“The Yellow Wallpaper” tells the story of a woman’s mental breakdown. Suffering from depression following the birth of her first child, the woman is taken to the country by her physician husband, where she is kept in a room decorated with yellow wallpaper that used to be a nursery. Instructed by her husband not to engage in any intellectual activity and to get total bed rest, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper until, at the end of the story, she goes insane.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” takes place in a country house that is located about three miles from the nearest village. Although the house is large and is surrounded by hedges, a garden, and servants’ quarters, the narrator notes that the house and its grounds have fallen into a slight state of disrepair. At the beginning of the story, the narrator is interested in the surrounding scenery as well as the other rooms in the house. As the story progresses, however, she becomes fixated on the nursery and its yellow wallpaper. The setting has the appearance of tranquility but is actually a place of confinement— there are bars on the windows of the nursery, and the bed is secured to the floor. The isolated location of the house, its slight state of disrepair, and the narrator’s further isolation in the fortress-like nursery, all symbolize the narrator’s mental condition.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is an example of a first-person narrative because it is told exclusively from the viewpoint of the unnamed protagonist, and the reader is given access only to her thoughts and emotions. Since the protagonist is suffering a mental breakdown, she is also considered an unreliable narrator because the reader cannot be certain if she is accurately relating the events of the story. This adds emotional impact to the narrative because the reader is given an intimate account of the protagonist’s growing feelings of despair and confusion.
The story itself is, in part, a transcription of a journal which the narrator secretly writes as she lays in bed. The writing style, and the way it changes as the story progresses, gives the reader clues to the protagonist’s deteriorating mental condition. For example, throughout the story the narrator’s sentences become shorter and more curt, with paragraphs consisting of only one or two sentences. This helps convey her distraught mental state and her inability to think clearly. The overall tone of the narrator’s writing also changes. At the beginning of the story, she writes with humility, stating that while she does not agree with her treatment, her husband John probably knows better than she what is good for her. By the end of the narrative, however, a tone of complaint and rebellion has entered the narrator’s account. When she locks the door of the nursery at the end of the story, for example, she declares: “I don’t want to go out, and I don’t want to have anybody come in, until John comes. I want to astonish him.”
The most important symbol in the story is the yellow wallpaper. Most critics have concluded that the wallpaper represents the state of mind of the protagonist. In a more general sense, the wallpaper also symbolizes the way women were viewed in nineteenth-century society. It is described as containing “pointless patterns,” “lame uncertain curves,” and “outrageous angles” that “destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.” Despite the narrator’s detailed description of the wallpaper, however, it remains mysterious. Elaine R. Hedges wrote in the afterword to the 1973 edition of the story that “the paper symbolizes [the narrator’s] situation as seen by the men who control her and hence her situation as seen by herself. How can she define herself?”
Other important symbols in “The Yellow Wallpaper” are the nursery, the barred windows, and the nailed-down bed. The nursery is said to represent nineteenth-century society’s tendency to view women as children, while the barred windows symbolize the emotional, social, and intellectual prison in which women of that era were kept. Finally, the bed is said by some critics to represent repressed female sexuality.
The story is considered an example of psychological realism because it attempts to accurately portray the mental deterioration of the narrator. It is also considered realistic in that it depicts life the way it was for women during the nineteenth century. Oilman deliberately tried to make the narrator typical of that time period: she is economically dependent on her husband, she is not allowed to make her own decisions, she is discouraged from engaging in intellectual activity, and she is frequently treated like a child. Oilman also did not romanticize the character of John. While she could have depicted him sympathetically, she instead painted him as controlling, inconsiderate, and emotionally inaccessible.
Oilman utilizes numerous conventions of Gothic fiction in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” including horror, dread, dreams, suspense, and the supernatural. For example, the story takes place on an estate, which has fallen into a state of disrepair, three miles from the nearest village. This sense of isolation is frequently used in Gothic stories to create a foreboding tone. The narrator is also struck with the “strangeness” and “ghostliness” of the place. E. Suzanne Owens argues in Haunting the House of Fiction that “to a reader familiar with the Gothic, the events of the story suggest possession as much as they do hallucination.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Published by Gale, 1997.