Mary likely exists to establish the social standing of the narrator and her husband.

Jennie (Jane): The sister of John who is brought in to help take care of the narrator. She is initially described as “Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing,” which shows that the narrator seems to ‘like’ Jennie, but that Jennie is also on John’s side, willing to enforce his orders (650). The addition of a second person to watch, and thus control, the narrator, ramps up the pressure. The narrator eventually grows to distrust Jennie, who she feels may know the secret of the wallpaper. She is referred to as “Jane” at the end of the story; Jennie was a common nickname for women names Jane. Another intentionally generic name, like John.

Weir Mitchell: A real person at whom the story was essentially directed; he is used as a threat by John: “John says if I don’t pick up faster he’ll send me to Weir Mitchell in the fall” (650). Mitchell represents both the rest cure itself, and serves as shorthand for more aggressive treatment.

The Friend: The unnamed friend is mentioned directly after Mitchell as someone who was subjected to his treatment: “I had a friend who was in his hands once, and she says he is just like John and my brother, only more so!” (650). This establishes that the narrator is, indeed, going through the rest cure. Additionally, I believe that the “friend” that the narrator refers to is a reference to Gilman herself. The friend and the narrator are linked through their lack of names.

There are miscellaneous family members peppered throughout the story as well. The narrator’s brother, who is also a doctor, is mentioned twice, and is declared by the narrator to be in agreement with John (648). Cousin Henry and Julia, who the narrator expresses an interest in seeing twice, only to be twice denied, are mentioned, though it is not clear who they are related to (presumably the narrator).

The narrator mentions having “mother and the children and Nellie down for a week,” and presumably they are related to the narrator. These family characters serve to show what the narrators wants to do versus what John allows her to do, forbidding certain social visits while allowing others. This is evidence of what is disclosed in the opening paragraphs, that John “assuses friends and family there there is nothing really the matter with one” and so the narrator is left with no one in which to confide (648).

Symbols, Allusions, and (Likely) Themes

The Rest Cure – The major theme or goal of the story by Gilman was to show the dangers of the rest cure; it’s never mentioned by name, but alluded to constantly. Eventually, the narrator calls out “Weir Mitchell” by name (see above), his name functioning as a veiled threat of even stricter confinement. Gilman proverbially sent a copy of the story to Mitchell, who did not respond.

Namelessness – The narrator, the friend, the baby, the children (previously housed in the nursery), and the woman in the wallpaper are all nameless. When characters have no name they are meant to be read as potentially ‘anyone’ and function as universal figures. John and Jane are purposefully generic names, and were likely used for the same reason. The namelessness and generic names convey the message that this story could happen to anyone.

Writing – The narrator is writing the story and doing it covertly, no less, as she is not allowed to write as part of her rest cure ‘treatment’. However, the whole story is written on “dead paper” by her hand and serves as “a great relief to [her] mind” (648). That writing helps the narrator shows that she may know better than her husband/doctor, specifically how to treat her ‘condition’, since he has forbidden something that is actually helping her. Another way that writing functions on is that the narrator is writing her own story, giving her a level of of control that is absent from her life. Writing, in this way, stands in for autonomy.

The Nursery – That the narrator is forced to stay in a nursery is no coincidence, as the room at the top of the house with the eponymous yellow wallpaper could have been any room. The nursery functions of multiple levels; on one level it serves to establish that the narrator is infantilized by John, something his own dialogue supports. The nursery is also where the actual baby should be, but by placing the narrator there it links them, establishing the baby as the reason for the narrator’s condition. Finally, and most ominously, the ragged condition of the room (barred windows, nailed-down bed, torn and worn wallpaper) is attributed to the children who were presumably raised there: “I never saw such ravages as the children have made here” (650). It shows the damage that children can cause, not just on a physical space, but on a woman’s mind. The children of the past are mentioned four times in the text, twice as often as the narrator’s own baby. In a way, they loom larger over the text, too, almost haunting it.

Children as a Destructive Force – Continuing with the idea of the nursery’s past children being akin to ghosts that are haunting the room is the theme of children as a force of destruction. Postpartum depression is the cause of or a contributing factor to the narrator’s condition. The room, in a way, represents the narrator herself; when looking at the room this way, the destruction that the children have wrought becomes more sinister. It is because of the house’s former child residents (parents are never mentioned) that the bed is gnawed and nailed down, that the windows are barred, and that there is strange sense of destruction all around. The narrator writes of the children often, at one point stating: “I never saw such ravages as the children have made here. The wall-paper, as I said before, is torn off in spots, and it sticketh closer than a brother – they must have had perseverance as well as hatred” (650).

