Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Yellow Wallpaper" is a short story centering on the mental deterioration
of a young woman. The story is (1) a psychological study, (2) a Gothic
horror tale, (3) a commentary on the inferior social status of women at
the end of the nineteenth century, and (4) a satire ridiculing the so-called
rest cure for persons suffering from depression and nervous disorders.
England Magazine published the story in January 1892 under Gilman's
married name, Charlotte Perkins Stetson.
action takes place in the late 1800s in an upstairs room of a mansion rented
for the summer by the narrator and her husband.
Perkins Gilman based her story on her own experience with a physician who
treated her for a nervous disorder, according to an article she wrote for
the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner. Here is the text of that
article, entitled "Why I Wrote 'The Yellow Wallpaper.' "
and many a reader has asked [why I wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper]. When the
story first came out, in the New England Magazine about 1891, a
Boston physician made protest in The Transcript. Such a story ought
not to be written, he said; it was enough to drive anyone mad to read it.
physician who treated Gilman was Silas Weir Mitchell, MD, a member of the
National Academy of Sciences and president of the College of Physicians
of Philadelphia. The narrator mentions him by name in "The Yellow Wallpaper."
Mitchell believed American women were not up to the task of fulfilling
their duties as mothers, let alone competing with men. In a paper that
he wrote, he said,
physician, in Kansas I think, wrote to say that it was the best description
of incipient insanity he had ever seen, and—begging
my pardon—had I been there?
the story of the story is this:.......
many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending
to melancholia—and beyond. During about the
third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir
of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the
country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which
a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was
nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to
"live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual
life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as
I lived. This was in 1887.
went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so
near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.
using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise
friend, I cast the noted specialist's advice to the winds and went to work
again—work, the normal life of every human
being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one
is a pauper and a parasite—ultimately recovering
some measure of power.
naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote "The Yellow
Wallpaper," with its embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal
(I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and
sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged
little book is valued by alienists and as a good specimen of one kind of
literature. It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate—so
terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she
the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist
had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia
since reading "The Yellow Wallpaper."
was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven
crazy, and it worked. [You can access the article in its original form
the American woman is, to speak plainly, too often physically unfit for
her duties as woman, and is perhaps of all civilized females the least
qualified to undertake those weightier tasks which tax so heavily the nervous
system of man. She is not fairly up to what nature asks from her as wife
and mother. How will she sustain herself under the pressure of those yet
more exacting duties which nowadays she is eager to share with the man?
making these stringent criticisms, I am anxious not to be misunderstood.
The point which above all others I wish to make is this, that owing chiefly
to peculiarities of climate, our growing girls are endowed with organizations
so highly sensitive and impressionable that we expose them to needless
dangers when we attempt to overtax them mentally. In any country the effects
of such a course must be evil, but in America I believe it to be most disastrous.
(Wear and Tear, or Hints for the Overworked. 5th ed. Philadelphia:
J.B. Lippincott, 1871.)
narrator is in conflict with her husband, a physician, because of his limitation
on her activity. She is also in conflict with herself, for she internalizes
her frustrations rather than asserting herself and bringing them into the
(Jane): A young woman suffering from a nervous disorder because she has
no outlet for her active and highly creative mind. Near the end of the
story, she speaks of a woman named Jane in an apparent reference to herself.
Narrator's husband, a physician. He prescribes rest therapy for his wife
even though it is inactivity that unnerves her. He forbids her to engage
in any kind of activity, including her favorite pastime, writing. Unfortunately,
she follows his orders without protest.
Brother: He supports John in his approach to the narrator's treatment.
John's sister, the housekeeper.
Child of the narrator and John.
Julia: Relatives of the narrator and John.
Nellie, Children: Characters whom the narrator mentions without
providing additional information. Presumably, "Mother" is her own mother.
presents the story as diary entries (first-person point of view) by the
narrator. She describes her husband as kind and loving. However, her mental
state and easygoing nature may be clouding her perception in this regard.
Michael J. Cummings.
is something strange about the house—I can feel it," says the narrator,
a young woman.
for her, this strangeness—this spookiness—only adds to the appeal of the
place, an ancestral hall that she and her husband, John, decided to rent
for the summer. John, a physician, does not share his wife's fanciful notions.
