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.
The husband of the narrator, John is a practical physician who believes that his wife is suffering from nothing more than a “slight hysterical tendency.” He prescribes the “rest cure,” confining the narrator to the nursery and forbidding her to exercise her creative imagination in any way. His antagonism toward her imagination stems from his own rationality and personal anxiety about creativity; he scoffs openly at the narrator’s fancies and is incapable of understanding her true nature. Throughout the story, he treats her in an infantile manner, referring to her as his “blessed little goose” and “little girl.” Moreover, when the narrator attempts to discuss her unhappiness with the situation in a mature manner, he refuses to accept her as an equal and simply carries her back up to the nursery for more bed rest. He is fixed in his authoritative position as husband and doctor and cannot adapt his strategy to account for her opinion on the matter. He believes in a strict, paternalistic divide between men and women; men work outside of the home, as he does, while women like Jennie, his sister, and Mary, the nanny, tend to the house.
Although John is set up as the villain of the story, he can also be seen as a more sympathetic character. He clearly loves his wife and relies on her for his own happiness. Yet he is unable to reconcile her creative desires with his own rationality or the chauvinistic expectations of the time period. His wife is unable or unwilling to adhere to the ideal model of domesticity expressed by the 19th-century society, and John is at a loss as to what to do. His solution is to use Weir Mitchell’s rest cure to “fix” his wife, and he does not realize that his own actions push her over the edge of insanity.
Woman in the wallpaper
Although the narrator eventually believes that she sees many women in the yellow wallpaper, she centers on one in particular. The woman appears to be trapped within the bar-like pattern of the wallpaper, and she shakes the pattern as she tries to break out. The woman is most active by moonlight, a symbol of femininity and a sign that John’s strict daytime regimen is no longer applicable to the narrator.
Over time, as the narrator’s insanity deepens, she identifies completely with this woman and believes that she, too, is trapped within the wallpaper. As a ghostly counterpart of the narrator, the woman in the wallpaper also symbolizes female imprisonment within the domestic sphere. Unable to break free from the room, like the narrator, the woman in the wallpaper has only the symbolic option of tending to the house as a wife or mother. The woman’s habit of “creeping” suggests that she must still be secretive after she has achieved her liberation. Social norms will not accept her freedom from the domestic sphere, and so she must creep furtively and lie in wait in the shadows of the wallpaper.
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.
Mary takes care of the narrator and John's baby. With her name a possible allusion to the Virgin Mary, Mary is the perfect mother-surrogate for the narrator, an idealized maternal figure whose only concern is her child. Like Jennie, she also symbolizes the happily domesticated woman. Although Mary is even less present in the text than Jennie, she still serves to remind the narrator of her personal failings as a 19th century woman, particularly in terms of her own child.
The Yellow Wallpaper Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Yellow Wallpaper is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.