The Bed – Along with the room itself, the contents of the narrator’s room have individual importance. The bed is mentioned frequently throughout the story: it is heavy and old, but most curiously, it is nailed to the floor. When everyone is about to leave, the nailed-down bed is the only thing left in the room, and the narrator describes it as “fairly gnawed” believing the children to be the culprits (655). At the very end of the story the narrator writes: “This bed will not move! I tried to lift and push it until I was lame, and then I got so angry I bit off a little piece at one corner – but it hurt my teeth” (655). The bed represents being not just trapped, but being stuck, as in the inability to move or change anything, and also has obvious sexual connotations. Once the narrator gnaws on it herself she has abandoned herself to the room, but she is not quite the woman in the wallpaper yet, the ghostly children that haunt the room. She’s still, in this way, shown as powerless.

Barred Windows – Windows are representative of escape, though often a mental one, it shows how the mind can escape to another place. The windows being barred in the nursery suggest that the children in it before were unstable, after all, bars on windows that are multiple stories up are keeping something in, not out. They also represent that even the narrator’s mind is trapped, and that there is no escape. The barred windows are one way in which the text flirts with suicide: “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” (656).

The Wallpaper – The way that the pattern of the wallpaper is described changes over the course of the text. It’s importance can’t be overstated, since it is the story’s namesake it deserves close examination. The wallpaper is another place that suicide comes up in the text, as the wallpaper is the only context in which the word suicide is named: “curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (648). This is very early on in the story and foreshadows the ending wherein the narrator ‘defeats’ the ‘trap’ that is the wallpaper by destroying it. She, too, will destroy herself, embracing madness as her only (and ironic) path to freedom.

The Color Yellow – The time of year – summer – evokes a feeling of sunshine, warmth, and happiness, as does the color yellow. However, this is used ironically in the text as the yellow in the story is a “smouldering, unclean yellow” that represents sickness (649).

The Lane – A shaded lane can be seen from the narrator’s window, and is mentioned three times in the story. Lanes, paths, and roads represent movement from one place to another, and since the narrator cannot leave, her focus on the path becomes important. Its first mention is early in the story where she writes: “There is a beautiful shaded lane that runs down there from the house. I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors” (649). This is foreshadowing that she will eventually see the woman in the wallpaper there: “I see her in that long shaded lane, creeping up and down. I see her in hose dark grape arbors, creeping all around the garden” (654).

The Sun and the Moon – The opposition between the narrator and John is expressed beautifully through the symbolism of the sun and moon. The moon, and ‘lunacy’ by implication, is allied with the narrator, while the sun, representing conventionality (and being yellow), is paired with John. That the narrator is represented by the moon while her husband is the sun adds another layer to the text since these two things are diametric opposites and cannot be together (metaphorically). The narrator seems more courageous at night and tries to advocate for herself one moonlit night: “It was moonlight. The moon shines in all around just as the sun does” (652). The narrator tried to talk to John about how she is not well and getting worse, but he insists on talking in the morning (sunlight). This moonlit night is when the narrator begins to see a “faint figure behind” the wallpaper that “seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out” (652). This may cause the reader to blame ‘lunacy’ on the emergence of the figure, but it is really the sun that has carved the shape in the paper’s pattern. Earlier, the narrator writes: “But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so – I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design” (650). After John’s refusal to hear the narrator’s concerns, the sun and moon’s effect on the wallpaper is spelled out in more detail: “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind;” however, “By moonlight – the moon shines in all night when there is a moon – I wouldn’t know it was the same paper … by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (653). On the last day of their stay, the woman in the wallpaper is fully revealed by the moonlight: “As soon as it was moonlight and that poor thing began to crawl and shake the pattern” (655).

Helplessness – The theme of helplessness is shown through various symbols and narrative features – most notably repetition – and is one of the overarching themes of the story. The narrator is completely helpless, not just because of her own actions and decisions, but because she is essentially surrounded. Her husband and brother, both doctors, have not only decided she’s fine, but they have told everyone else that there is nothing truly wrong with the narrator. In this time period, if absolutely necessary for a woman the be separated from her husband, her oldest brother would often take care of this responsibility. Presenting John and the narrator’s brother as allies at the very beginning of the story lets the reader know that she is helpless on a very literal level, even before the repetition in the text reveals it.