As a man of science, he is practical and down to earth. The mansion is
just another house. There are no ghosts; it is not haunted. He agreed to
sojourn at the dwelling only because his wife needs rest to relieve her
“temporary nervous depression."
three miles from the village, the house sits well back from the road behind
hedges, walls, and gates. It has a garden with paths running through arbors
covered with grapes. The mansion has been unoccupied for years, supposedly
because of legal problems involving heirs and coheirs.
the look and feel of the house excite the narrator, she does not like the
room her husband selected for them. She wanted one downstairs that opened
onto a large porch, but he told her they should occupy the nursery at the
top of the house so she could take advantage of air blowing into the large
room, which is quite large and has windows all around.
the nursery had at one time been converted into a gymnasium and playroom,
the narrator says, “for the windows are barred for little children, and
there are rings and things in the walls." Much of the wallpaper is torn
off, but there are patches of it here and there. It has a gaudy design
and an ugly color: “a smouldering unclean yellow" with “dull yet lurid
orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others."
writes down her impressions on the first day of their occupation of the
house, but she puts her work away when she sees her husband coming. He
forbids her to write because he thinks it overtaxes her. So does her brother,
who is also a physician.
weeks pass. She sits at a nursery window with a desire to write but not
the strength. Her husband is away most of the time to attend patients.
He really does not know how much she suffers, she thinks.
would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able,—to dress
and entertain, and order things."
is happy that Mary is there to care for the baby. She herself is too distraught
to look after the child.
wallpaper continues to bother her. Early in their stay, John was going
to have new wallpaper put up. However, he decided against this idea in
the belief that she would only turn her attention to another irritant,
such as the barred windows or her heavy bed. She accepts his opinion and
thinks, “ I'm really getting quite fond of the big room, all but that horrid
one of its windows, she can see the garden. From another, she can see the
bay and the lane that leads to the estate's wharf. When she tells John
that she imagines seeing all sorts of visitors walking on the lane and
the grounds, he tells her to avoid doing so. Such thoughts can unduly excite
her, he says. Nevertheless, she yearns for companionship. When she gets
well, he says, they will invite Cousin Henry and Julie for an extended
the wallpaper is really getting to her. She decides to write.
is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two
bulbous eyes stare at you upside down," she notes. “I never saw so much
expression in an inanimate thing before. . . ."
room itself bears evidence of the mischief that the children committed
against it, she says. And the floor is “scratched and gouged and splintered,
the plaster itself is dug out here and there, and this great heavy bed
. . . looks as if it had been through the wars."
she spots John's sister, the housekeeper, approaching, she puts away her
writing. Like John, the woman believes that the narrator's writing makes
her sick. Or so the narrator says.
passes. The narrator writes that she and John "had mother and Nellie and
the children" for a week over the Fourth of July holiday. Exhausted after
entertaining them, the narrator says her husband is going to get her an
appointment with Weir Mitchell, MD—a famous neurologist—if she does not
soon improve. She opposes the idea, saying Mitchell's approach to medicine
is just like her husband's and her brother's.
spending so much time alone in her room, the narrator writes that she is
beginning to like her room “in spite of the wallpaper" or because of it.
She finds herself studying its pattern while lying on the bed. To help
her get over her malady, John gives her cod liver oil, tonics, rare meat,
ale, and wine. She now says she would like to visit her cousin Henry and
Julia, but John won't hear of it. She ends up crying.
is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight.," she says. “Just
this nervous weakness I suppose."
day, he carries her upstairs and puts her in bed, then reads to her. He
tells her that she is his comfort and that she must get well for his sake.
One thing that comforts her is that her baby is well and does not have
to occupy the nursery and see the wallpaper. In its pattern, the narrator
now begins to see a woman “creeping about."
night while John is sleeping in his bed, she gets up to feel the wallpaper
to see whether it is moving. When her husband awakens moments later, she
asks him whether they can return home. He opposes the idea, saying their
sojourn will end in just three weeks. Besides, their house is undergoing
repairs at the moment. Of course, he would return if she were not getting
well. But, he says, she is improving.
are gaining flesh and color, your appetite is better, I feel really much
easier about you," he says.
wallpaper begins to irritate her again. The pattern changes depending on
whether sunlight or moonlight is striking it. In the moonlight—or by candlelight,
lamplight, or twilight—the pattern forms bars. The woman behind the pattern
is becoming easier to see.
