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The Yellow Wallpaper | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In "The Yellow Wallpaper," how do the narrator's descriptions of the wallpaper's pattern change, and why is this change significant?

Her first description is a critique of the pattern's artistic elements: "One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin." She also notes that it is confusing and irritating. As for color, she finds it repellant and lurid. Her general opinion is one of revulsion. In the next journal entry, she endows the pattern with more human qualities, such as being vicious and impertinent, and having eyes. In the third entry, she continues personifying it when she calls it "pointless" and describes it as a grotesque thing: it has "bloated curves and flourishes." She's begun to think of it as a living thing. Later in the story, however, the wallpaper has begun to really prey on her mind. It is "unreliable," "torturing," and "infuriating," and is "a constant irritant to a normal mind." And at the end of the story, she identifies it as bars that trap the woman behind them, one that strangles those who try to escape. The pattern has become a force of violence and destruction. This change is significant because her feelings toward the wallpaper reflect her feelings toward her situation. She is a woman suffering from a nervous condition no one thinks is quite real; she is subject to her husband's authority even when she disagrees; she is isolated and not allowed to do meaningful work. As she first confronts this reality, she is irritated and repulsed. She finds it unpleasant. In time, her dislike of it grows, and it seems threatening. Finally, her situation becomes destructive.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 1, what purpose is served by the narrator's cheerful description of the house and grounds?

Because this description occurs near the beginning of the text, it serves to acquaint the reader with the setting, which is a very important element of the story. The setting both reflects the narrator's internal state and increases her mental and emotional deterioration. In addition, the description, with its cheerful tone, demonstrates how the narrator has internalized the fact that John is in control. For example, she has been told by John that thinking about her condition is bad and will make her feel worse: "The very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad." In an effort to comply with John's wishes, she polices her own thoughts, pivoting to a description of the house: "So I will let it alone and talk about the house." She seems to be trying to convince herself that everything is really fine, and also trying to come into alignment with John's wishes.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 2, why does the narrator say that her case is not serious, and does she believe this statement?

The narrator says that her case is not serious because John has obviously told her this. He has other cases that are so serious he must stay in town. In contrast, he has downplayed the seriousness of her own case, and he is considered the authority as her husband and doctor. She notes, "I am glad my case is not serious!" as if it is a relief to be told everything is okay by someone who should know. However, her actual experience does not reflect what John says, and this is confusing for her. She says, "these nervous troubles are dreadfully depressing" and "John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him." While she wants very much to have a case that is "not serious," as John says, her real-life experience is that she feels terrible. Deep down, she may not really believe John.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 2, why does the narrator describe the view from her windows?

This descriptive section, like the description of the grounds in the first section, follows an account of John telling the narrator that she should do something that goes against her natural inclinations. Here, she had wanted to take a downstairs bedroom, and he has made an excuse as to why that is not a good idea. In attempting to agree with him, as she believes she should, she turns her energy to convincing herself to align with his opinion: "It is an airy and comfortable room as anyone need wish, and, of course, I would not be so silly as to make him uncomfortable just for a whim." She even says she is getting "fond" of the room.

What does the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" say in Section 2 that she "must not think about," and what effect does this "not thinking" have on her?

She says that she must not think about her condition, or about how to get better: "I wish I could get well faster. But I must not think about that." Yet just like repressing other forms of autonomy and self-expression, repressing her natural thoughts and desire to solve problems causes an intensification of her symptoms. She immediately begins to feel the negative influence of the paper: "This paper looks to me as if it knew what a vicious influence it had!" Of course it is not really the paper that has the vicious influence; it is the constant dismissal of her own thoughts and feelings that is having the destructive influence on her mind.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 2, what insight about the narrator's personality can be gleaned from her descriptions of the furniture in her childhood bedroom?

The narrator, speaking about the yellow wallpaper, notes that she "never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing" before acknowledging that seeing expressions in inanimate things is not new to her: "and we all know how much expression they have!" She recalls lying awake at night during her childhood, using her imagination to see life in her furniture: "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. I used to feel that if any of the other things looked too fierce I could always hop into that chair and be safe." From this memory, the reader learns that the narrator is an imaginative person, and always has been. Her imagination is not part of her madness because, in the past, her surroundings have seemed to be comforting and friendly. However, her madness has caused even her imagination to become destructive.

How does the narrator's description of the "formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about" develop the theme of women's roles in "The Yellow Wallpaper," Section 2?

In this description—the first one in which she notices a "figure" in the wallpaper—the narrator describes two layers of the wallpaper's pattern: a conspicuous outer design and, behind that, a "formless" figure. This works well as a symbol of the narrator's own sense of being divided into the outer, conspicuous self and the inner, hidden self. Yet it also functions as symbolic representation of women's roles in society and the fact that society cares greatly about the external, conspicuous aspects of a woman and little about what is behind it. The fact that this inner self is formless underscores the way that the narrator and women at the time in general might have found difficulty in solidifying their inner selves.

What does the bed represent in "The Yellow Wallpaper"?

The bed is the only piece of furniture in the room when the narrator and her husband first move to the estate they've rented in the country. She notices that the "great immovable bed" is nailed down, and in fact, when she tries to move it, it won't budge. Just as the narrator cannot move the bed, she cannot change her husband's mind by crying or pleading with him. The bed represents how powerless she is in her marriage. Also, the fact that the bed, a place of rest, is unmovable represents the way the "cure" of rest and isolation is an unmovable fact in the narrator's own life. She is forced, by the double authority of John as husband and doctor, into a schedule of resting, eating, and taking walks. This restful schedule is as unmovable as the bed.

How does the "long smooch" the narrator notices in "The Yellow Wallpaper" convey the nature of her mental illness?

When the narrator first writes about the smudged line along the wall, she describes it as if she had just noticed it: "A streak that runs round the room. It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over." Yet later in the story, her actions reveal that she herself has made this long streak as she creeps along the wall, rubbing against the wallpaper with her shoulder: "But here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way." As the narrator's madness has grown, her sense of self has become divided—she is not always aware of her own actions but sees them from an external perspective.

In "The Yellow Wallpaper," why does the narrator begin to obsess about the smell of the wallpaper?

The narrator begins interacting with the wallpaper in a purely visual way: tracing its pattern with her eyes or trying to discern the effects of different lighting or perspectives on the way its pattern appears. As her obsession grows, she begins interacting with it through her other senses. The smell of it becomes ever present, partially because she touches it more often and has smudged it onto her clothing and hair, and partially because it has grown more significant and animated in her imagination, "following" her as she goes about the house and even outside when she goes for a ride, alluding to the idea that she is thinking about it even when she is not in the nursery. The wallpaper is no longer just a visual presence but an olfactory one as well, heightening its reality.

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