The Yellow Wallpaper | Study Guide

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

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The Yellow Wallpaper | Themes

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The plot and structure of the story, which pits the narrator's interior disintegration against the other characters' expectations of normalcy, helps build the themes in "The Yellow Wallpaper."

Conformity versus Expression

As the wife of a respected physician, the narrator of "The Yellow Wallpaper" must conform to society's norms as well as her husband's wishes. The narrator accepts her role with very little outward dissent, although her need for freedom of expression reveals itself privately. She rebelliously and secretly writes in her journal. She stays awake at night to have time to herself. However, her need for healthy self-expression mostly goes unmet, and so she begins to project her inward self onto her surroundings through hallucination. She sees a confined woman behind the "bars" of the wallpaper's pattern, and she sees creeping women outside her windows. Ultimately, this unhealthy tension between conformity and expression breaks her down, and the narrator is left without the ability to do either.

Confinement

The narrator is confined physically by her surroundings and her husband's directives. The edges of the property, the edges of her vision, the walls of the room, and the bars on the windows all provide borders and walls behind which she must stay. Beyond these physical barriers are those set up by society for women. In this era, a woman must conform to the wishes of her husband and the culture in which she is living. Her husband has decided that she should remain inactive and in her room most of the time, and, as a doctor and her husband, she has little choice but to obey. These restrictions are reflected in the way her thoughts are confined by the wallpaper's pattern. She finds that she can trace its patterns for hours at a time while lying completely inactive in her bed: "I lie here on this great immovable bed—it is nailed down, I believe—and follow that pattern about by the hour. It is as good as gymnastics, I assure you. I start, we'll say, at the bottom, down in the corner over there where it has not been touched, and I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion." In this way, the pattern traps her mind even as her physical self is trapped.

Women's Roles

At the time "The Yellow Wallpaper" was written, women of the narrator's class were expected to stay in the home, perform the function of gracious hostess when entertaining guests, and submit to their husbands' authority. As a woman, the narrator lacks liberty, agency in her own life, and meaningful work. She must stay in the home, and most decisions are made for her, not by her. John decides to rent the house. He decides that she should rest. When she wants to leave, he rejects that option. Even the roles of homemaker and mother are taken on by other women. Mary takes on the role of mother, taking care of the baby. Jennie does the other domestic tasks in the house, including taking care of the narrator. Treated like a child who must be cared for, the narrator has nothing but idleness in her life. The writer, Charlotte Gilman, was of the strong opinion that women need meaningful work suited to their natural abilities and inclinations, which might not be maternal or domestic. The narrator's mental decline demonstrates what can happen when women lack suitable work.

Mental Illness

The narrator's declining mental condition has both internal and external origins. She is clearly suffering from depression, likely related to the birth of the baby mentioned in the story. Yet the idleness and isolation that is supposed to cure her of this condition only worsens it. Her madness also has internal and external effects. Her mind, revealed in the words of her journal, becomes more and more caught up in thoughts of the wallpaper's pattern, in hallucinations, and in her increasing paranoia about the other people in the house. Physically, she is increasingly tired and emotionally unstable, sleeping most of the days away and crying when she tries to discuss her situation with her husband, John. In the end, she succumbs in both body and mind to the madness, creeping along the wall in her room without taking notice of her surroundings.

Questions for Themes

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