Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" tells the story of a young woman’s gradual descent into psychosis. "The Yellow Wallpaper" is often cited as an early feminist work that predates a woman’s right to vote in the United States. The author was involved in first-wave feminism, and her other works questioned the origins of the subjugation of women, particularly in marriage. "
The Yellow Wallpaper" is a widely read work that asks difficult questions about the role of women, particularly regarding their mental health and right to autonomy and self-identity. We’ll go over The Yellow Wallpaper summary, themes and symbols, The Yellow Wallpaper analysis, and some important information about the author.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" Summary
"The Yellow Wallpaper" details the deterioration of a woman's mental health while she is on a "rest cure" on a rented summer country estate with her family. Her obsession with the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom marks her descent into psychosis from her depression throughout the story.
The narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" begins the story by discussing her move to a beautiful estate for the summer. Her husband, John, is also her doctor, and the move is meant in part to help the narrator overcome her “illness,” which she explains as nervous depression, or nervousness, following the birth of their baby. John’s sister, Jennie, also lives with them and works as their housekeeper.
Though her husband believes she will get better with rest and by not worrying about anything, the narrator has an active imagination and likes to write. He discourages her wonder about the house, and dismisses her interests. She mentions her baby more than once, though there is a nurse that cares for the baby, and the narrator herself is too nervous to provide care.
The narrator and her husband move into a large room that has ugly, yellow wallpaper that the narrator criticizes. She asks her husband if they can change rooms and move downstairs, and he rejects her. The more she stays in the room, the more the narrator’s fascination with the hideous wallpaper grows.
After hosting family for July 4th, the narrator expresses feeling even worse and more exhausted. She struggles to do daily activities, and her mental state is deteriorating. John encourages her to rest more, and the narrator hides her writing from him because he disapproves.
In the time between July 4th and their departure, the narrator is seemingly driven insane by the yellow wallpaper; she sleeps all day and stays up all night to stare at it, believing that it comes alive, and the patterns change and move. Then, she begins to believe that there is a woman in the wallpaper who alters the patterns and is watching her.
A few weeks before their departure, John stays overnight in town and the narrator wants to sleep in the room by herself so she can stare at the wallpaper uninterrupted. She locks out Jennie and believes that she can see the woman in the wallpaper. John returns and frantically tries to be let in, and the narrator refuses; John is able to enter the room and finds the narrator crawling on the floor. She claims that the woman in the wallpaper has finally exited, and John faints, much to her surprise.
Background on "The Yellow Wallpaper"
The author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, was a lecturer for social reform, and her beliefs and philosophy play an important part in the creation of "The Yellow Wallpaper," as well as the themes and symbolism in the story. "The Yellow Wallpaper" also influenced later feminist writers.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, known as Charlotte Perkins Stetsman while she was married to her first husband, was born in Hartford, CT in 1860. Young Charlotte was observed as being bright, but her mother wasn’t interested in her education, and Charlotte spent lots of time in the library.
Charlotte married Charles Stetsman in 1884, and her daughter was born in 1885. She suffered from serious postpartum depression after giving birth to their daughter, Katharine. Her battle with postpartum depression and the doctors she dealt with during her illness inspired her to write "The Yellow Wallpaper."
The couple separated in 1888, the year that Perkins Gilman wrote her first book, Art Gems for the Home and Fireside. She later wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper" in 1890, while she was in a relationship with Adeline Knapp, and living apart from her legal husband. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was published in 1892, and in 1893 she published a book of satirical poetry, In This Our World, which gained her fame.
Eventually, Perkins Gilman got officially divorced from Stetsman, and ended her relationship with Knapp. She married her cousin, Houghton Gilman, and claimed to be satisfied in the marriage.
Perkins Gilman made a living as a lecturer on women’s issues, labor issues, and social reform. She toured Europe and the U.S. as a lecturer, and founded her own magazine, The Forerunner.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" was first published in January 1892 in New England Magazine.
During Perkins Gilman's lifetime, the role of women in American society was heavily restricted both socially and legally. At the time of its publication, women were still twenty-six years away from gaining the right to vote.
This viewpoint on women as childish and weak meant that they were discouraged from having any control over their lives. Women were encouraged or forced to defer to their husband’s opinions in all aspects of life, including financially, socially, and medically. Writing itself was revolutionary, since it would create a sense of identity, and was thought to be too much for the naturally fragile women.
Women's health was a particularly misunderstood area of medicine, as women were viewed as nervous, hysterical beings, and were discouraged from doing anything to further “upset” them. The prevailing wisdom of the day was that rest would cure hysteria, when in reality the constant boredom and lack of purpose likely worsened depression.
Perkins Gilman used her own experience in her first marriage and postpartum depression as inspiration for The Yellow Wallpaper, and illustrates how a woman’s lack of autonomy is detrimental to her mental health.
Upon its publication, Perkins Gilman sent a copy of "The Yellow Wallpaper" to the doctor who prescribed her the rest cure for her postpartum depression.
"The Yellow Wallpaper" Characters
Though there are only a few characters in the story, they each have an important role. While the story is about the narrator’s mental deterioration, the relationships in her life are essential for understanding why and how she got to this point.
The narrator of the story is a young, upper-middle-class woman. She is imaginative and a natural writer, though she is discouraged from exploring this part of herself. She is a new mother and is thought to have “hysterical tendencies” or suffer from nervousness. Her name may be Jane but it is unclear.