narrator has noticed strange behavior in her husband lately, as well as
in Jennie. Perhaps the wallpaper is causing it. Both of them are paying
more attention to it, and Jennie even once placed a hand on it. When the
narrator asks her why she felt the wallpaper, Jennie says she was simply
checking for the source of yellow stains on the clothes of the narrator
and those of her husband. In a sharp voice, she tells the narrator to be
the narrator thinks Jennie is just making an excuse. Because of the attention
she thinks her husband and Jennie are giving the wallpaper, says the narrator,
she now has something to look forward to—their behavior—and even has a
the day, the narrator continues to analyze the pattern of the wallpaper.
As for the color, she thinks it the oddest shade of yellow she has ever
seen. It makes her think of yellow objects, “not beautiful ones like buttercups,
but old foul, bad yellow things." She also begins to take more notice of
its smell, which spreads throughout the house and even into her hair. The
damp weather lately makes it all the worse. She notices a streak on it
that runs around the room.
she discovers that the woman in the wallpaper shakes it and attempts to
climb through the pattern. Apparently, she sometimes succeeds, for the
narrator can see her on the grounds. When a carriage approaches, she hides
vacation is nearing its end. While John is staying in town overnight, the
narrator sees, by moonlight, the woman in the wallpaper shake the bars.
The narrator goes to help her. By morning, she and the imprisoned woman
have torn away a good deal of the paper. When Jennie enters the room and
looks at the wall, the narrator tells her, “I did it out of pure spite
at the vicious thing." Jennie says she wouldn't have minded doing it herself.
She also warns the narrator not to tire herself.
clear the room of the belongings of the narrator and her husband. She and
John will sleep downstairs and in the morning take the boat home. After
the room is empty—except for the bed—the narrator wishes to be alone in
the room. So she locks the door and throws the key into a path in front
of the house. Then the narrator begins ripping off the wallpaper. Out of
a window, she sees creeping women and writes, “I wonder if they all come
out of that wallpaper as I did? I suppose I shall have to get back behind
the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard!"
the narrator hears John at the door, she tells him the key is outside,
under a plantain leaf near the steps. After he retrieves it and enters,
he sees her creeping around. She says, "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
the last paragraph of the story, she says, “Now why should that man have
fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had
to creep over him every time!"
the nineteenth century, males dominated the workplace and the home. The
role of a typical wife was to bear her husband's children and comply with
his wishes in domestic affairs. She would cook, keep house, and manage
social events in support of her husband. Wealthy men often hired servants
to perform those chores, allowing the women to supervise the help. Society
in general—and a husband in particular—generally frowned on a wife's attempt
to become the equal of her husband in decision-making; for her to entertain
notions of pursuing a professional career, such as law or medicine, was
out of the question. Sometimes a husband even discouraged a spouse's pursuit
of an avocation, as in “The Yellow Wallpaper," in which John disapproves
of his wife's desire to write because, he says, writing might aggravate
he is her illness—that is, his control of her life depresses her and frays
her nerves. "I tried to have a real earnest reasonable talk with him the
other day," she writes in her diary," and tell him how I wish he would
let me go and make a visit to Cousin Henry and Julia. But he said I wasn't
able to go, nor able to stand it after I got there; and I did not make
out a very good case for myself, for I was crying before I had finished."
may mean well and is probably not aware of his deleterious effect on his
wife; nevertheless, it is he who is the problem. For her part, the narrator
also may be unaware of the real cause of her illness. Like other women
of her day, she simply follows her husband's dictates. In doing so, she
stifles her positive qualities—her lively imagination, her creativity.
So she remains confined to a room studying the ugly wallpaper and imagining
she sees a woman behind the pattern. She is that woman, of course, imprisoned
behind the arabesque pattern, which represents the male attitudes and societal
traditions that prevent women from participating fully in society and its
proved to be the wrong therapy for the narrator and the wrong therapy for
Charlotte Perkins Gilman in real life. Gilman wrote her story in part to
develop this theme, which she refers to early in the story, saying, "John
is a physician, and perhaps . . . that is one reason I do not get well
more information about Gilman's treatment, see Background.
