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The Yellow Wallpaper | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


How does the narrator's description of the setting reflect her situation in Section 1 of "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

At the beginning of the story, the narrator seems happy to be staying in such an "ancestral hall," but she does have vague feelings that there is something strange about the place. She thinks it feels just a little bit like a haunted house. She describes it as being beautiful but "quite alone," set well back from the road and miles from the town. The grounds have "hedges and walls and gates that lock." The greenhouses are "all broken now." This initial description of the setting reflects several aspects of the narrator's mental and physical situation. She feels vaguely uneasy, though her feelings have not given way to obsession and paranoia yet. She is "quite alone" in that she is supposed to be resting without social stimulation, and in that she has no real companionship. She is aware of the boundaries and borders of her life—the "hedges and walls and gates that lock"—but she is not yet feeling confined by them. In addition, there are parts of her that should be full of growth and life that are broken, like the greenhouses.

What role does the narrator's child play in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The narrator only mentions her baby in a few places. She reveals that Mary takes care of the baby because she herself is too nervous to be near it. She consoles herself that at least, by occupying the nursery, she has caused the baby to sleep elsewhere, away from the terrible wallpaper. The child never physically appears in any scenes, and the narrator does not describe any interactions with her child. One purpose of mentioning the baby is to let readers know the narrator is a mother, and a relatively new one. Her mental state is likely to be related to postpartum depression, a well-known complication of childbirth. In addition, readers must consider the different kinds of mothers women can be: mothers who are caretakers, mothers who have others care for their babies, mothers who are healthy, mothers who are unwell. The label of mother is an important part of the narrator's identity; however, that may complicate the story. It seems that the narrator needs a creative life that is more than being a mother. Another layer of complexity brought about by the baby's presence is that the narrator's separation from her child lends a tragic note to her isolation. She isn't just isolated from other adults, she is separated from her own child. Both her nervous condition and John's dubious cure for it add to this separation. Although the narrator does not mention the child much, the broken mother–child bond necessarily plays a part in her deterioration.

What are the main internal and external conflicts in "The Yellow Wallpaper," and are they resolved?

The main external conflict is between the narrator and her husband. John has decided that she needs to follow the "rest cure" to become well again. Yet the narrator disagrees with his opinion that all she needs is to avoid any "work" until she is well again. As a doctor, his prescription is for daily tonics, fresh air, regular meals, and a complete avoidance of any kind of work, including writing. In contrast, the narrator believes that "congenial work, with excitement and change," would make her feel better. In addition, John believes she should not even think about her "condition." He says that thinking about her "condition" (that is, her feelings of depression and anxiety) is "the very worst thing" she could do. But the narrator thinks that if she had "less opposition" and more "society and stimulus," her condition might improve, as if her depression is a problem to solve rather than one to be ignored. Modern treatment for depression would agree with the narrator; indeed, the isolation enforced by her husband adds to rather than alleviates her depression. Unfortunately, while she disagrees, she has little power in the conflict, and so it cannot be resolved reasonably. This unresolved conflict eventually adds to her deteriorating mental state. The main internal conflict is between the narrator's desire to be a good wife and her need to be something different or more than that role allows. She wants to write, to be creative, and to have some "work" that is her own. Yet she desires to please her husband, who she believes to be a good, loving man. This conflict seems to be resolved by her insanity, because by the end of the story, she no longer desires to please but is wholly engrossed in her own thoughts and imaginings.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 1, how does John's response when the narrator first expresses her opinion that she can feel the house is "strange" help develop his character?

The narrator describes John as being practical and having no patience for superstition. So when she voices her feeling that the house is strange, he looks for a practical, physical cause, deciding that the feeling she has is actually just the feeling of moving air from a draft. And, being practical, he solves this problem by shutting the window. The narrator's disapproval of John allows the reader to see right away that the narrator and her husband are quite different from each other. Also, this pattern of behavior shown early in the story is just a small example of John's overall view of the narrator's condition and his approach to helping her. She expresses her feelings, and he looks for some simple physical cause, like lack of sleep or food, or too much stimulation. Once he has simplified her problem into hardly a problem at all and dismissed her own opinions, he takes steps to "solve" the problem. But because he is not addressing the real issue, his solutions do not work; in the end, the intensity of his wife's madness completely surprises him. In the beginning of the story, the reader may identify with John's practical opinion of the narrator's illness and be as surprised as he is by the end.

Although the narrator's brother is not a character in "The Yellow Wallpaper," how does his mention in Section 1 affect the plot and themes?

