The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: an analysis

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This analysis of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892) highlights a long short story (or short novella) considered a feminist literary classic. This story starts with a mystery: the house seems to have “something queer about it.”

As we read on, it becomes clear that the house is not the only thing strange about this story. The secluded, rented country home and the attic room the narrator inhabits come to represent or symbolize her situation and her very self.

She lives under her physician/husband’s care as a patient (deemed abnormal), subjected to the “rest cure” as a treatment for what appears to be postpartum depression. 


Fiction in the form of first-person diaries

More broadly, we could see the prison-like room she inhabits (with barred windows, a gate on the stairs, rings in the walls, and a nailed-down bed) as symbolic of her situation as an upper-middle-class woman of a particular time and place (19th century America).

Living under patriarchal rule, she is discouraged from self-expression and productivity via work and writing.

Gilman writes in the form of first-person diary entries penned by the narrator. We as readers are positioned as eavesdroppers, listening in on a conversation the narrator conducts with herself.

This rhetorical choice lends a sense of immediacy to the writing. Sometimes, the narrator recounts an event that transpired earlier in the day or recent past. More often, however, and increasingly as the text evolves, she narrates in the present tense.

We thus witness the workings of her unusual mind, even as it comes up with new thoughts and discoveries: “I wonder – I begin to think – I wish John would take me away from here!”

Ironically, as the narrator claims to improve physically and emotionally, her condition, according to the norms of psychological behavior, worsens.

The language reflects this deterioration and dissonance, becoming more highly charged, the syntax more fragmented, the interruptions more frequent. The narrator eventually loses her grip on the reality we all share and lurches into the world of her own creative imagination or hallucination.

Ultimately, the narrator manages to project herself into the persona of the woman she sees in the wallpaper. Standing beside her, we would likely see no such being. Yet, the narrator and woman trapped in the wallpaper pattern become one and the same. By extension, they symbolize all women living under this particular form of oppression.

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The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1913 essay Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper

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“Suicidal” wallpaper sets an ominous tone

The gruesome details of the “suicidal” wallpaper pattern set an ominous tone, even of paranoia: “There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.” The violence of her grotesque descriptions seems to express extreme frustration.

Such imagery could indicate an image of her very self as a monster, since she either refuses or fails to play the “good mother” role or the type of 19th century feminine perfection: an angel in the house.

The narrator’s relationship with her physician/husband John proves to be a key to her highly symbolic situation. Utterly condescending, he often addresses her as though she were a child, demanding, for example, “What is it, little girl?” He seems to have imprisoned her.


Writing as a form of rebellion

Writing itself becomes for her both work and rebellion, for he has denied her this outlet, this access to creative production and expression, and this means of finding a voice and thus establishing an identity. Nevertheless, she manages to achieve all these necessities, through her increasingly secretive journaling.

One could call the narrator an artist of the self, as the writing she carries out creates a world, which in turn, defines her very being. The text turns meta-discursive, or the writing comments reflexively on itself as she writes, “I don’t know why I should write this./ I don’t want to./ I don’t feel able./…it is such a relief!”


An ironic conclusion

The conclusion proves additionally ironic with the infantilized image of her “creeping” or crawling, like a baby. Somehow, she has constructed a reality she can bear to inhabit. Yet, she has become utterly estranged from herself (one definition of being psychotic).

Many readers see the narrator as Jane herself in her final cry to John, “I’ve got out at last, in spite of you and Jane! And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

One could read the tight-leashed, yet high-voiced narrator at the end as either utterly defeated or triumphant, in that she has garnered the freedom to express a finally authentic, independent self.

— Contributed by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English, SUNY-New Paltz

For further, in-depth analysis: 

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman page on Amazon*

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How The Yellow Wallpaper begins

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity—but that would be asking too much of fate!

Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it.

Else, why should it be let so cheaply? And why have stood so long untenanted?

John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.

John is a physician, and PERHAPS—(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)—PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster.

You see he does not believe I am sick!

And what can one do?

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—a slight hysterical tendency—what is one to do?

Read the full text of The Yellow Wallpaper on this site.

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Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
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