John is the narrator’s husband and her physician. He restricts her activity as a part of her treatment. John is extremely practical, and belittles the narrator's imagination and feelings. He seems to care about her well-being, but believes he knows what is best for her and doesn't allow her input.
Jennie is John’s sister, who works as a housekeeper for the couple. Jennie seems concerned for the narrator, as indicated by her offer to sleep in the yellow wallpapered room with her. Jennie seems content with her domestic role.
Main Themes of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
From what we know about the author of this story and from interpreting the text, there are a few themes that are clear from a "Yellow Wallpaper" analysis. "The Yellow Wallpaper" was a serious piece of literature that addressed themes pertinent to women.
Women's Role in Marriage
Women were expected to be subordinate to their husbands and completely obedient, as well as take on strictly domestic roles inside the home. Upper middle class women, like the narrator, may go for long periods of time without even leaving the home. The story reveals that this arrangement had the effect of committing women to a state of naïveté, dependence, and ignorance.
John assumes he has the right to determine what’s best for his wife, and this authority is never questioned. He belittles her concerns, both concrete and the ones that arise as a result of her depression, and is said so brush her off and “laugh at her” when she speaks through, “this is to be expected in marriage” He doesn’t take her concerns seriously, and makes all the decisions about both of their lives.
As such, she has no say in anything in her life, including her own health, and finds herself unable to even protest.
Perkins Gilman, like many others, clearly disagreed with this state of things, and aimed to show the detrimental effects that came to women as a result of their lack of autonomy.
Identity and Self-Expression
Throughout the story, the narrator is discouraged from doing the things she wants to do and the things that come naturally to her, like writing. On more than one occasion, she hurries to put her journal away because John is approaching.
She also forces herself to act as though she’s happy and satisfied, to give the illusion that she is recovering, which is worse. She wants to be a good wife, according to the way the role is laid out for her, but struggles to conform especially with so little to actually do.
The narrator is forced into silence and submission through the rest cure, and desperately needs an intellectual and emotional outlet. However, she is not granted one and it is clear that this arrangement takes a toll.
The Rest Cure
The rest cure was commonly prescribed during this period of history for women who were “nervous.” Perkins Gilman has strong opinions about the merits of the rest cure, having been prescribed it herself. John’s insistence on the narrator getting “air” constantly, and his insistence that she do nothing that requires mental or physical stimulation is clearly detrimental.
The narrator is also discouraged from doing activities, whether they are domestic- like cleaning or caring for her baby- in addition to things like reading, writing, and exploring the grounds of the house. She is stifled and confined both physically and mentally, which only adds to her condition.
Perkins Gilman damns the rest cure in this story, by showing the detrimental effects on women, and posing that women need mental and physical stimulation to be healthy, and need to be free to make their own decisions over health and their lives.
The Yellow Wallpaper Analysis: Symbols and Symbolism
Symbols are a way for the author to give the story meaning, and provide clues as to the themes and characters. There are two major symbols in "The Yellow Wallpaper."
The Yellow Wallpaper
This is of course the most important symbol in the story. The narrator is immediately fascinated and disgusted by the yellow wallpaper, and her understanding and interpretation fluctuates and intensifies throughout the story.
The narrator, because she doesn’t have anything else to think about or other mental stimulation, turns to the yellow wallpaper as something to analyze and interpret. The pattern eventually comes into focus as bars, and then she sees a woman inside the pattern. This represents feeling trapped.
At the end of the story, the narrator believes that the woman has come out of the wallpaper. This indicates that the narrator has finally merged fully into her psychosis, and become one with the house and domesticated discontent.
Though Jennie doesn’t have a major role in the story, she does present a foil to the narrator. Jennie is John’s sister and their housekeeper, and she is content, or so the narrator believes, to live a domestic life. Though she does often express her appreciation for Jennie’s presence in her home, she is clearly made to feel guilty by Jennie’s ability to run the household unencumbered.
Irony in The Yellow Wallpaper
"The Yellow Wallpaper" makes good use of dramatic and situational irony. Dramatic literary device in which the reader knows or understands things that the characters do not. Situational irony is when the character’s actions are meant to do one thing, but actually do another. Here are a few examples.
For example, when the narrator first enters the room with the yellow wallpaper, she believes it to be a nursery. However, the reader can clearly see that the room could have just as easily been used to contain a mentally unstable person.
The best example of situational irony is the way that John continues to prescribe the rest-cure, which worsens the narrator's state significantly. He encourages her to lie down after meals and sleep more, which causes her to be awake and alert at night, when she has time to sit and evaluate the wallpaper.
The Yellow Wallpaper Summary
"The Yellow Wallpaper" is one of the defining works of feminist literature. Writing about a woman’s health, mental or physical, was considered a radical act at the time that Perkins Gilman wrote this short story. Writing at all about the lives of women was considered at best, frivolous, and at worst dangerous. When you take a look at The Yellow Wallpaper analysis, the story is an important look into the role of women in marriage and society, and it will likely be a mainstay in the feminist literary canon.
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Carrie holds a Bachelors in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, and is currently pursuing an MFA. She worked in book publishing for several years, and believes that books can open up new worlds. She loves reading, the outdoors, and learning about new things.