The climax occurs when the
narrator liberates the woman (herself) from the wallpaper while at the
same time completing her descent into insanity. She is free at last to
control her own destiny but lacks a rational mind to pursue it. Her husband
faints at the sight of her.
establishes a Gothic atmosphere early in the story to prepare the way for
the narrator's eerie adventures with the wallpaper and her descent into
insanity. Note, for example, the emphasis on the isolation of the house:
"It is quite alone standing well back from the road, quite three miles
from the village." Note also that all the greenhouses are broken, a spooky
foreshadowing of the narrator's breakdown. Then there is the mysterious
"legal trouble . . . something about the heirs and coheirs." The
narrator concludes, "There is something strange about the house—I can feel
it." The narrator later discovers that her room has barred windows, torn
wallpaper, and a nailed-down bed, all of which suggest that the nursery
may have been used to house an insane person, à la the mad woman
in the attic in Jane Eyre.
Examples of symbols
in the story are the following:
Nursery: The nursery
symbolizes the way John treats his wife—like a child incapable of making
her own decisions.
Wallpaper: The wallpaper
represents the barrier that the male-dominated society has erected against
Yellow: The sickly
color symbolizes the mental state of the narrator, as well as the blandness
of the life she leads.
Garden: The garden
represents the development and growth denied to the narrator by her husband
and by social standards and expectations.
are all broken, just as the narrator's desire to flourish as a writer is
broken by her husband.
are examples of figures of speech in the story. (For definitions of figures
of speech, click here.)
that look all ways
look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off—the paper
in great patches all around the head
of my bed. . . .
The color is repellent,
almost revolting; a smouldering
unclean yellow, strangely faded by
the slow-turning sunlight.
It is a dull yet lurid orange
in some places, a sickly
tint in others.
I disagree with their ideas.
I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would
do me good.
don't know why I should write this.
don't want to.
don't feel able.
Although John is
a physician, his wife's condition worsens under his care.
Although the narrator thinks
at times that her mental health is improving, it is worsening. For example,
after seeing the woman behind the wallpaper, she says, " I'm feeling ever
so much better! I don't sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to
watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime."
You think you have
mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a
back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you
down, and tramples upon you.
Comparison of the wallpaper
design to a person or another creature
One of those sprawling
flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.
Simile and Personification
Comparison of the wallpaper
pattern to a person. (Only a human being can commit a sin.)
when you follow the lame
uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—
Comparison of the wallpaper
curves to persons. (Only human beings can commit suicide.)
I remember what
a kindly wink the knobs of our big, old bureau used to have, and there
was one chair that always seemed like a strong friend.
Questions and Essay Topics
Comparison of the chair
to a human being
narrator follows her husband's directives even though she apparently realizes
that she needs increased mental, social, and other forms of activity, as
the following passage indicates.
Personally, I disagree
with their [her husband's and her brother's] ideas.
Does her ending question suggest
that she feels powerless in a male-dominated society? Or does it suggests
that she lacks the boldness to assert herself? Perhaps you think the answer
to both questions is yes. Whatever the case, write an essay that attempts
to explain the narrator's passivity. Support your thesis with quotations
from the story as well library and Internet research.
Personally, I believe that
congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.
But what is one to do?
an essay about what society expected of the typical nineteenth-century
an essay comparing and contrasting the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper"
with Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an
Hour" or Nora Helmer in A
Perkins Gilman attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Do you think
her studies there had any influence on the way she wrote "The Yellow Wallpaper"?
Explain your answer.
Yellow Wallpaper" contains very short paragraphs, some of them consisting
of a single sentence. Do you believe Gilman intended her short paragraphs
to suggest that the narrator lacks the ability to concentrate? Or did Gilman
normally write short paragraphs (after the manner of many newspapers) as
a matter of preference? Explain your answer. Support it with research.
narrator does not give her own name except in an oblique reference at the
end of the story. Why? Does she believe that she lacks an identity, that
she is a mere appendage to her husband?
narrator reports at the end of her story that John faints. Did Gilman intend
this incident as a suggestion that the doctor—and men in general—are really
no stronger than women emotionally? Explain your answer.
narrator and her husband sleep in separate beds, as the following sentence
indicates: "He said there was only one window and not room for two beds,
and no near room for him if he took another." Is the reader to take this
statement as an indication that the narrator and John are having trouble
with their marriage? Explain your answer.