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Modeled after Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a young wife and mother who has recently began to suffer symptoms of depression and anxiety. Although she does not believe that anything is wrong with her, John, her physician husband, diagnoses her with neurasthenia and prescribes several months of S. Weir Mitchell’s famed “rest cure.” In addition to being confined to the nursery in their rented summer home, the narrator is expressly forbidden to write or engage in any creative activity. The narrator desperately wants to please her husband and assume her role as an ideal mother and wife, but she is unable to balance her husband’s needs with her desire to express her creativity. While attempting to adhere to John’s wishes for the most part, the narrator secretly writes in her journal, seeking solace from her extreme loneliness and inactivity. Over the course of the story, the narrator also begins to find comfort in the hideous yellow wallpaper that covers the walls of the nursery. She gradually begins to see a female figure trapped behind the bar-like pattern of the wallpaper and realizes that both she and the figure are suffering from oppression and imprisonment. As the narrator becomes more and more preoccupied with the pattern of the wallpaper, she forgets her desire to become the perfect wife and mother and thinks only of a way to release the imprisoned woman from the wallpaper. Gilman’s increasingly choppy prose and disjointed stream-of-consciousness express the narrator’s growing insanity with each passing day. By the end of the story, the narrator has lost all sense of reality, and John discovers her creeping around the perimeter of the nursery, following the endless pattern of the wallpaper. While she discards her duty as a wife and mother, as well as her sanity, the narrator ultimately triumphs in her personal quest to release the woman in the wallpaper - and thus liberates herself.
In some editions of the story, the narrator declares her liberation from the wallpaper and the rational world by proclaiming, "I've got out at last...in spite of you and Jane." Some scholars argue that "Jane" is simply a misprint for "Jennie," John's sister and housekeeper. Yet, it is also possible that "Jane" is the actual name of the narrator, a character who remains a nameless stereotype of female social oppression for the entirely of the story. If this "Jane" is, in fact, the narrator, then Gilman suggests that the narrator's liberation from sanity and the bars of the wallpaper also means an "escape" from her own sense of self.
Jennie is the narrator’s sister-in-law and takes care of the house during the narrator’s illness. Although she does not play an active role in the narrative, she is a constant reminder of the narrator's inability to assume her proper role as John's wife and housekeeper. Always maintaining a passive position under John's supervision, Jennie symbolizes the happily domesticated woman who does not find anything wrong with her domestic prison. However, Gilman also suggests that there may be more to Jennie than meets the eye: the narrator acknowledges that Jennie is aware of the narrator's growing interest in the wallpaper and even discusses her future with John.