The Yellow Wallpaper | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "The Yellow Wallpaper," are the reasons John gives for denying the narrator's every wish truthful, and what do the reasons he gives reveal about his character?

When the narrator asks if she can use a downstairs room instead of sleeping in the nursery in the house they rented temporarily, John refuses. He makes the excuse that there is only one window in the downstairs room, no room for two beds, and no nearby room for him to stay in. When the narrator is nervous about the wallpaper in the nursery, John says he won't have it repapered because she should not give in to her "fancies." Besides, he claims it would lead to her asking for more changes. When she asks to go visit cousins, he says she would not be able to stand it. When she asks to return to their home a little early, he says there are repairs being done on the house and they will not be finished yet. On their own, each reason seems perfectly rational. Yet in some way, the fact that John always has a perfectly rational reason why he can't give in to her wishes is itself suspicious. The excuse of the repairs seems the least trustworthy, because at the beginning of the summer he has given the narrator the impression that they are renting the estate for her health. He also contradicts himself when he tells her he will not repaper the room but "he would go down cellar, if [she] wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain." It's interesting that John uses the word whitewashed here because to whitewash means to prevent someone from learning the truth. This is a clue to the reader that John is humoring the narrator, and that perhaps John knows she is very ill, even if he downplays it to her.

How does "The Yellow Wallpaper" explore the tension between imagination and the rational mind?

The story explores this tension by presenting extremes. On one hand, John prides himself on being rational and practical. He does not approve of imagination, especially his wife's imagination. He believes it to be a weakness in her that good sense and willpower should be able to control: shortly after they move into the house, she reports that John "says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency." John believes she should "not let any silly fancies run away" with her. On the other hand, the narrator—perhaps having little rational outlet—allows her imagination to run away with her. She gives in to the spiraling, twisting, out-of-control wallpaper pattern, and she does seem to do exactly as John fears, letting "fancies" of all sorts take hold of her mind. Both characters demonstrate the limits of seeing the world through either rationality or imagination. John might have been less shocked at the end if he had used his imagination or valued his wife's opinion. The narrator might have stopped short of complete insanity if she had had an outlet for her rational self. This is symbolized metaphorically as she tries desperately to find a logical pattern in the wallpaper and is unable.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 4, what does the fact that John carries the narrator to bed, then sits and reads to her suggest about their marriage?

These images—carrying someone to bed, sitting near them and reading aloud—are parental images, and they cast John in the role of father rather than husband. Accordingly, the narrator plays the role of child rather than adult. This suggests that their marriage is not of two equals but of a protective, nurturing caretaker and a helpless, dependent charge. This exposes the relationship between John and the narrator, and it also develops the way that women's roles in society are explored in the story. John seems to fulfill society's expectations of a man and husband, while she, to the detriment of her mind, must try to fulfill society's expectations of a woman.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," how does the narrator's changing attitude toward the woman in the wallpaper develop the theme of women's roles?

The narrator's attitude toward the woman in the wallpaper changes over time. The first time the narrator notices the figure behind the pattern, she is curious: "I got up softly and went to feel and see if the paper did move." The next time, she observes that there are multiple female figures, and they seem to creep around behind the pattern, and this time she takes a dislike to the woman: "I don't like it a bit. I wonder—I begin to think—I wish John would take me away from here!" Later, she feels that she and the woman have something in common: both are subdued and quieted by the pattern of the wallpaper. So her attitude toward the woman moves from curiosity to animosity to solidarity. This develops the theme of women's roles in society as the narrator experiences herself in relation to other women—an individual woman, then many (or all) women, then herself as a woman. She first feels separated from—but curious about—women. Then she feels dismayed as she perceives the distress the woman feels; she is beginning to consider the powerlessness of women (and herself), and she doesn't like it. Finally, she accepts herself as a woman and realizes she shares something in common with other women.

How would you describe the physical, mental, and emotional condition of the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper," and how are these parts of the self intertwined?

The narrator's physical self is deteriorating due to too much rich food and limited activity. She is physically confined by her husband's orders, which dictate every aspect of her life: meals, rest times, walks, medicines. She makes few decisions about how she uses her time. This physical disintegration seems to be the root cause of the failure of her mental and emotional faculties, although these, in turn, result in additional physical symptoms—sleeping too much during the day, not sleeping at night, and so on. Her physical decay is soon reflected in her thought life. Although she has an active mind and clearly is an intelligent person, she begins to lose control of her mental self, revealing that "It is getting to be a great effort for me to think straight" in her fourth journal entry. Likewise, her emotional self seems to disintegrate over the first few weeks of their stay in the house. She gets "unreasonably angry" with John in the time after they move into the house, and after a few weeks reports "I cry at nothing, and cry most of the time."

What role does Mary play in the "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

Mary is mentioned by name only once in the story, but she plays an important role in the narrator's isolation and in advancing the theme of women's roles. Mary has been hired to take care of the narrator's baby: "It is fortunate Mary is so good with the baby." Of course being around the baby makes the narrator nervous, but instead of being given help in mothering, she has completely lost this responsibility to another woman. Mary is what society expects a woman to be, while the narrator is not. This means yet another task is removed from the narrator's duties, leaving her isolated and without purpose. This dividing up of the various functions women are allowed to perform develops the theme of women's roles. Mary plays the mother role and Jennie the domestic role. What purpose does the narrator truly have?

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," why is it significant that the narrator asks "what can one do?" and "what is one to do?"

In the first journal entry, the narrator asks "What can one do?" and then twice asks "What is one to do?" In context, she asks this question after she considers her own helplessness and inability to convince her husband that she is truly sick, to stand against her husband's opinion as a respected physician, and to disagree with her husband's and brother's opinions of the best cure for her nervous condition. Thus, these questions are an expression of her feelings of helplessness to "do" anything about her situation—her inability to act in ways that will actually effect change in her own life. Tragically, her own instincts, to be creative and interact with others more, are what would be best for her. Her questions highlight the reality for the narrator that men have more power than women, and there is nothing to do about it except submit.

For what purpose does Gilman include the character Jennie in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

In terms of plot, Jennie, John's sister, is important because she represents John's presence when he is away, and therefore heightens the suspense and anxiety of the narrator, who must hide her actions when they go against John's wishes. Yet Jennie has an even more important role in the development of the theme of women's roles in the home and in society. As a woman who, according to the narrator, "is a perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession," Jennie fulfills a socially accepted woman's role. She is not ambitious but gladly accepts her duties in the home. This provides an important contrast to both the narrator and Gilman, who wish for different work.

Why does Gilman shift the point of view from first person to second person as the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" describes the wallpaper's "torturing" pattern?

In the sixth journal entry, the narrator briefly tells the story in second person point of view—a point of view in which the main character is referred to using the pronoun you: "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. It is like a bad dream." This reflects the fact that she has begun to lose her sense of self—her "I." The wallpaper "tramples" upon her to the point where she has lost herself.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," how does John's reaction to the narrator's good spirits as she begins to feel more excited illustrate dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or audience knows more than a character in the story. Because "The Yellow Wallpaper" is written in the first person point of view and the narrator is more and more secretive about what is going on in her own mind, the story has several examples of dramatic irony. John's reaction to the narrator's good spirits are an excellent example. He is pleased at her progress and believes that she is regaining her health because she seems more lively and is eating better. However, the reader knows that the narrator is not getting better at all but is, in fact, declining quickly into madness. Her good spirits are not due to regained health but are due to her immersion in her hallucination.

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