The narrator's brother, who is, like John, a "physician of high standing," agrees with John's view that "there is really nothing the matter" with her. Both men assure family and friends that this is true, and thereby effectively cut her off from any meaningful communication with her family and friends. The brother's support of John's opinion serves to solidify the narrator's isolation; perhaps without this second supporting opinion, she might not have been so cut off. Her isolation is the driving force behind her eventual madness, so although her brother is not a character in the story, he helps to set the stage for later events in the story. His inclusion also emphasizes the theme of women's roles, reminding readers that this is not a simple case of gender roles in marriage but of women's roles in society in general. Simply because her brother is male, he is given the power by society to know what is best for her.

Why is it significant that the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" must hide her journal writing from John and Jennie in Section 1?

From the first journal entry, readers learn that John does not want the narrator to work, and he considers writing one of the activities she should not do: "I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition." Jennie, John's sister, conforms to his wishes and reports back to him about the narrator's actions while he is gone, so the narrator sees her as being simply an extension of John's will. She is a female that believes in her brother's orders simply because he is male. While the narrator continues to write in her journal, she must hide it when anyone comes to avoid this opposition. This has a negative effect on her mental state, exacerbating the loneliness she endures. She is not only isolated physically but also by being forced to lead a double life, giving the appearance of compliance while continuing to disobey in secret. This helps to develop the theme of women's roles and the harmful effects of these societal norms. Women who had inclinations to do work not deemed suitable for women had to hide their desires, or, worse, deny them. A woman writer, for example, might use a man's name as a pen name, but the woman would then be hiding an important part of her identity from the public. Gilman's story shows the destructive effects of making women hide their true selves.

What effect does point of view have on the narrative style of "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The story is told primarily in first-person point of view, and this allows the narrative style to reflect the narrator's thoughts as they move from rational and coherent to increasing fragmentation. The beginning of the story is characterized by longer journal entries, longer sentences that describe the house and grounds, and a narrative that generally hangs together. Later entries are shorter and more agitated, using brief sentences that don't always seem logically connected. The use of punctuation, such as exclamation points and dashes, helps to express the narrator's fragmented and agitated thoughts. In the end, this effect is very pronounced: "I quite enjoy the room, now it is bare again. How those children did tear about here! This bedstead is fairly gnawed! But I must get to work."

What effect does point of view have on the way the characters are developed in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The use of first-person point of view means that the reader is able to experience the narrator's character development as it moves from "nervous condition" to madness. However, the point of view also influences the way other characters are developed because readers only see these people from the narrator's perspective. In this story, the effect is to leave readers somewhat mystified as to the real feelings and motives of John and Jennie. John seems to belittle his wife and take away her agency at every turn. Yet the narrator continues to describe him as a loving, attentive husband, leaving readers feeling conflicted about him. For example, consider the following sentence: "He is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction." She says he is careful and loving. Yet he has complete control over her every move. Jennie, too, is viewed through the lens of the narrator's view, with similar results. The facts that the narrator hides her writing when Jennie comes and that Jennie regularly gives reports to John make her seem like a spy. Yet the narrator says Jennie gives "good" reports, and it does seem as if Jennie's intentions are aboveboard. So here again, readers feel conflicted, perhaps drawing the conclusion that all of the characters are acting in the best way they know how, and it is their ideas about what is "best" that are really the problem.

Why is it significant that the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" resides in what used to be a nursery?

Every aspect of setting is important to the development of the themes of this story. There are three very significant things about the narrator's room being a former nursery. One is that the room has bars—a practical feature that would have kept children from falling out of the high windows. However, the bars contribute to the theme of confinement, especially as the narrator begins to perceive a woman trapped behind the "bars" of the wallpaper's pattern. The reader may wonder if John places her in the room upstairs because it has bars, developing further suspense and tension between what the narrator believes and what her husband thinks. The second is the way the nursery underscores the narrator's complete and childish dependence on her husband, John. He treats her as a child who must be looked after, rather than as an adult. Also, setting the narrator's room in the nursery and having that be the place that hastens her madness subtly hints at the effects of childbearing for women, as they must give up their intellectual and public pursuits when motherhood arrives. Furthermore, placing the narrator in a nursery without her baby in it underscores the complexity of her having a child at all.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 2, the narrator observes, "I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors." How does this observation affect the reader?

This observation takes place toward the beginning of the story, in the second journal entry. It prompts the reader to wonder: At what point in the story does the narrator begin to hallucinate? She calls seeing these people an example of "fancy," or imagination. In this, there does seem to be an admission that perhaps the people are not real. And John, too, tells her not to give in to fancy and imaginative story making. So, there is doubt in the reader's mind about whether or not there are real people walking within sight of her windows. This doubt creates suspense and cues the reader that the narrator may not be reliable. The narrator's reliability is an important issue in the story because readers are inclined to sympathize with the main character, especially when the story is told in first person. A lack of trust between reader and narrator gives rise to discomfort and suspicion in the reader.

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