Repetition – While certain words, phrases, and numbers are repeated in the text, repetition in general becomes its own part of the story. The repetition contributes to the tone of the story by furthering the feelings of helplessness on the part of the narrator. Repetition takes multiple forms within the text. Sometimes it is in the form of synonyms such as “ancestral halls,” “colonial mansion,” and “hereditary estate” packed together in the first two sentences of the text (647). Other times it’s variations of the same sentence, such as “And what can one do?” appearing, and then the next sentence ending with “what is one to do?” (647-8). Finally, it shows up as the beginning of a sentence repeating in succession: “Personally, I disagree …” then the next sentence begins “Personally, I believe” (648). At the end of the story it is even more pronounced: “I don’t know why I should write this. I don’t want to. I don’t feel able” (651). The repetition furthers the claustrophobic feeling of the text and adds to the theme of being trapped.

Creep – The word “creep” and various versions thereof (creepy, creeping, etc.) is used twenty times in the story, but doesn’t start until the end of the fourth section. The first time it’s used the narrator writes: “And it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about behind that pattern. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder – I begin to think – I wish John would take, me away from here!” (652). The reader will notice that the thought it incomplete, what she “wonders” and “begins to think” is not fully formed or shared. Since the first mention of “creeping” is also the first time that the woman in the wallpaper is mentioned, the word “creep/ing” is clearly linked to her. Other things that “creep” in the story are moonlight, the smell of the paper, most frequently the woman in the wallpaper, and, of course, the narrator. “Creep” in the story is almost always a word that indicates crawling or slow movement. “Creepy,” in the sense of unsettling, is only used briefly to describe how the narrator feels looking at the moonlight on the wallpaper (652). This is right before the narrator tries to talk to John about her feelings, only to be dismissed.

Threes – Furthering the theme of repetition (above) is the occurrence of things in threes. The example of “I don’t …” beginning three sentences in a row is one example. Three is also repeated three times (mentioned five times total) in that the house is three miles from town, the lease is three months long, and they (John and the narrator) discuss having three weeks left in their rental. Three, in this case, likely represents the base family unit of two parents and a child, which is precisely what doesn’t ‘work’ for the narrator.

Feminist Critique of Heterosexuality – The bed isn’t nailed down for no reason; the sleeping arrangements are discussed in some detail because, on some level, Gilman is critiquing heterosexuality herself. Marriage and children was the path for women’s lives at the time, and many feel that it’s the path for women’s lives now. However, it’s precisely this ‘normal’ life that the narrator does not fit in with, but since there’s no other ‘choice’ she is left with suicide or madness as alternatives.

Madness– Madness/insanity as freedom is a major theme in the story. Trapped with no hope of even having her humanity respected, the narrator chooses mental destruction as the only path to freedom. Suicide, both hinted at and openly contemplated, is even prevented by the room itself. With no choice left, the narrator goes insane rather than submit to John’s control. This reading may not seem empowering to current reader’s of the story, but ending it any other way would have undercut Gilman’s critique of the rest cure. Rather than give in to John’s demands, the narrator instead goes completely into herself; a troubling victory, but a victory nonetheless.

The Key – The key shows up only at the very end of the story. Once the narrator has embraced madness, she locks herself in the nursery, and throws the key into the lane, presumably out one of the barred windows. When John demands to be let in, the narrator asserts her autonomy by refusing to let him in, and forcing him to go downstairs to retrieve the key himself. That the narrator can and does ‘force’ John to do something is a power reversal that indicates her madness is the way in which she reclaims her autonomy.

The Woman in the Wallpaper – The woman in the wallpaper is, of course, a symbol for the narrator herself. By realizing that the woman who is trapped is herself, the narrator takes back her ability to control her life. That that narrator sees many such women in the garden is symbolic of the many women who have been subjected to the rest cure.

Time – Time plays an important role in the text, emphasized by the use of the number three to indicates its passing. The reader has to rely on the narrator noting the amount of time that has passed, with the text being divided up into entries on paper broken apart by blank space or asterisks (depending on the edition). The reader eventually feels that ‘time is running out’ for the narrator, and while the text should be counting down to the end of her ‘treatment’ it is instead counting down to the loss of her sanity.

Conclusion

“The Yellow Wallpaper” has such a tremendous amount of symbolism in it, that when you look at it closely you realize that nothing is left to chance, that is a very deliberate text. I could write a tremendous amount more about this short story, but this post is almost untenably long as it is.

I hope you found this information helpful. Please feel free to ask any questions, post corrections, all that good stuff, in the comments. Many thanks!

Sources

“Either the wallpaper goes or I do” comic by Kate Beaton
Yellow photo by me
Page numbers from this copy of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

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